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C. Fraser Smith: Bloodless budget process

Wait a minute! That was way too easy.

I refer to imminent passage of a House of Delegates budget. Not a murmur of dissent from the second floor currently occupied by a Republican.

The $40 billion roadmap sauntered out of the Appropriations Committee unanimously. The full House is expected to ratify that decision with little if any GOP opposition.

This does not happen. Yes, it’s a budget thrown together by a brand new Republican governor, Larry Hogan.

But it was massaged and manipulated and reorganized by the Democrats who reversed major elements of his plan.

And then, Appropriations Committee Chairman Maggie McIntosh got a thumbs-up from David Brinkley, Gov. Hogan’s budget secretary.

“Good job,” Brinkley said, or words to that effect.

Thus did the new governor and the old/new still Democratically controlled legislature end up on almost exactly on the same page. McIntosh and the Democrats wanted to restore cuts to public education. They also wanted to restore a 2 percent pay increase for state workers. They accomplished both.

No cries of foul from the governor’s aerie. Clearly none are planned since he dispatched his budget chief to spread roses before the chief rearranger.

Why this comity? Because the overall budget number is lower than it probably would have been had a Democrat been elected. All McIntosh could do under the state Constitution was cut or rearrange.

Oh sure, there had been the usual talk of bipartisanship. But many thought the budget would be a battleground, a real test of good intentions.

The Senate could still disrupt things with an amendment or two. But that’s not likely to be more than a momentary pothole.

I think there are three reasons for this unfamiliar harmony:

– The bottom line stays close to the governor’s promise of a budget without more in the way of deficit spending.

– Democrats know how to do budgets. Republicans are new at it. And they had to do it overnight. Even with outside help, that was no easy task.

– This year, Hogan’s first, the hope was to make it through with minimal drama. If that was possible without higher spending, the document had “good job” written all over it.

Even so, the lack of opposition in the Appropriations Committee suggests a high degree of Hogan discipline. Are even the tea party troops falling in line? Well-played by the new man, you’d have to say. His far-right allies might have been more of a problem than the Democrats — might still be if he insists on being moderate.

The agreement probably saved Republicans some headaches back home. Cuts in public education are never popular. The current budget prevents that — even adds $3 million for the city of Baltimore.

One wonders if this victory is not short-term for the Democrats. The smarter and more adroit Hogan turns out to me, the more difficult for the Democrats to prevent a second Hogan term. If he’s reasonable and willing to make pragmatic concessions, Democrats will have trouble painting him into the doctrinaire corner.

He still wants to cut taxes this year — and by more than his paring away of the ingeniously but damagingly incorrect rain tax cut.

There’s not much financial flexibility in this budget, but Democrats will oppose tax relief at their peril.

Hogan looks like he wants to govern. He seems willing to give and take. Almost sounds like compromise.

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.