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A growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties are expressing concern or irritation about the lack of testimony on bills from the Hogan administration, whether it’s the dearth of written letters of support or opposition or no-shows by department officials who can answer direct question. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Democrats grumble that Hogan’s team a no-show at hearings

Governor's office say legislators are just trying to score points

ANNAPOLIS — One by one the sponsor and a few supporters stepped up to testify in support of a bill to eliminate tolls for some drivers who use a turn-around area at the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

But it was who was absent that drew the attention of a number of lawmakers.

“I’m reading the letter from the Department of Transportation that says they take no position on the bill, then they give us all these concrete reasons why they say we ought not pass the bill, which seems strange to me,” said Del. Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery and chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Last summer, Gov. Larry Hogan announced the reduction of tolls for users of that turnaround. But at the hearing, no one from the department or the governor’s office signed up to testify on the bill, sponsored by Republican Del. Robin L. Grammer.

“That’s unfortunate,” said Del. Anthony J. “Tony” O’Donnell, a six-term Southern Maryland Republican, in response to Barve. “This is an important transportation issue and I’m not happy that the department didn’t sign up to tell us what their position is.”

Later, O’Donnell’s comments were more pointed.

“My sense is maybe we pass this bill so that departments aren’t afraid to come speak to committees of jurisdiction in this legislature,” he said.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, has sponsored a bill that broadens who has the ability to file circuit court challenges made through comprehensive planning or rezoning action by a local legislative body.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, Carter Conway said, she once found out through her staff that Gov. Larry Hogan had taken a position on a bill on Facebook.
‘I said: “Tell (the governor) I don’t read Facebook,”‘ Carter Conway said. (File photo)

The discussion on that bill is part of a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties who express concern or irritation about the lack of testimony on bills, whether it’s the dearth of written letters of support or opposition or no-shows by department officials who can answer direct question.

O’Donnell, in an interview last week, said Hogan’s approach was “a little different than what we’re used to” but that the difference was necessary.

“When you have a Democrat administration and a Democrat legislature they blur the lines between the separate, co-equal branches of government,” O’Donnell said. “Now you have divided government and it’s a little different. So, the executive branch is saying ‘We’ll do things that are executive and let you function on your job.”

O’Donnell said many of the complaints amount to little more than partisan squabbling.

“They’re trying to find something, something thin, something at all, to criticize the Hogan administration about, and this the one they’ve latched on to. It’s just a different model,” O’Donnell said.

Deluge of legislation

This year there are more than 2,800 bills combined in the House of Delegates and the Senate this year — about 500 more than in 2015.

Staff for the governor acknowledge that agencies are likely testifying less in person and using written responses. Some bills get no response at all. But they also reject the claim that the Republican governor is not engaged in governing.

“This is what governing looks like,” said Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman. “It’s been eight years so it might be hard to remember what governing actually looks like. It’s having a deliberate mindset and making disciplined decisions.”

Mayer said that during the period of March 4 to March 7 agencies provided some kind of written guidance on 150 of the 400 bills for which hearings were held. He said one staffer who has worked for four governors over 40 years characterized the activity as “completely normal.”

Legislators sometimes confuse the issue of technical expertise that an agency can offer and “political ramifications” that are outside the scope of how executive agencies under Hogan would advise lawmakers, Mayer said. The governor will also not weigh in on bond bills or local bills, Hogan’s spokesman said.

“There’s a large number of bills that the administration, no administration ever weighs in on,” said Matt Clark, another Hogan spokesman. “There’s a third category of bills that we generally know aren’t going to pass, and we’re not going to weigh in on bills we know for sure aren’t going anywhere.”

One such bill was the assisted suicide bill that was withdrawn in the Senate. Clark said the governor’s office still is asked questions on that bill.

“And some bills are ridiculous or are clearly being used as political tools … they’re political traps,” Mayer said. “They’re just moving it to get the governor to take a certain position.”

‘I don’t read Facebook’

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, said agency participation has changed since Hogan took office.

“They don’t show up in committee meetings,” Carter Conway said. “It’s not just my committee, it’s all the committees and every now and then they send information, you know, a letter saying ‘informational,’ but they don’t take a position. There’s no level of communication.”

In one instance, Carter Conway said, she found out through her staff that the governor had taken a position on a bill on Facebook.

“I said: ‘Tell (the governor) I don’t read Facebook,’” Carter Conway said.

Hogan’s tactic of not engaging on every bill can be effective, especially as an outsider who had no pre-existing relationships with the legislature, as did Robert Ehrlich, the last Republican governor of Maryland, said one long-time legislative observer who asked not to be identified because he works with state agencies and the legislature.

“Hogan learned the lesson of Ehrlich,” the observer said. “When they started to beat up Ehrlich he learned that relationships don’t overcome partisanship.”

Hogan served as appointments secretary under Ehrlich.

Publicly testifying in bill hearing after bill hearing only gives the opposition a chance to score political points.

“What Hogan learned from that was: Why fight the battles you know you’re going to lose? They’re not going to win, there’s no path to victory,” the legislative observer said.

‘We can’t get an answer’

Some legislators said the lack of communication can hurt the legislative process.

“It was recognized by a few members of our caucus earlier in the session. We brought it to the attention of the administration that we would like to see a little bit more participation in some of the bill hearings,” said Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., R-Upper Eastern Shore and Senate minority whip. “Not on all the bills, not each and every bill but certainly some of the higher-profile pieces of legislation.”

One such bill is Senate Bill 510, which would double the monthly surcharge to $4 for natural gas customers and allow for an up to $4 per month fee for electricity customers. The money would be used to improve aging pipelines and transmission lines.

In an interview, Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Southern Maryland and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, put it this way:

Sen. Robert A. ‘Bobby’ Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision not to put more money into drug treatment programs in his proposed fiscal 2017 budget ‘endangers public safety.’ (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Sen. Robert A. ‘Bobby’ Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said his panel wanted questions answered about the effects on the roads and on safety of a bill that would allow trucks to carry 90,000 pounds of live chickens to processing facilities. ‘I’ve never seen a Department of Transportation not take a position on a bill like this,’ he said. (File photo)

“We have the potential to send that bill up and (Hogan) will say, ‘There’s another consumer tax’ or he can say, ‘This bill makes sense, let’s pass it. I’ll get behind it.’ We’re trying to get an answer and we can’t get an answer. I’m telling BGE to go work the second floor (the location of the governor’s office). If he gives us a nod, we’ll do it. I’m not going to send something that’s going to take up a lot of time on the floor and be very controversial and is just going to go up there and die. I should have some indication from him.”

Senate Bill 573 would allow trucks to carry 90,000 pounds of live chickens to processing facilities. Members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee during a recent hearing wanted questions answered about the effects on the roads and on safety.

“It would be nice to hear from the people who monitor our roads,” Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the committee, said in reference to the state transportation department. “I’ve never seen a Department of Transportation not take a position on a bill like this.”

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin agreed, saying that by not hearing from the department “we’re further out on a limb.”

Sen. James “Jim” Brochin asked for the committee to delay a decision on the bill, citing a lack of information. He called on Hogan to allow more input from agency officials.

“They’ve got the right people in place,” Brochin said. “They just need a cohesive plan.”

Staff writer Steve Lash contributed to this story.