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C. Fraser Smith: Hogan’s odd reversal

The inexplicable invites speculation.

In support of that instant axiom, I give you Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

Weeks ago, Hogan made a budget deal with the Democrats, unleashing a flood of hosannas. Compromise was alive in Annapolis.

But then, belatedly, he backed away, threatening to extend the legislative session unless cuts he had agreed to were restored for use in service to his priorities.

So what happened? Here comes the speculation: A Tea Party insider or some other devotee of confrontation whispered in his ear: “Governor you’re caving in to these guys. We sent you down there to impose discipline. You’ve letting them walk all over you.”

Initial embrace

Democrats had, in fact, rebalanced his budget. And he had embraced the new document. He seemed to be saying: I didn’t want to cut public education spending or the 2 percent raise for state employees or medical care for poor pregnant women. I’m so glad you waved me from my mistake.

The amended budget made a start at cutting back overall spending — as Hogan had promised to do during his campaign.

Yes, he had said something about coming back later with other thoughts — some elements of the document he did not agree with. Headlines left out the “other thoughts” comment. The public at large probably thought bipartisanship had reared its lovely but seldom-seen head.

The assembly, including many Republicans, quickly endorsed the refashioned budget.

So, when he pulled his end-of-session pullback, he confused Democrats and seemed to abandon members of his own party, the ones who supported the budget they thought he had blessed.

Showdown

Thus came a showdown. The Democratic majority said simply: We had a deal, period. Stand by your agreement.

Hogan lost face — and surely some of the goodwill he had created.

He’d been doing well looking for solutions. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s phosphorous control regulations, and his efforts to stop chicken manure runoff from fouling the bay, were pulled back by the anti-regulation governor — but quickly reissued in a form quite similar to O’Malley’s. The new man seemed to be saying: “Oh, I get it.” He did give farmers another year to comply.

Democrats were watching carefully. Bad news, one leader concluded: Hogan was looking reasonable. A nutcase would have been preferable politically — an easier target to unseat in 2016.

Not to worry, though. The other Hogan seemed to be lying in wait. He stepped up in the last two weeks to have his conversation on those “other thoughts” about the budget he had praised.

A legislative skirmish ensued. The assembly “fenced off” the cuts so the governor would be unable to spend the money for his priorities.

He threatened not to spend it at all.

Consequences

The meaning of that promise came immediately. A Carroll County official said 50 teachers might have to be laid off. A Baltimore County educator said rehab at three high schools would have to be delayed.

Some might say that Hogan had won by taking a stand against the Democrats. He looked tough. He refused to be walked over.

He might have declared victory in advance of the closing days’ drama. He had held off more tax increases. He had cut the structural deficit. He could take credit for a charter school bill even though Democrats had rewritten it completely. The green community was delight with a stormwater runoff bill he endorsed.

All of this might have been seen as a solid start for the new man.

Instead, he had adopted the tough-guy stance.

Finally, he seemed to be rethinking his threat to sequester the $200 million fenced off by the Democrats. Maybe there was a way to release some of the money for schools and state workers, he said.

Now all he has to do is convince legislators in both parties that, in the future, he’ll be true to his word.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]