Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will greet the lawmakers returning to Annapolis this week with a proposal for tax relief and a demand for more control over spending decisions.
“For both sides, there’s danger. Hogan doesn’t want to come across as too demanding and too partisan,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College. “The Democrats face a similar challenge while they figure out, was Hogan a fluke? Or were voters sending a larger message? . . . I expect to see the testing on both sides to see what they can get away with and what they can’t.”
Much of the session will focus on the budget, an issue that caused a major rift last year between Hogan and the two longtime leaders of the General Assembly, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
Lawmakers will also debate whether Maryland should join a handful of other jurisdictions in the country that allow assisted suicide and require paid sick leave. They will consider bills to address poverty and other problems in Baltimore, reform the criminal justice system, improve the business climate, increase college affordability, boost retirement security and expand early voting.
All this will unfold as Maryland prepares for a late-April primary that will decide the nominations for one open U.S. Senate seat and two open U.S. House seats. Several state lawmakers are running.
As of Friday, the Office of Legislative Services had received 1,684 bill draft requests, 500 more than it had when the session started last year. Many in Annapolis credit the outpouring to the 69 lawmakers who were elected in 2014 and — like Hogan — now have a year of experience under their belts.
“They have opened the floodgates,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery).
Busch said he “feels confident” that there will be enough votes in the House and Senate to override Hogan’s vetoes, which dealt with taxes for online hotel-booking sites, voting rights for former inmates, marijuana laws and criminal-asset seizures.
The 47-member Senate, which has 33 Democrats, needs 29 votes to overturn a veto; the 141-member House, with 91 Democrats, needs 85. While the bill on seizures of criminal assets passed both chambers with veto-proof majorities, the other bills were a few votes short.
A string of overrides could set a confrontational tone for the session. It also would send a clear message to Hogan, whose approval ratings soared last year as he battled cancer while continuing to govern.
“I think it could be telling. It would be a declaration that ‘We are Democrats first,’ ” said Eberly, who called the vetoes a “shot across the bow.”
Democrats said that they are wary of Hogan's plan to seek more flexibility on mandated spending increases in years when revenue is down. While they are open to tax relief, they do not want to cut funding that is available for schools, public safety, health care and other basics.
Busch said that there is residual bitterness from last year’s budget battles, especially in populous Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and in Baltimore City, which all got less money than they expected.
Lawmakers from those areas “feel like the good efforts they have put forward to be bipartisan have been rejected,” Busch said. “It becomes problematic coming into this year.”
Republicans, who are a minority in both chambers, said they will support Hogan’s proposal to relax spending mandates when necessary.
“This is important for our long-term fiscal health,” said House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel). “My hope is that Democrats and leaders of the General Assembly will partner with the governor to identify a path towards modernizing our spending formulas.”
As a candidate, Hogan promised to free up money for tax relief by eliminating waste and corruption from the state budget. After a year in the governor’s mansion, however, his focus appears to have shifted.
“He’s discovering what many politicians find — that there is not a discrete category of waste, fraud and abuse,” said Daniel Scholzman, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. “You essentially don’t have the revenue to make everyone happy. You have to fight over what gets cut.”
Looking for compromise
Hogan must introduce his spending plan by Jan. 20. He has said little about which bills he plans to push, but aides said that the governor will focus on many of the same issues that dominated his first session — eliminating the structural deficit and improving the state’s business climate.
He will also push to expand charter schools in Maryland and pass a tax credit for businesses that donate to schools, items that were watered down or killed by Democrats last year.
Some observers said that if Hogan does not find a way to forge a compromise, he risks following in the steps of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R), who held high approval ratings in his first year but lost his bid for reelection after constant battles with Miller and Busch.
There are some areas where Democratic legislative leaders and Hogan are expected to agree.
A bipartisan panel, led by a Hogan appointee and created by the legislature, has been studying ways to reduce the state prison population by focusing on re-entry programs for offenders and other community services. If approved, the panel’s proposals would save the state $247 million over 10 years.
The legislature is also expected to consider a package of bills to reform police practices, hiring and training, including widespread use of police body cameras. Those proposals were shaped by a legislative group that Busch and Miller created following the death of Freddie Gray and the riots in Baltimore last year. The unrest put Maryland at the center of the national discussion about police use of force against minorities.
Hogan supports body cameras for police. But he has not indicated whether he would back changes to the protections given to officers accused of misconduct or lengthening the time frame for civilians to file brutality complaints.
The legislature will also take up initiatives to address the persistent economic and social problems in Baltimore, especially the impoverished neighborhoods near where Gray lived.
Busch said city legislators, nonprofit leaders and the mayor have come up with a “progressive plan” for Baltimore that includes pumping tens of millions of dollars into workforce training, blight removal, drug treatment, investments in universities and hospitals in the city, and possibly opening schools after hours for recreation and other community uses.
“Better-quality communities, better-quality schools: Crime rate goes down, revenues go up,” Busch said. “Everybody in the region has to understand how important Baltimore City is as well.”
The plan has reignited a debate between Democrats and Republicans over resources going to Baltimore instead of other parts of the state.
“I’m not trying to rain down on Baltimore City; I live on the outskirts of Baltimore,” said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County). “But . . . there are other areas of the state that have issues, and they need to be addressed, too.”
State Republican party leaders said that they think Democrats have turned their attention to Baltimore as a way to chip away at Hogan’s popularity in the city. His approval rating there is 53 percent, lower than elsewhere but high for a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic jurisdiction.
“The Democrats can’t have Baltimore City being any more favorable to the governor,” said Joe Cluster, executive director of the state GOP.
If Hogan vetoes the Democrats' measures, he could anger Baltimore voters and energize them for upcoming elections. But the governor just announced a $700 million plan to target blight in the city, which will help combat suggestions that he does not care about its residents.