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C. Fraser Smith: Hogan’s first steps, trying to stay balanced

 

I admit it. I thought we’d be inaugurating the Democrat this week. That’s what we always do, right? I thought this even as I thought Larry Hogan had run a much better campaign. He heard and saw and felt where the voters of Maryland stood.

And now he is Maryland’s 62nd governor. I thought during the campaign that Anthony Brown and the Democrats would prevail as, of course, they usually do. I told people Brown would be a better governor than he was a candidate. (Had to be, right?)

Now I think Hogan will be an even better governor than he was a candidate. I think he has a chance to be the best Republican governor since Theodore R. McKeldin in the 1950s. He will certainly be better than Spiro Agnew (elected in 1966) and, because he’s engaged in governing, better than Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (2002), who never seemed to get much momentum.

And you better believe the Democrats know they have a worthy adversary. He’s likely to be a popular governor. He has Democratic friends, some of whom wish him well personally. That, plus his promise to work with Democrats, will make him more effective.

He’s a Republican in a very Democratic state, to be sure. We are likely to see how true that is when the analysts finish dissecting the budget he unveiled Thursday.

His apparent determination to balance spending and income – and to exact some pain along the way – is likely to be quite obvious. As always, budgets are political documents. They speak for the party – or the man in power.

That will not be the end of it, to be sure. He will have to deal with a majority Democratic legislature.  But General Assembly leaders know who won the election. There’s a reason he and Brown appeared together as the assembly was convening. When was the last time you saw that kind of bipartisanship anywhere?

The battle lines will be drawn eventually, of course. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said after Hogan’s win that the Democratic assembly will not be going backward. It might not be going forward either given the government’s financial challenges. A growing deficit has to be managed, so the question will be how and how soon. Maryland’s almost uniquely strong governors have the whip handle on this question, of course.

Democrats would have been willing to ease deficit pain, to look for ways to proceed without deep program cuts. Republicans – probably including Hogan – will want to deal with the financial problems quickly. Government knows the cuts are coming. The University of Maryland, to site an example, has put its initial cutback plan in effect already.

There will be constraints on the new chief. He wants to promote job creation, so he is unlikely to do real damage to the university. Business wants an educated labor force. And the university’s flagship campus is in Hogan’s home county, Prince George’s.

While you are watching for clues to the new man’s direction, think about whether he acknowledges underlying changes in the state’s economy. The federal government has always been an anchor to windward for Maryland, employing many Marylanders and holding the state harmless from some of the sharp economic downdrafts. That has changed. Since the calamity of 2008 – the Great Recession – job cuts have contributed to the revenue shortfalls. That downsizing helped create the deficit. Someone has to address these changes and account for them. People tend to scoff at studies, but we need one now.

One interesting clue to the new governor’s approach may be found, somewhat surprisingly, in the area of drug abuse. Hogan reportedly has been hearing about heroin use from allies in rural and suburban parts of the state where his voting strength was greatest. He may well be offering some new approaches – if there are any – not simply more money for treatment.

Good Republican-led government and good politics might find common ground.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.