ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers will leave the State House in 90 days with about one year to go for the 2018 primary.
But the politics for that campaign starts now.
Gov. Larry Hogan enters his third session vowing a more aggressive approach to advancing his agenda. At the same time, leaders in the House and Senate say they are equally determined to more clearly define the differences between their party’s values and those of a first-term governor who enjoys sky-high job approval numbers and a desire to be the first Republican to win a second term since Theodore McKeldin.
“We have to get tougher, stronger and more assertive,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch told an annual pre-session gathering of Democratic legislators, unions and advocacy groups. “We control all the agendas in the House and the Senate.”
Busch called the lunch “a good time to get away from this go-along-to-get-along type of governor that we have who wants to sit in front of the papers and tell everyone he wants to work in a bipartisan fashion.”
Hogan publicly portrays himself as a moderate Republican willing to work with Democrats on issues. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. told Democrats that Hogan’s image is more fiction than fact. Busch warned Democrats looking to partner with the governor that they should remember which team they are on.
“You can’t be wearing a jersey with both colors on it. You know you’re either on one team or you’re on the other,” Busch said. “We have to come to that realization over the next two years or (Hogan) redraws the maps and we’re going to go from seven congressmen to five or four congressmen, and that’s not going to be a happy period.”
Hogan, for his part, acknowledges that the coming session is likely to be more political than the previous two years.
“I think it’s going to be, you know, the politics is going to get a little more heated from some of the folks in the legislature next year,” Hogan said.
“This is a good time to get things done. It will be more difficult in the last session in the middle of a campaign year to accomplish a lot,” the governor added.
Getting things done
Much of what Hogan has accomplished, such as a reduction in some fees and tolls, has happened outside the 90-day session.
“They’re here for 90 days, and we get to govern the other nine months of the year,” Hogan said.
“We had some successes and we’ve gotten some things done,” Hogan said. “We’ve tried to work as best we can in a bipartisan fashion and we obviously don’t agree on everything, but we’re going to continue to try and work with the legislature on both sides of the aisle. We’re going to continue to do the same basic themes we’ve been focused on but we’re going to be maybe a little more aggressive this session, a little more of a legislative package and we’re going to try to get some things done.”
But getting things done might be difficult when both the governor and Miller describe themselves as being a “goalkeeper” or “playing defense,” respectively, when it comes to the other’s efforts.
Additionally, the legislature will seek to override as many as five vetoes issued by the governor on bills requiring an increase in the amount of electricity generated by wind and solar to 25 percent by 2020; a bill establishing a transit oversight board; and a measure requiring the state to set aside funds to pay for the replacement of the aging Gov. Harry T. Nice Bridge in southern Maryland.
“I think the one veto that we’ll focus on is the renewable energy bill. Maryland is an environmentally fragile state,” Miller said. “We’ve made great progress over the last 30 plus years. Our (Chesapeake) Bay is getting passing grades. We’re not going to go backwards. We’re going to get the votes to move forward and emphasize renewable energy.”
Lower on that list is an override of the funding requirements for the Nice Bridge.
Offering an alternative
Hogan has never managed to sustain a veto during his term. This year, he has taken to offering alternatives, such as an announcement late last year that he would fund a replacement of the Nice Bridge.
Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and a leading voice for the replacement of the bridge, said in November he was happy with Hogan’s proposal and would likely not see a veto override — even after the governor’s staff asked him to not be present when the governor announced the project standing near the bridge.
“I am very, very pleased,” said Middleton after the vote. “I would say (the vote) has met my hopes in that what they have done, they are going to keep this project moving forward.”
In recent weeks, Hogan has offered other packages that could be interpreted as alternatives to Democratic proposals including a package on paid sick leave that Busch called “100 miles from the bill we passed last year.”
Hogan also offered a $65 million package he said would support wind and solar projects without placing a $100 million tax on Maryland electricity ratepayers.
“This is actually a sunshine tax,” Hogan said, of the measure he vetoed, during the announcement of his alternative plan. “It’s charging people every month on their bill to force people to buy expensive solar and wind energy. We don’t need this bill to pass.”
Legislative sponsors of the bill are balking and pushing for an override, which is likely, given the bill passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
When those votes will be taken is not yet known. There are vacancies in the House, including the delay in seating one new Baltimore City Democrat charged with campaign finance violations and concerns about an FBI corruption investigation that could involve another, as yet unnamed Democratic delegate from Prince George’s County. Also there is the absence of Sen. Lisa Gladden in the Senate. The leaders thus might delay the override votes to make sure they have enough votes to overturn the governor’s vetoes.
“The good news is that you do not have to take up the vetoes in the first week or the second week,” Busch said. “We will, obviously, wait until we have a full membership. I am sure the Senate is going to look at the same thing.”
Adding to the political overtones of the session will be the inauguration of a new Republican president.
President-elect Donald Trump’s swearing-in will cast a shadow stretching 35 miles west to the State House, and it will loom large over Hogan and his dealings with the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Already, groups such as the Maryland State Education Association, labor unions and environmental activists are attempting to hang Trump around Hogan’s neck at every turn.
“If this is good policy, if this is good for the environment and good for economy, why are we here?” Del. C. William “Bill” Frick, D-Montgomery County and a sponsor of the vetoed renewable energy standards bill said last week. “We’re here because the Trump of State Circle decided to play politics. The administration knows this is good policy.”
The governor neither supported nor voted for Trump, choosing instead to vote for his father for president, but he now finds he may need him as an ally for funding for transportation infrastructure projects as well as a final decision that could send the new FBI headquarters to Prince George’s County rather than northern Virginia.
Hogan has vowed to work with Trump, adding that he also worked with the outgoing president. But doing so could be a double-edged sword. A recent Gonzales Research & Media Services poll found that 56 percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable view of Trump — no surprise in Maryland, which went heavily for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“The governor’s got to do what the governor’s got to do,” said Miller. “Fortunately or unfortunately for him, for the next two years he’s going to be joined at the hip with Donald Trump. And he needs to do that to bring infrastructure to the state of Maryland. It’s a difficult position for him. I understand that.”