With just a few days left in this year’s legislative session, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and top Democratic lawmakers are in an intense standoff over the Republican’s first budget.
The Senate and the House of Delegates have approved initial changes to the governor’s $40.7 billion spending plan, with broad support from both sides of the aisle.
Less than two weeks ago, Hogan called that preliminary approval a historic feat and one that “extremely pleased” him. Senior lawmakers spoke of both sides making compromises so that everyone could declare victory.
But in the past week, after it became clear that most of the other legislation Hogan proposed this year would be watered down or killed off, the governor has taken a much more aggressive stance. He now says he wants many more of his original bills to pass as proposed.
The governor cannot veto the budget, limiting his power, but Democrats still worry that Hogan could hold hostage extra funding for public schools and state employee raises — key Democratic priorities.
“The governor has been very clear that he has a legislative agenda,” said Hogan’s spokesman, Doug Mayer. “Every year that he’s here, he will fight for fiscal responsibility and tax relief. That’s never going to stop.”
Mayer said Hogan was not available for an interview.
On Tuesday afternoon, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and three top Democrats met with Hogan and members of his staff. Mayer said that the governor made a “strong push for his agenda.”
Mayer did not attend the meeting but said that it lasted about 45 minutes, ending with the two parties “still very far apart.” He said Hogan looks forward to meeting again soon. Busch described the meeting as “a candid conversation with the governor and his staff on where we are on budget issues.”
Two people who attended — and spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the private conversation — said the governor was impatient, uncompromising and at times confused about the legislative process.
One described the meeting as “very odd,” with Hogan demanding that the House resurrect bills that the Senate had killed or watered down. At one point, the person said, the governor asked the group: “Where is my agenda?”
The other person said that the governor appeared unwilling to hear concerns about pieces of his legislation or explanations for changes.
“He needs to be a little patient,” the second person said of Hogan, who has never before held elective office. “Not knowing the process, it can be frustrating.”
Secretary of Budget and Management David R. Brinkley, a former lawmaker, said the meeting was productive. “Any time people are talking it’s a good thing,” he said. “The governor is having conversations with people he needs to talk to. He’s open to talk about things. . . . There’s a week to go.”
Mayer said that lawmakers have the power to pass the governor’s full agenda, even this late in the session. “It’s not impossible,” he said.
The session gave lawmakers the first clear answer to a question that has stumped them for weeks: What exactly does Hogan want to accomplish during this session?
The governor had said he wants lawmakers to provide some tax relief, reduce the structural deficit, loosen rules for starting charter schools and help private religious schools by offering a tax credit to those who donate to them.
But it remained unclear how much relief, reducing and loosening the governor ultimately wanted — and what exactly he will do if lawmakers ignore him.
Even members of the governor’s own party were unsure what would constitute a legislative victory.
“You’d have to ask him that question — I don’t know,” said Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett), who is part of the legislative panel charged with reaching a budget compromise.
Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Garrett), an adviser to the budget panel, said, “It’s probably a little like a cat-and-mouse thing here.”
Both sides feel they have already given enough. Hogan didn’t fight lawmakers who decided to reduce the structural deficit over two years instead of one, and he backed away from other proposed cuts. Democrats allowed watered-down versions of most of the governor’s legislation to proceed.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has been instrumental in getting pieces of Hogan’s agenda through the legislative process and rallying support for the budget. He said Hogan’s surprise win in the heavily Democratic state last year is a message from voters that Democrats need to heed.
But Hogan has faced opposition in the House and from Busch. Miller spoke with both men separately Monday and urged them to “break down their differences and try to move forward.” Busch then called Hogan and asked for a meeting.
Miller said that Hogan needs to realize that his full legislative package is not going to pass both chambers, especially now that the Senate has voted on several pieces of it, including a bill that would expand an income exemption for some military pensions and another that would exempt some small businesses from paying personal property taxes. And, Miller said, all of those legislative accomplishments are on top of having a balanced budget and reducing the deficit.
“If he gets a combination of these things, he can say it’s a very successful session for himself as well as for the General Assembly,” Miller said. “It’s between the House and the governor. If they can resolve their differences, everybody can go home smiling and declare a victory.”