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C. Fraser Smith: Next bout – Governor-assembly main event

After opening feints and jabs, the contenders continue to circle each other.

Gov. Larry Hogan lays down a budget with significant cuts in state aid to public education. The Democrat-dominated assembly says in effect:

“This will not stand.”

Before they get started with the necessary budget changes, they are further aggrieved by Hogan’s State of the State address. He says Democrats have failed to make Maryland as good as it can be. As if in campaign mode, he suggests a mass exodus of brokenhearted, over-taxed citizens.

Democrats offer a list of ratings that make the Free State No. 1! They sit on some of his cabinet appointments for a few days.

More quiet circling. More pawing the earth.

Everyone knows gestures will give way to consequential action sooner rather than later. Then we will see the underlying strategies. Will there be bargaining? Compromise? Bipartisanship?

Likely first question: How much support does the governor have for his cuts to education?

Legislators love campaign rhetoric, but sooner or later they have to vote. Will Republicans vote for a budget with significant cuts in education aid? Balanced budgets are a GOP focus, but will Republican delegates and senators vote in favor of cuts to education? Voters tend not to like that.

Here’s one version of what lies ahead in the next month:

Democrats in the Appropriations Committee will get as close as they can to restoring the $140 million in cuts. That obliges them to cut spending in other areas. They can’t, under the state Constitution, add anything.

At the moment, no one knows what the assembly’s budget-balancing cuts will be. For strategic reasons, we won’t know the cuts for a while. Democrats will give the other side as little advance notice as possible. The less time they have to defend their cuts, the better off the Democrats are.

The House moves the budget first this year. Once on the floor for debate, the Appropriations Committee version of the bill will show the cuts restored.

Republicans can then move to restore the governor’s original proposal, leaving the cuts to education in place. The Democratic leadership will want that process open and public. GOP delegates may want to support their governor, but their vote could be dicey for them, potentially angering their voters.

If they do not move to support Hogan’s budget, the House speaker, Michael E. Busch, will ask:

Is the governor alone on this? Is he the only one who wants to cut education aid? This is likely to be seen, if it goes this way, as the Democrats’ best hope for having their way.

If House Democrats succeed in restoring the Hogan cuts, the Senate will get a turn. If it approves, the bill goes to the governor. At that point, it’s assembly vs. the governor. He will no doubt argue that the decreased education spending is better than the cuts Democrats propose elsewhere. By this time, the discussion will no longer be education vs. an unknown but education vs. whatever cuts have been made to restore the governor’s cuts. His bargaining position could be slightly improved depending on the level of support for the affected agencies.

Trading and swapping and even compromise start then. As the process proceeds, the question of more money for charter schools may get into the mix.

A robust bit of discussion lies ahead.

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