After a year of political bickering over spending priorities, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday painted a rosy picture of his relationship with the Democratic-controlled legislature and the direction in which the state is headed.
In his second State of the State address, Hogan (R) called on legislators to work with him to expand efforts to reduce taxes and fees — a hallmark of his campaign and first year in office — and to embrace the “middle temperament” that he said defines Maryland, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 ratio.
“There is so much more that unites us than that which divides us,” the governor said as lawmakers applauded.
Hogan encouraged lawmakers to find more areas for tax relief after approving minor cuts last year. He touted some of his latest proposals, such as an increase in tax credits for the working poor that has been embraced by Democrats in the past, and called for criminal-justice reforms, reductions in mandated spending and innovative ideas to improve education and the Chesapeake Bay.
The governor also called on the legislature not to abandon the fiscal caution that has helped create a projected $450 million cash balance heading into the next budget cycle. He said lawmakers should focus on reducing how much money the state borrows and suspending automatic spending increases during lean years.
Hogan made a point of thanking two of his frequent sparring partners — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) — for working with him to “put Maryland on a new path.”
Democratic legislative leaders praised Hogan’s conciliatory tone, but they also criticized him for what they said was a speech that lacked substance.
“It wasn’t a problem-solving speech. It was a feel-good speech driven by polling,” Miller said. At the same time, he called the address a “100 percent improvement” from last year, when Hogan blasted Democrats and their policies as harmful to the state’s economy.
Miller and Busch said the speech did not offer solutions to the concerns of many Marylanders, including improvements in mass transit, access to health care and a heavy load of personal income taxes.
“I think everybody felt good about it, but are we excited about it? Are we going to jump up and down and say ‘hip hip hooray’? Absolutely not,” Miller said. “In terms of moving the state forward, there were a lot of issues that were not addressed today.”
During a news conference minutes before Hogan spoke, Democratic leaders from the state’s largest jurisdictions lashed out at the governor, saying his proposed 2017 budget neglected major education, infrastructure and transportation priorities.
“Today, the governor will tell us that the state of the state is good,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). “What the governor won’t tell you is that his budget leaves out funding, which impedes counties like Prince George’s County from continuing to make progress.”
Prince George’s officials are furious that Hogan has discontinued an annual operating subsidy of $15 million for Prince George’s Hospital Center, which county officials describe as crucial to plans to improve health care in the county and open a larger regional facility. Hogan aides say that the subsidy agreement expired last year and that they are in talks with legislative leaders about future funding.
During Hogan’s nearly 30-minute speech, members of both caucuses applauded numerous times. He got a standing ovation when he mentioned a blessing he received on behalf of cancer patients from Pope Francis, while the governor was in chemotherapy.
But Democrats were largely silent when Hogan talked about his commitment to education.
Busch smirked when Hogan said he would be the first governor to fully fund the state’s Geographic Cost of Education Index during his second year in office. The funding, which provides additional money to school districts where it costs more to educate students, has been a source of contention between Hogan and Democratic leadership. Hogan refused to provide full funding last year, and in response the legislature passed a bill that requires him to budget the full amount.
“The rhetoric of speeches has to meet the reality of what’s actually accomplished,” Busch said.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said Hogan’s agenda, particularly his efforts to prevent tax hikes and reduce tolls and fees, should resonate strongly with Marylanders across the political spectrum. “Those are things that voters vote loudly about,” she said.
The governor credited leaders in Annapolis for maintaining a spirit of bipartisanship while overcoming challenges that included the Baltimore riots, last month’s historic winter storm and his own cancer diagnosis.
“In the face of adversity, we were not Democrats or Republicans looking backward,” he said. “We were Marylanders with our eyes fixed forward, working together for a better tomorrow.”
Hogan also discussed his efforts to help Baltimore, noting that he has allocated $135 million to improve the city’s transit system, closed the trouble-plagued, state-run Baltimore City Jail and promised money to demolish abandoned buildings.
He promised to be open-minded about future proposals to support the city, but he cautioned that he will not embrace every idea.
“While we do not have an unlimited amount of taxpayer money, we will always have an unlimited capacity to listen to worthwhile ideas and creative solutions that know no party bounds,” he said.
Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.