An executive order signed by Gov. Larry Hogan just days before Labor Day is drawing criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans who suggest the first-term executive’s actions are at odds with his stated political philosophy.
Hogan, a Republican who portrays himself as a moderate Republican open to the best ideas regardless of party affiliation, has espoused some conservative underpinnings in his administration, including reducing the size of government and getting it “off your back and out of your pockets.”
While the legality of Wednesday’s executive order mandating post-Labor Day school starts is in question, some say it strikes a go-it-alone tone with the legislature in much the same way that President Barack Obama has acted on issues including immigration and gun control.
Some fear it may also open the door to Hogan using executive orders to circumvent the General Assembly.
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, called Hogan’s executive order an overreach, saying it was difficult “to reconcile traditional conservative rhetoric with the actions of the governor.”
“Either you think the government inserts itself too much into people’s lives and is too big or you do not think it inserts itself too much into people’s lives,” Eberly said. “(Hogan) is absolutely vulnerable to criticism on that point.”
Eberly noted the action also exposes a contradiction for supporters of Hogan, who he said would likely criticize similar executive orders if they came from Democrats.
“If it’s an overreach for one then it’s an overreach for both,” Eberly said. “You can’t justify an over-reach when it’s forwarding your own goals. You can’t say it’s bad when it’s bad only when it’s a policy you disagree with.”
Eberly said the use of executive orders to circumvent the legislature “as a matter of process is just wrong.”
‘Right time to do it’
Douglass Mayer, a spokesman of the governor, said he “would decline that comparison” with Obama and said Hogan acted because the legislature failed to do so in each of the last two sessions.
“The idea that this is an important issue in Maryland is not new,” Mayer said of post-Labor Day school starts. “It’s a bipartisan issues, and it seemed like the right time to do it.”
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who expressed support for the change in school starts in 2013, criticized Hogan’s order and said it would have been more appropriate for him to introduce legislation in January and build a consensus in the legislature to pass the bill.
“As the chief executive officer of the state the governor has responsibility over education,” Mayer said. “We put over $6 billion into state schools. Ultimately, the governor is not a member of the legislature.”
Mayer said Hogan was within his legal rights to sign the order.
Hogan’s action drew criticism from political opponents within Maryland and made him the target of a Washington-based conservative, pro-business think tank.
Others say the move by the popular governor and it’s apparent conflict with his own stated policy and traditional Republican principles are unlikely to do damage to Hogan.
“I don’t think people outside of Annapolis or Towson will care about that,” said Richard Cross, a political columnist and blogger and former staffer for Republican ex-Gov. Robert Ehrlich. “In the end, boldness on the part of executives is rewarded. Actions matter more than words.
The idea of pushing back the start of school is popular, according to polls by the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. Those polls in the last two years found public support for post-Labor Day starts were over 70 percent.
Cross called it a “shrewd political move.”
“Even if the legislature kills it, Hogan will have aligned him with “the people” and not “the establishment,” Cross said.
Hogan has been willing to go around the legislature in the past. When lawmakers rebuffed the governor’s efforts to lower the gas tax, Hogan ordered a lowering of tolls — but he did not use an executive order to do so.
The mandate signed Wednesday in Ocean City marks the first time Hogan has used the executive order to go around the General Assembly, which has considered and rejected similar legislation on the start of the school year in each of the last two years.
Think tank’s comments
The American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business public policy group, criticized Hogan’s move, comparing him to Obama.
“It is surprising that Hogan, a Republican, looks to be borrowing a page from the Obama playbook: If you fail to get your agenda across in the legislature, just extend executive authority to make up the law,” the organization wrote on its blog.
The group went on to argue that Hogan should not “do an end run around the Maryland state legislature.”
“Hogan’s one-size-fits-all order for the Old Line State ignores valid local concerns and local control of education. While the order may benefit tourism in Ocean City by maximizing the pool of potential visitors, a longer summer is unlikely to benefit all school systems or all students in them,” the group wrote.
With just two years left in Hogan’s first term, the use of the executive order leaves open the question of whether Hogan, like Obama, will go it alone if he again becomes frustrated with the gridlock of a legislature controlled by Democrats.
Cross said he believes the order was a “special case.”
Mayer, Hogan’s spokesman, said he wouldn’t speculate on the use of future executive orders and that he also would make no comment that removed such options from the table. Still, he added, “I would not label that as a signal” of future uses.
‘Big government by fiat’
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s County and vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, noted that Republicans, including Hogan, are generally “opposed to executive orders and for less government but this is big government by fiat.”
Mayer shrugged off the criticism of Pinsky and others, including leaders of the state’s largest teacher’s union, arguing that the General Assembly has also considered statewide education mandates. Two of those topics highlighted by Mayer included an unsuccessful 1998 effort to impose a requirement to teach about the Irish Potato Famine and Pinsky’s 2002 bill requiring school systems to adopt policies regarding vending machines in schools.
“These kinds of complaints are coming from a group that wanted to mandate schools teach about the Irish Potato Famine,” Mayer said. “We could care less about their complaints on this issue.”