Maryland Democratic leaders struck a tone of defiance the day before the opening of the 2016 General Assembly session, vowing to fight for schools and other priorities and threatening to block Gov. Larry Hogan’s efforts to change spending rules if they would mean reduced funding for education.
“Mandate relief is code word for cutting public education,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) told a cheering crowd at the party’s annual legislative luncheon.
He said it would be a “cold day in hell” before he would allow Hogan (R) to move forward with changes that would automatically slow or eliminate planned increases in funding for schools in years in which the economy falters.
“This governor ran for public office talking about cutting waste, fraud and abuse,” Miller said. “K-12 education is not waste. Funding the Chesapeake Bay [cleanup] is not abuse.”
Last week, Hogan announced that he wanted state law changed to allow for automatic cuts in mandated spending increases if revenue drops. The governor did not specify which mandates he wants to alter.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer criticized Miller for his remarks, arguing that the General Assembly also has reduced mandated education spending during past budget shortfalls. Lawmakers say those decisions are theirs to make, however, and should not become automatic when revenue drops, which is what Hogan is proposing.
On Tuesday, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) told Democratic lawmakers and other party members that they cannot afford to flounder during the legislative session, a little more than a year after Hogan upset an incumbent Democratic lieutenant governor to win the governorship.
“This year, we’re going to Annapolis to support the issues that our voters voted us to support,” Busch said. “We’re going to stand up for the Democratic values, which are so important to the people who sent us here.”
Miller used saltier language in telling Democratic legislators — who hold strong majorities in both chambers — not to be complacent. Instead, he said, they must work together to find ways to lead alongside Hogan, a first-time officeholder who successfully battled cancer last year and has high approval ratings across the heavily Democratic state.
D. Bruce Poole, the chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, told legislators that they need to band together during the session, which ends shortly before the April 26 primary election, when voters will choose nominees for one U.S. Senate and two U.S. House seats. “What happens in the 90 days in Annapolis is going to define the Democratic Party the entire year,” Poole said.
Busch said he is not looking for a repeat of last year, when the governor refused to release $64 million in education funds to several counties and cut spending for transportation projects in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City.
“The heartbeat of the state of Maryland lost money that they should have gotten,” Busch said. “This year, we’re going to go back and make sure they get what they deserve.”
Democrats said they are planning to overturn vetoes by Hogan that dealt with taxes for online hotel-booking sites, voting rights for former inmates, drug paraphernalia and criminal-asset seizures.
Earlier in the day, members of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger held a news conference calling on the General Assembly not to overturn Hogan’s vetoes of the bills concerning drug paraphernalia and asset forfeitures. If enacted, they said, both measures would hurt law enforcement.
Miller disagreed, arguing that the asset-forfeiture bill “balances things between the police and the public,” and said the legislature is poised to move on both measures.
Leaders are still counting to see whether they have enough votes to override Hogan’s veto of a bill that would restore the right to vote to felons who are on parole and probation. But they said they have the votes in place to reverse the governor’s other vetoes.
Miller, who has served in the General Assembly for nearly 50 years, told those at the luncheon that he doesn’t need “to be lectured about the budget” by Hogan, who is starting his second year in office.
Busch reminded the assembled Democrats that Hogan needs their votes in the General Assembly to enact his policies.
“We are the policymakers. We are not here to be a rubber stamp. It has to be a two-way street,” Busch said to cheers. “It’s not that we don’t want to work with the governor. We want to have an equal [amount of] room at the table with the governor of the state of Maryland.”