ANNAPOLIS — House Speaker Michael E. Busch enters the 2017 General Assembly session in his 14th year as speaker — the longest in the history of the state.
During half of that tenure has been under a Republican governor — first Robert Ehrlich and then Larry Hogan.
And while Hogan and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have expressed friendship for each other in between the political barbs, the governor’s relationship with Busch has been chillier. Despite Hogan’s claims of inviting Busch to sit down and talk, Busch says he and the governor haven’t had an in-depth talk about policy in nearly a year.
In an interview Friday with The Daily Record prior to the start of the 2017 General Assembly session, Busch discussed his relationship with Hogan, his agenda for the coming session and potential for a more politically contentious 90 days than the state has seen in the previous two legislative sessions.
What follows is a condensed version of that interview.
With the start of the session just in front of us, what do you see as priorities for the House of Delegates this year?
Busch: I think that the House is concerned about education funding. Once you see the budget, make sure that public education is fully funded. I think that it’s important for us to at least lay out a plan for transportation. I think as we continue to go through the Justice Reinvestment Act, much of that is about moving people from obviously incarceration to the workplace. We know if we don’t have enough apprenticeship programs and we don’t have viable transportation system, these people aren’t going to have an opportunity to make it. They’re going to fall back into the same environment that they came from where selling drugs, pushing drugs were the main source of income.
We also have a huge issue with opioids. It’s statewide. It’s not just in your urban areas. Anne Arundel County has seen the death toll double in the last year. It’s one of the wealthiest counties in the state.
Harford County has a huge problem.
It takes an investment of money to do that. You need treatment. you need beds. It’s six months to a year to get someone off heroin. It’s one of the toughest drugs to kick.
You mentioned concern about funding for education. The legislature made the geographic cost of education formula mandatory. Much of education funding is mandatory, what are you concerned that the governor will cut?
I don’t know whether he’s going to try and put it in legislation or not that rolls back some of the mandates or not. We have the budget first in the House. We’re not going to support rolling back those mandates.
Look, for whatever reason, a lot of this is just (the) national economy. We left here with a surplus of $400 million and $800 million in the rainy day fund and projected growth from the comptroller’s office was at 3 percent. He (overestimated) the growth in revenues by about $800 million. So all of a sudden we went from a $400 million in our reserve fund to roughly $300 million that has to be made up during this legislative session.
The governor could have taken care of that at the Board of Public Works. He chose not to do that. He’s got to bring it down in his budget, how he’s going to balance this budget and he’s got a shortfall for the next year.
At what point do the governor and the legislature have to look at spending and revenues and make them balance out?
The only thing I would say to you is the governor brings the budget in. We can’t add to the budget. It’s the governor’s budget. It’s not the legislature’s budget.
The governor has to balance the budget, and he has to do it with real cuts.
The state workforce has borne the brunt of much of the cuts in the last five or six years. It hasn’t been just Hogan. (Gov. Martin) O’Malley had to make cuts just about every year. We were hopeful we’d be out of the recession but we’re not.
It’s reflected in the fact that we do have this revenue shortfall. If the governor is going to seriously take up a new direction he’s got to work more closely with the legislature than they already are. You just can’t be press releases and slogans about what takes place.
The governor says the legislature will repeal the Transportation Transparency Act this session. Is that a possibility?
I don’t see a repeal. First of all it’s a transparency law. It doesn’t tie the hands of the governor. It says to the Maryland citizens and the general public that these are the priorities of our transportation system and what’s the most effective and efficient way to spend our dollars.
The governor is not bound by that in any way. He can go on to fund whatever projects he wants. The fact of the matter is the governor overpromised on the vast majority of his transportation projects. He went out and did ribbon-cuttings everywhere and gas prices stayed at abnormally low for his first couple of years and the revenues aren’t coming in as originally projected to come in. So, he doesn’t have the money to fund them and he’s cost-shifted a lot of the transportation projects to some of the major subdivisions like Prince George’s and Montgomery County.
Is the governor using the transportation bill and the legislature as a foil or smoke screen to hide what you say are his overpromises?
Busch: In my estimation, yeah.
How is your relationship with the governor?
The fact of the matter is we pass each other and we’re cordial and say, ‘Hi’ when we see each other. He is not engaged in any way to sit down and want to discuss issues that could be part of the policy agenda for the state of Maryland.
Since the end of session I have not had a meeting with the governor. I have not been invited to Government House. I have not been invited to sit down with his staff or anything else to talk about legislative initiatives.
I read about them in the newspaper just like everybody else. So, I mean we’re happy he has a paid sick leave bill but it’s 100 miles from the bill we passed last year. You’d think if they were going to do that they’d have some discussion on how we got where we were and what he thought there could be for common ground.
I don’t think he’s interested in any of that.
Are you expecting the session to be more partisan, more political than the first two years of the term?
You are coming up to the third year of the term. You’re going to have a Democratic candidate emerge for governor. I think you’ll see a greater separation, if you will, between the values of the Democratic Party and the values of the governor.
Will that be a function of the legislature and the session?
I think it will be a function of policies during the session. The irony is that last year when we went through the budgetary process, we ended up passing a budget that fenced off money for priorities both he wanted and the legislature wanted. That budget was basically passed almost unanimously in both houses. A month after he comes out and says he’s not going to fund it. It’s not like he went to the Republicans in the legislature and said, ‘Don’t vote for this,’ or ‘I’m opposed to this.’
It’s just like a curve ball coming out of nowhere that he decides ‘We’re not going to fund it and we’re going to move on.’
Will the House move forward with attempting to override the governor’s vetoes on bills such as the renewable energy requirements and funding for the Gov. Harry Nice Bridge?
Both. If the Senate wants to override both then we would override both.
Look, the irony is that the governor vetoed the Nice Bridge. He vetoes it. He knows there are enough votes in the House and Senate to override the veto. It’s very important to the president of the Senate and the chairman of Finance and certainly the vice chairman of Economic Matters.
He (Hogan) goes down, decides to have a press conference and ribbon-cutting about building the Nice Bridge and refuses to let the chairman of Finance to even come to the press conference.
You hear all this talk about bipartisanship and everyone works together. All we hear everywhere is the governor goes out, does a press conference and if it’s in your district he doesn’t include you.
I don’t know how you build a relationship and bipartisanship when you carry out that kind of activity.
Will veto efforts in the House be hampered by vacancies including that of Gary Brown, whose swearing-in was delayed because of criminal charges?
The good news is that you do not have to take up the vetoes in the first week or the second week. We will, obviously, wait until we have a full membership. I am sure the Senate is going to look at the same thing.
Some of the people that the governor has reached out to are officials at the 24 school systems in the state, who he has ordered to appear before the Board of Public Works at the end of the month. Does this fly in the face of language put in the capital budget last year?
I don’t call that reaching out. If you call that reaching out, to order 24 independent school boards to come down to Annapolis to beg for funding that’s already been appropriated by the governor and General Assembly and signed into law and has already gone through the process with the IAC in terms of what is ready to build — I see no purpose in having those school boards come to Annapolis to basically what they call “The Beg-a-thon” to ensure they get school money. If the governor and the comptroller want to cut school funds from Montgomery and Prince George’s and Baltimore and Carroll County and Anne Arundel, they’re the ones responsible. This is a hollow threat as far as I’m concerned.
If I was a school board superintendent, I wouldn’t come to Annapolis because all they’re going to do basically is yell at the ones they don’t like and praise the ones they do like.