BOCA RATON, Fla. — Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan pledged Wednesday that he will make good on campaign promises to roll back tax increases and cut spending, despite a looming hole in the state budget.
Hogan (R) said he saw his surprise victory over Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) as a mandate to take Maryland in a new direction after eight years under Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Those changes, he said in an interview here at the Republican Governors Association meeting, would begin as soon as he takes office Jan. 21.
Asked whether he is worried that he has promised more transformation than he can achieve, given a projected budget shortfall next year of nearly $600 million, he said he is not.
“I said we’re going to try to get spending under control, which we are. We’re going to try to run the government more efficiently and more cost-effectively, which we will,” Hogan said. “And then we’re going to try to roll back as many of these tax increases as we possibly can. We plan to deliver on all three of those.”
Hogan, an Anne Arundel County businessman, was one of three Republicans to win a governorship in a heavily Democratic state on Election Day — the others being Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts.
His campaign was boosted in the final weeks by support from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads. The RGA went into debt to pour money into the Maryland race.
“No one really believed that we had any chance whatsoever,” Hogan said. “Nobody in the media believed it. Nobody in the state really believed it. Even our strongest supporters weren’t quite sure they could believe it.”
Christie, however, became a believer, seeing in Hogan’s race a situation similar to what he faced in his first election in heavily Democratic New Jersey in 2009.
Hogan’s success became a particular point of pride for Christie, adding to the celebratory mood here in Florida this week. Without the financial help of the RGA and Christie’s multiple, enthusiastic visits, Hogan said, he might have lost.
In Annapolis, Hogan said, he hopes to have a more harmonious relationship with leaders of the Democratic-controlled state legislature than did his most recent Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was defeated by O’Malley in 2006 after a single term.
“I’m all about solutions,” Hogan said, describing himself as not a part of the GOP’s tea party wing. “I’m not a firebrand out there fighting battles that can’t be won.”
Hogan, who owns a real estate business, said his goal is to improve Maryland’s economic competitiveness, an effort that he acknowledged would be slowed somewhat by the projected budget shortfall. He declined to specify either the spending cuts or, with one exception, the tax rollbacks he will go after.
In addition to the shortfall in the coming budget, the state is still dealing with a shortfall of nearly $300 million in the budget for this fiscal year. Hogan said he would await the results from a team he has assembled to comb through the budget before making specific decisions about where to cut. He also suggested that he may continue to offer changes during the course of next year — possibly including a special legislative session.
As he did during the campaign, the governor-elect said he believes that he can find “a couple billion” dollars’ worth of savings in the current state budget, based on audits done over several years.
He said he could make those cuts “without affecting any program in state government, without eliminating any agencies or any necessary services. . . . We have to get our economy back on track. We have a mandate from the people.”
The governor-elect reiterated his pledge to eliminate the “rain tax,” a fee enacted in response to Environmental Protection Agency requirements to reduce stormwater pollution going into the Chesapeake Bay.
“It was not the biggest or the worst tax, but it was the one people had the largest reaction to, and we are going to repeal it,” Hogan said.
The fee is required to be collected in Maryland’s 10 most populous jurisdictions. Getting rid of it wouldn’t affect the state budget.
Hogan said he has had “really incredible discussions” with Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert), House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) and Comptroller Peter Franchot, all Democrats. He said they, too, agree that the state has a fiscal crisis on its hands.
“I have long-standing relationships with these guys,” he said, going back to his father’s day as a Republican congressman and the Prince George’s county executive. “My entire campaign wasn’t this was a fight between Republicans and Democrats. It was about Maryland’s future.”
Hogan made clear that although he is proud of his service as Ehrlich’s appointments secretary, he will approach his tenure as governor differently. “We’re different people. We come from different backgrounds. We have different personalities,” he said.
As the first Republican governor in three decades, he said, Ehrlich was in a tough spot, dealing with people “who were not used to sharing the sandbox.” Ehrlich and the Democrats often butted heads.
“It wasn’t really Bob Ehrlich’s fault,” Hogan said. But he added that he hopes to go in a different direction “by working as closely as we can with them.”
He also suggested that Democratic leaders were, as he put it, “relieved” to see a new administration preparing to take office in Annapolis, after extensive tax increases under O’Malley that ultimately became the central focus of Hogan’s campaign.
“The current governor kind of pushed them in a direction they didn’t want to go in,” he said.
Democratic leaders may have other ideas about rolling back taxes, however. Last week, after legislative fiscal analysts announced the projected shortfall in the next operating budget and the possibility of larger holes in later years, Busch said he thought it would be ill-advised to try to reduce revenue in the short term.
Hogan said he was pleased by the gains that Republicans made throughout Maryland on Election Day, but he indicated that party-building is not his first priority.
“We made quite a few strides, but obviously we’re still a minority party,” he said. “My focus has been not just how to build a competitive two-party system but how do we get people to work together.”
He said he feels no discomfort with a national Republican Party that includes many elected officials who are more conservative on social issues and more combative. But he suggested that the party could learn from his and other examples of Republicans who won in blue states this month about how to appeal to a broader coalition.
“I don’t know if we can change the party,” Hogan said, “but I think maybe there are some lessons that came out of our races that people can look at as they look to how to position themselves for 2016.”
John Wagner contributed to this report from Washington.