Maryland’s new Republican governor enjoys solid public support for some of his plans to curb agency spending and cut taxes, but he faces strong opposition to a proposal to slow the growth of education funding, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found.
Three weeks into his tenure, Marylanders have high hopes for Gov. Larry Hogan, an Anne Arundel County businessman who won an upset victory in the heavily Democratic state by promising fiscal restraint and a new direction after the eight-year tenure of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Parts of Hogan’s agenda — solving the budget shortfall, for example, and expanding charter schools — resonate with state residents, although the vast majority appear to oppose his proposal to alter school funding formulas. Overall, about half of the Hogan initiatives tested in the poll received less than majority support.
That split illustrates both possibility and peril for Hogan as he sets out to define his governorship and find common ground with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly — whose leaders have vowed to resist efforts to curb school funding and whose priorities are generally supported by state residents. Hogan has said repeatedly that he wants to avoid the partisan acrimony that festered under Maryland’s last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Although his relationship with legislative leaders has started to sour, Hogan continues to enjoy a honeymoon with the public. Nearly 6 in 10 Maryland adults are confident that Hogan will take the state in the right direction, according to the poll. And among those who express an opinion, approval of Hogan’s performance is 18 percentage points higher than disapproval. Democrats are split about evenly on Hogan’s job performance, and more than five times as many Republicans approve as disapprove.
Marylanders such as Shirley Hendrix, a Democrat who lives in Middle River in Baltimore County, said they are willing to give Hogan a chance. Hendrix, a retired deli worker, said she voted for O’Malley in 2010 but felt “taxed to death” during his tenure.
“Basically, we needed a change,” said Hendrix, who voted for Hogan in November. “I can sum it all up like that.”
Chris Casson, another Democrat who voted for Hogan, said she understands that she won’t agree with everything Hogan does as governor but appreciates his candor about the state’s finances and other issues.
“He inherited a quagmire,” said Casson, 65, a Gaithersburg resident and retired receptionist.“Hogan is going to tell us what he’s going to do. It doesn’t mean that we’ll like all of it.”
Marylanders, by and large, appear to favor several measures Hogan has put forward to address a shortfall of more than $700 million in next year’s budget, including a 2 percent reduction in state agency spending and the cancellation of raises for state employees.
By far, the most unpopular measure offered by Hogan is a plan to slow the growth of state education spending. Hogan has stressed that the state would still spend a record amount on public schools in the coming fiscal year, although the counties would receive $144 million less in funding than mandated under existing education formulas.
Nearly 7 in 10 Marylanders polled — including 51 percent of those who voted for Hogan — said they oppose the decrease.
Take, for instance, Air Force veteran Kurt Henning of Cecil County, who cast his ballot for Hogan over Democrat Anthony G. Brown, then the state’s lieutenant governor. “I was sick of O’Malley and his clone,” said Henning, a 43-year-old Republican. “I believe Anthony Brown was going to be just like him. They had already destroyed Maryland.”
Henning said he is hopeful that Hogan will reduce taxes and improve the climate for gun owners. But he was not on board with curbing education spending. “I believe we need the money in the schools,” Henning said. “Education is good. I don’t think they should take away from it.”
Education is also the budget item mentioned most often when residents were asked what the state shouldn’t cut. Thirty-two percent said they would most like to protect K-12 education, about three times as many as chose the environment, public safety, transportation, health care or higher education. Marylanders in their 30s and 40s — prime parenting ages — are most protective of money for schools.
Several other proposals Hogan has put forward to help balance the budget received wide-ranging levels of support in the poll.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they support his plan to force state agencies to cut 2 percent from their budgets in the coming fiscal year, a move legislative analysts estimate would save the state $118 million. Support for the idea is highest among Republicans, but clear majorities of Democrats and independents are also on board.
A bare majority — 51 percent — support Hogan’s plan to cancel a 2 percent salary increase that state employees received at the beginning of the year. That cut, which is less popular among Democrats than Republicans, would save the state $73 million, analysts say.
Meanwhile, a slight majority of Marylanders — 53 percent — oppose another Hogan cost-saving measure: reducing payments the state makes to doctors who participate in Medicaid, the state-federal health-care program for the poor and disabled. That move, which analysts say would save $94 million, is opposed by most Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Poll respondents expressed various levels of support for several relatively modest tax cuts proposed by Hogan, who also pledges to attempt larger relief before his term is done.
The most popular was Hogan’s proposal to repeal the state’s “rain tax,” which mandates that 10 of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions impose a stormwater-remediation fee on homeowners and businesses to help pay for programs to reduce the flow of polluted runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. Sixty-five percent of Marylanders polled said they would like to see lower stormwater-remediation fees.
Hogan’s plan to phase out state taxes on the retirement income of military personnel, police and firefighters received the support of 52 percent.
But residents appear less enthused about some of his other tax-cutting plans, including a proposed cancellation of automatic increases in the state gas tax.
In 2013, lawmakers passed a sweeping transportation bill, designed to pump more revenue into road and mass transit projects. As part of that, the gas tax is scheduled to rise each year based on the rate of inflation.
Hogan has argued that the General Assembly should be required to vote separately on each increase, and he has proposed legislation that would end the automatic increases.
In the poll, 52 percent say they are opposed to Hogan’s plan — which has already run into stiff resistance in the legislature. Forty-six percent support it.
Marylanders appear to lean slightly in favor the state moving forward with one of the biggest projects that would benefit from higher gas taxes: construction of a light-rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Statewide, 49 percent of those polled said they want to see the $2.45 billion project go forward; 43 percent would like to see it canceled. Support for the rail line peaks in Montgomery County, where two-thirds of residents favor it.
Hogan has left the project’s future uncertain, expressing reservations about its costs and arguing that Maryland should spend more on roads. Among those who voted for Hogan and expressed an opinion about twice as many want to cancel the project as want it to continue.
The poll found solid support for Hogan’s call to expand charter schools in Maryland. More than 6 in 10 respondents said they would back the initiative, with similar support expressed across party lines. Hogan’s charter-expansion plan is in line with efforts to give parents more educational choices. He has also proposed a tax incentive that would benefit parochial and other private schools.
The state’s charter school program was launched in 2003 at the urging of Maryland’s last Republican governor, Ehrlich, and now includes 47 schools, most of them in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.
A strong majority of Marylanders appear to agree with Hogan’s view that heroin use is a problem in Maryland. Hogan has pledged to issue an executive order this month to address the growing number of fatal overdoses from the drug. In the poll, 82 percent said heroin use is a problem in Maryland, with 57 percent calling it a big problem.
The poll also found that Marylanders, by a margin of 84 percent to 13 percent, think parents should be required to have their children vaccinated against common diseases such as measles and mumps.
The poll showed continued public support for several positions generally championed by liberals.
A majority of Marylanders are wary of Hogan’s call to open up Western Maryland to drilling for natural gas. Although he has not put forward a specific proposal, Hogan has said he believes that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could be an “economic gold mine.” Fifty-six percent of Marylanders polled said they oppose the use of fracking; 36 percent support it.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said diversity strengthens the state and more than half said Maryland’s “Dream Act” was a good thing. The measure, approved by the legislature in 2011 and ratified by voters the next year, granted in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students under certain conditions.
More than 7 in 10 indicated support for a White House proposal to offer free community college tuition for people who qualify, even with the stipulation that a quarter of Maryland’s funding would have to come from state coffers.
Montgomery resident Mark Nosal, 47, said he generally supports Democratic lawmakers, particularly on issues such as the environment. But Nosal, who works in the construction industry, said he would like to see a reduced tax burden and a greater focus on growing the business sector.
“Just stop the escalation [of taxes] and bring back some balance,” he said.
The Post-Maryland poll was conducted Feb. 5 to 8 among a random sample of 1,003 adult state residents interviewed by telephone, including 160 cellphone-only respondents. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Peyton M. Craighill and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.