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As session nears end, governor finds quiet diplomacy, not confrontation, has won over many Democrats. (Photo illustration by Maximilian Franz)

A tale of two Hogans

Governor has found diplomacy more effective than confontation

ANNAPOLIS — With two weeks to go in the session, Gov. Larry Hogan is looking at what might be a mixed bag of success as it relates to his first legislative agenda.

Hogan started his term with a modest agenda in comparison to the last eight years under Democratic former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley. The success or failure of his initiatives may ultimately rest on the ability of Hogan, a relative unknown in elected politics, to build relationships with legislators and avoid being his own worst enemy.

Hogan, like Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich before him, believes he was sent to Annapolis with a mandate.

“He’s quite different from Hogan,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “Ehrlich thought his election was indicative of a political re-alignment of the state. He went to Annapolis with the attitude, ‘I was elected. Respect me. This is my agenda.’ It just wasn’t going to fly.”

Instead, Eberly said, Ehrlich seemed unprepared, offering up legislation on slots late in the session in a bill that had errors and was in some places contradictory. His first budget included a property tax increase that caused many legislators in his own party to vote against it.

By contrast, Hogan arrived in Annapolis believing his election was about controlling state spending, improving the business climate and eliminating the stormwater management fee that he deftly branded “the rain tax” during the 2014 campaign.

When Hogan arrived in the State House he came as an unknown having worked most of his life in the private sector and never having been elected to any other office. He also brought something of a split personality — the straight-talking Republican who at times sounded like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and angered Democrats versus the governor who has shown a willingness to negotiate with political opponents and find compromises.

Hogan’s first State of the State speech instantly angered most Democrats and resulted in the Senate holding up some of his Cabinet nominations.

Eberly called the speech “a classic blunder.”

“Standing in front of the people you have to work with to get things done and saying, ‘You messed everything up and I have to fix it’ isn’t going to help,” Eberly said.

It wasn’t long after the speech that legislative leaders began to declare major parts of his modest agenda — such as proposals to expand charter schools, provide tax credits to first responder and military retirees, eliminate the automatic increases on the state gas tax — dead on arrival.

Since the State of the State, Hogan has shown himself willing to work with the Democrats.

“The governor said during his inaugural speech that he wanted to take a bipartisan approach to governing and to his approach to relationships with the members of the General Assembly,” said Joseph Getty, Hogan’s chief legislative officer. “I think he’s practiced what he’s preached.”

Getty said that approach is different from Ehrlich’s style, which was to “set up a governorship that was separate and distinct from the legislature” and didn’t rely on interactions with lawmakers. Hogan, by contrast, has invited every legislator to the governor’s mansion within the first six weeks. Getty estimates that the governor has met with “95 percent of the legislators.”

Mollifying environmentalists

One such case was the recent compromise reached between Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s County, over controversial regulations governing phosphorous pollution linked to the use of chicken and other animal manures. Hogan withdrew the regulations proposed by O’Malley and later moved to implement his own with a longer timeline and other features meant to ease the fears of Eastern Shore farmers.

But environmental groups feared Hogan would be too soft on the issue to the detriment of the bay, and Pinsky proposed legislation that would have made the tougher rules law.

Two weeks ago, a compromise was announced that allowed Hogan to move forward with most of his proposed regulations and Pinsky to withdraw the bill. Environmental groups announced they would no longer oppose the plan.

“The governor’s approach comes from his business background — ‘Let’s get everybody to the table and get a deal done,’” Getty said. “That hasn’t always been the case in Annapolis.”

Other Democrats say they too have seen a collaborative side to the new governor.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, called Hogan’s first State of the State Speech “a barn burner” and said she was concerned about what it meant for the future.

“The only place I can point to where I was really taken aback, was breathless and thought, “Wow, this is not a governor’s speech, this is a campaign speech,’ was the State of the State,” McIntosh said. “Other than that, I think he has tried to be collaborative and reach across the aisle. I do think he has tried to do that.”

McIntosh, whose committee worked on Hogan’s budget first, said the administration was collaborative during the process.

“They were happy to help in any way, but we just moved along on our own,” she said.

Part of Hogan’s challenge is building a relationship with leadership in the House. The governor has a long-standing personal relationship with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., and the two have not only met for breakfasts but Miller took Hogan to a University of Maryland basketball game last month.

Such a relationship does not yet exist between Hogan and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

“I’ve had lunch with him a couple times,” Busch said. “I’ve had very cordial, open, frank discussions with him on a lot of the issues, trying to explain to him where the House is but I don’t have the long-term relationship that the Senate president does.”

Busch acknowledged Hogan’s willingness to compromise and said his own relationship with Ehrlich didn’t help when it came time to legislate.

“It was tough to compromise with a guy who didn’t have anything to offer as a compromise,” Busch said. “It was like trying to play a football game where you set your defense up and the other team can’t get out of the huddle and get to the line of scrimmage.”

Beyond the budget

With roughly two weeks before the end of the legislative session, Hogan’s only guaranteed victory appears to be his first budget.

Much of Hogan’s other agenda items remain in limbo but are getting a push from Miller.

“This governor also has a legislative agenda, and we want to make certain that the agenda that he has in terms of moving our state forward is addressed as well,” Miller said last week.

The Senate is likely to pass an amended version of Hogan’s charter schools bill. Miller also called for a change to the automatic increases in the gas tax, most likely a lowering of the cap on increases based on inflation from 8 percent to 3 percent. Inflation has not risen above 8 percent in 35 years and currently averages between 2 and 3 percent annually.

“Obviously, the governor would like to see some tax relief. He’s been focused on the disadvantage Maryland has with retirement income compared to neighboring states,” Getty said.

Getty acknowledged that rain tax and gas tax bills face significant challenges before the end of the session.

“Understand that when the gas tax bill was dropped there was an ‘over-my-dead-body’ mentality,” Getty said. “The fact that somebody is talking about changing it is a monumental shift in thinking from January 21.”

Busch said it’s not surprising that Hogan’s initiatives would be revived in the Senate.

“That’s where they go to negotiate,” Busch said of the Hogan administration.

Of those initiatives, a bill sponsored by Miller that would repeal the mandate on the stormwater management fee bill has the best chance of passage, though House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the House will likely make changes.

While the House and Senate still need to hammer out a compromise budget plan in conference committee, Hogan will likely walk away with a plan that splits the difference with the legislature and will eliminate 75 percent of a $750 million structural deficit. That figure could grow to 88 percent if he can find ways to make the 2 percent, across-the-board cuts to agencies he proposed in January.

Hogan had wanted to eliminate the entire deficit in his first year, while the General Assembly’s Joint Spending Affordability Committee proposed reducing it by 50 percent in each of the next two years.

“If the budget conference comes out in the next few days and we get the budget done with the sort of consensus position where it is, just having the budget is a successful session for the governor,” Getty said. “That was his focus. The budget is the key to future years of the Hogan administration.”