Category Archives: Maryland General Assembly

Marvin the Magician

By Barry Rascovar

(First of two parts)

Sept. 8, 2015 — Simply put, Marvin Mandel — who was laid to rest last week at age 95 — ranks as the greatest and most effective Maryland governor of the 20th century.

Only Gov. Albert C. Ritchie comes close to matching Mandel as a government reformer. But Mandel was far more ambitious in his efforts to improve society, expand the reach of government and anticipate future trends.

Marvin the Magician Mandel

Gov. Marvin Mandel, official State House portrait.

Our lives first intersected in 1972 as Mandel pulled off a stunning coup. In a tumultuous General Assembly session, the governor.

  • He defeated the potent National Rifle Association by enacting the nation’s toughest handgun-control law.
  • He defeated the powerful insurance industry to win passage of the nation’s first state-run insurance company for high-risk drivers.
  • He defeated the influential petroleum lobby to gain approval of a nearly 30 percent gas-tax increase that financed Baltimore’s first subway line, portions of the Washington-area Metro and local highway construction.

He slugged it out with tavern owners and the potent beer barons to win a tripling of the state beer tax — the first increase in that alcohol levy in 33 years.

He gained approval to buy Friendship Airport from Baltimore City for $36 million, beginning a modernization program that turned the re-named BWI Airport into one of the nation’s premier low-cost flight destination.

No Maryland governor took on so many entrenched and muscular special interests at one time.

Legislative Magician

It was a stupendous achievement, following on the heels of three previous legislative sessions marked by sweeping government reforms that turned Maryland into a national model for streamlined efficiency and modernization.

Mandel totally overhauled Maryland’s antiquated judicial system, junking the politically inspired magistrate system for a professional District Court with experienced and respected lawyers nominated by a judicial selection commission serving as judges.

He created an intermediate appellate court that dramatically improved the quality of judicial decisions and anticipated the enormous jump in appeals cases.

He removed politics from District Court and appellate court reappointments.

He named cracker-jack deputy attorneys general to implement these judicial reforms — Robert F. Sweeney to run the new, statewide District Court system and Robert C. Murphy Jr. to lead first the new Court of Special Appeals and then the state judiciary as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.

Cabinet Government

Mandel used his immense influence with the General Assembly (he served there as a key player for 17 years)  to win approval of a massive government reorganization, shoe-horning 248 formerly independent agencies into 12 cabinet-level departments.

It was a long and bitter reorganization with fierce resistance coming from deeply entrenched bureaucrats and interest groups.

Cutting the powerful tentacles of the Maryland Port Authority and State Roads Commission proved especially difficult for the new transportation secretary, Harry R. Hughes.

The new secretary of licensing and regulation, John R. Jewel, encountered enormous obstacles from dozens of special interest groups that no longer could dictate policy to various licensing boards.

The new Department of Natural Resources ran into such intractable opposition from watermen and rural constituencies that Mandel persuaded former Gov. J. Millard Tawes to come out of retirement in Crisfield to smooth hurt feelings and pave the way for a successful transition.

Mandel rarely lost battles with the legislature. He understood the psyche of lawmakers and how to play to each one’s weaknesses and vanity. He knew what strings to pull and when. He became known as Marvin the Magician, pulling a legislative rabbit out of his hat time after time when defeat seemed imminent.

Sweeping Reforms

He battled hospitals to create the nation’s only state regulatory body setting hospital rates to bring down costs. It worked.

He took on the hospitals again in establishing the nation’s first Shock Trauma network, prompting a nationwide revolution in emergency medicine.

He set up the nation’s second statewide school construction program (Hawaii has the other) to relieve local governments of burdensome construction debt that was delaying urgently needed school buildings to handle a huge surge in school-age children.

He fought for state land-use controls decades before “smart growth” came into vogue.

He supported the Lee-Maurer education aid formula that steered a larger percentage of state funds to poor subdivisions, especially Baltimore City.

It is an astounding record for the state’s second longest-serving governor (Ritchie beat him by a considerable margin, serving four terms in the 1920s and early 1930s).

Pollack, then Kovens

Yet Marvin Mandel is the last person you’d expect to earn the label of reformer and good government crusader.

He was a product of the old-time political machines of Baltimore City. Soon, though, he broke from the grasp of corrupt boss James H. (Jack) Pollack and joined forces with a more modest political operative, Irvin Kovens, forming an anti-Pollack ticket in northwest Baltimore.

He rose to political prominence by cunning and sheer luck.  When the House speaker was indicted in Maryland’s first savings and loan scandal, Mandel took his place.

When Spiro Agnew ran for vice president with Richard Nixon in 1968 — and won — House Speaker Mandel had the votes to succeed Agnew as governor.

Through it all, Marvin Mandel remained an enigma. His prestidigitation was so flawless you never knew what was really going on. Three-dimensional chess was Mandel’s game and no one in Annapolis was capable of taking on the grand master.

He could be amiable, jocular and easy-going, yet he turned into a tiger in formulating and carrying out political strategies.

Clouded by Smoke

He seemed to fool everyone with the smokescreen he created when smoking his ever-present meerschaum pipe.

Marvin the Magician

Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel and his ever-present pipe.

Puff, puff, puff. A few nods of the head. Visitors thought they were getting agreement from the amiable governor — only to discover later they had misread the situation.

In political mid-stream, though, Mandel’s fortunes and his demeanor changed.

His luck started to run out.

His secret private life blasted into the headlines. His expensive new lifestyle came at a cost he could not personally afford.

His backstage maneuvering to make close friends and allies rich through passage of favorable legislation in Annapolis became a long-running national scandal.

The magician who so brilliantly reformed Maryland government would pay a steep price for this terrible lapse in judgment.

Tomorrow:  Marvin the Manipulator

Redistricting Reform: Mission Impossible?

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 17, 2015 — Reformers want to take partisan politics out of the redistricting equation. So does the governor. That may be Mission Impossible.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s Current Congressional Districts

On the surface, their goal sounds easy to achieve. Pass a state constitutional amendment empowering an impartial panel of citizens to revise Maryland’s congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years (after the new U.S. Census is taken) so the districts conform to the Supreme Court’s 1962 “one-man, one-vote” edict.

Conservative Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. has joined liberal reformers in this crusade. He’s positioned himself so it looks like those mean Democrats are defiantly standing in the way.

As usual, the situation is far more complicated than the cover story.

Hogan’s Goal

The governor’s motives are hardly pure. He’s looking for political advantage for his outnumbered Republican Party. Stripping control of redistricting from the Democratic controlled General Assembly is his objective.

Right now, thanks to manipulation of redistricting maps by Democratic leaders, seven out of eight Maryland congressmen are Democrats. Hogan thinks a 4-4 split would be more like it.

Yet the current distribution isn’t far off the voter registration numbers.

Had state and national Republican organizations given Sixth District challenger Dan Bongino more financial and organizational support last year (he lost by less than 2,800 votes), the congressional split in Maryland would be 6-2, or 25 percent. That’s almost precisely what the GOP’s registered voter figure is in Maryland today.

So maybe Republicans aren’t so bad off under the current redistricting process after all.

GOP Pickup?

Hogan, though, believes creating more evenly balanced districts would benefit the state GOP, particularly in the General Assembly. He’s placing his bet on a non-partisan revision of legislative district lines in 2021 or 2022.

That premise may not be valid, either.

Republicans currently hold 30 percent of the state Senate seats in Annapolis and 35 percent of the House of Delegates seats. Both figures exceed the party’s statewide voter registration percentages.

Even under Democratic control of the redistricting process, the GOP is doing better than expected.

What skews such comparisons are the large number of unaffiliated voters — 672,000 of them statewide. They are neither Republicans nor Democrats yet they make up 18 percent of registered Maryland voters.

Winning over these independents has been the GOP’s downfall in Maryland. When a Republican candidate reaches out to these middle-roaders, like Hogan did, success is more likely.

How unaffiliated voters will react under impartially drawn redistricting maps is unknown. Nothing may change. Or everything.

Miller’s Response

Hogan knows that Democrats in the legislature will not allow him to win this redistricting fight. Senate President Mike Miller, the savviest politician in Annapolis, has said, quite bluntly, “It won’t happen.”

Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch have nothing to gain from cooperating with the governor.  They understand that Hogan will do whatever it takes to help the Republican Party, with or without a new redistricting commission. They’re not going to help him in that effort.

The best practical outcome would be a pledge by both Hogan and the two Democratic legislative leaders to turn to a group of impartial redistricting experts and citizens for their preliminary re-mapping of Maryland after the 2020 Census.

Such early guidance from non-politicians might dissuade either side from creating the kinds of grotesque districts that now dominate Maryland’s congressional boundaries. It also might lead to more sensible boundary lines for legislative districts that respect communities of interest.

Ever since the Supreme Court removed itself from most redistricting decisions, the two political parties have had a field day throughout the country twisting and turning congressional and legislative districts to their advantage. Each party has sinned mightily.

Gerrymandering is a longtime American tradition, starting with Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812.

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry, Vice President and Mass. governor forever linked to “gerrymandering.”

Trying to remove all political partisanship from this politically sensitive process is wishful thinking.

Still, we can do better than what Maryland has now.

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Hogan’s Health and Harsh Words

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 4, 2015 — Complaints and harsh words have poured in about my Aug. 3 column, for daring to raise the possibility that Gov. Larry Hogan’s health may have played a role in his turn toward nastiness.

Let’s be clear: The governor’s treatment for late Stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma cannot be ignored.

Everyone wishes Hogan a speedy return to good health. Doctors I’ve spoken to have been optimistic about his recovery chances given today’s advancements in chemotherapy.

But the situation — and its ramifications for governing Maryland — cannot be swept under the rug.

Gov. Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail announcement. Hogan's Health and Harsh Words.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Corrections Secretary Stephen Moyer at Baltimore jail announcement.

Could the governor’s unseemly swipes at Democratic leaders be partly related to how he’s feeling during and after his intense medical treatments?

It is a possibility. You don’t have to agree, but it’s a thought worth considering — which is why it was raised ever so briefly (17 words) in my previous column.

Governor’s Response

Hogan’s spinmeisters used my column to reject the notion he has turned from Mr. Nice to Mr. Nasty. In a Facebook posting, Hogan asserted:

“In spite of 10 days of 24 hour chemo I haven’t become mean and nasty, I’m still the same nice guy I have always been, and we are still accomplishing great things for Maryland.”

He also defended his failure to notify Democratic legislators before announcing the closing of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Why? Because he didn’t want to tip off the gangs about what was about to happen.

Fair enough.

Gangs and the City Jail

For the record, here’s what Mr. Nice Guy had to say in blaming the disgraceful gang problems of the city jail on former Gov. Martin O’Malley:

“When the first indictments came down the previous governor called the case ‘a positive achievement in the fight against gangs.’ It was just phony political spin on a prison culture created by an utter failure of leadership.”

The facts tell a slightly different story that Hogan conveniently ignored in his spiteful comments.

It was O’Malley’s corrections secretary, Gary Maynard, who uncovered the deplorable Black Guerilla gang control of the city jail and called in the FBI. Maynard wanted to act immediately to end the gang’s stranglehold on the detention center and prosecute the guards involved, but the FBI insisted on months and months of further investigation.

This long delay was a huge, inexcusable mistake, but that failure of leadership should not be blamed on O’Malley. Hogan needed to point an accusing figure at the FBI.

Attacking the Opposition

It was easier and more useful politically to demonize the opposition party leadership.

Thus, Hogan politicized the jail-closing announcement in terms that pilloried both O’Malley and the Democratic legislature.

Such “smack-down” rhetoric doesn’t further cooperative governance.

Two of the most level-headed Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Ed De Grange of Anne Arundel County and Sen. Guy Guzzone of Howard County, co-chaired a commission that studied the city jail situation and developed a long-term, bi-partisan solution.

Hogan not only disregarded their work, he bragged about the fact he had “never even looked at” this plan.

Legislative Response

Is it any wonder the co-chairs accused Hogan of having “circumvented the Legislature” and of  “making decisions behind closed doors”?

That last accusation has surfaced on other Hogan decisions, too. He doesn’t seem to believe in listening to a wide-range of divergent views before making up his mind. That approach is not always helpful.

Closing the Baltimore jail was absolutely the right decision. Hooray for Hogan.

He is correct it should have happened long ago — perhaps even under the governorship of the last Republican chief executive, Bob Ehrlich.

But there was no reason to turn the announcement into a political tongue-lashing.

It only exacerbates the growing gulf between the governor and Democratic lawmakers, the very people he needs if he hopes to make headway in achieving his large-scale goals for Maryland.

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The New, Nasty Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 3, 2015 — What happened to the friendly, smiling, easy-going Larry Hogan? Mr. Nice Guy has morphed into Mr. Nasty.

Gov. Larry Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan poses at Baltimore City Detention Center. (AP)

Perhaps he’s spent too much time with his pal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the combative presidential hopeful with the mouth that roars.

Perhaps his new Kojack look, as well as his grueling chemotherapy sessions, help explain what’s going on.

Or maybe it’s just a recognition by Maryland’s Republican governor that tough talk and decisive action go over well with his conservative-to-moderate constituents. Excoriating hapless, fumbling Democrats and going it alone make you look like John Wayne riding to the school marm’s rescue.

Whatever the reason, Hogan has taken a turn down a dark alley. It may lead to a promising political future but from a governing standpoint it could turn into a disaster.

Alienating Democrats

In less than nine months, Hogan has managed to offend or alienate much of the Democratic elected leadership in Maryland. He has:

  • Immediately shuttered the disgraceful Baltimore City jail and detention center without even bothering to inform local officials, judges or prosecutors — or provide any details about how this is feasible.
  • On an impulse, unilaterally re-opened the old Senate Chamber in the State House while the prime mover in this historic restoration, the Democratic Senate President, was out of the country.
  • Punitively eliminated $2 million in renovations for an arts center cherished by the Democratic House speaker.
  • Slashed education aid to Democratic strongholds, then reneged on a compromise.
  • Killed the Baltimore region’s rapid rail Red Line without any backup plan.
  • Stripped to the bone the state’s contribution for the Washington area’s rapid rail Purple Line, them squeezed two counties for $100 million more.
  • Shifted all the money saved to rural and exurban road and bridge projects.
  • Named a commission to do away with regulations and made sure the member solidly pro-business and Republican.

In nearly every case, Hogan’s made it clear he’s the act-now, think-later governor of Maryland who doesn’t need to consult with Democratic lawmakers or local officials who might offer valuable input. That would complicate matters.

It’s his party and he’ll do what he wants.

Hogan is giving the public what it wants: Simplistic, quick answers to difficult, highly complicated problems. It’s also how he campaigned for governor.

Sort of reminds you of Donald Trump, doesn’t it?

Fixing the Mess 

Here’s the catch: If easy solutions could fix government’s worst dilemmas, they would have happened long ago.

If simply closing the Baltimore City jail and detention center could solve that jurisdiction’s incarceration and detention nightmare, that step would have been taken by Republic Gov. Bob Ehrlich or Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Hogan’s quick action at the Baltimore jail opens a new can of worms. You can’t mix people awaiting trial with convicted felons, but that’s apparently the plan. How do you tend to the medical and transportation needs of 1,000-plus former city jail inmates about to be spread among other state prison facilities? Where’s the intake center for new arrivals?  Are you overwhelming nearby state prisons? Will the state face additional, unwinnable ACLU lawsuits?

Hogan says he won’t build a replacement city jail. That would make Baltimore unique in the United States. How is this going to work? Hogan is mum on that point. What does he know that other correctional expert don’t?

The city jail announcement came with gratuitous, nasty and factually inaccurate swipes at  O’Malley. It sounded like a re-hash of Hogan in last year’s campaign.

Nor did the Republican governor spare Democratic legislators from his wrath. Then again, he displayed a stunning lack of preparation: He admitted he hadn’t read a detailed report from a special legislative commission on handling Baltimore’s chronic jail/detention situation.

Another Agnew?

Hogan is playing to his political crowd: angry white men and women — most with limited education — that Spiro Agnew appealed to. If the governor continues along this combative line of attack, he could well become a talked-about contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination, just like Agnew.

We live in an era of presidential campaigning dominated by sound bites, blunt talk, insults and easy answers. Hogan seems to be following that path, too.

The difference is that presidential candidates don’t have to govern. Hogan does, and he has now made that part of his life far more difficult. Maryland could be in for at least three years of government gridlock in Annapolis. It may not be pretty or helpful for Marylanders, but it could well serve Larry Hogan’s political purposes.

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The Laurel Preakness? Get Real

By Barry Rascovar

May 25, 2015 — The Stronach Group, which owns Maryland’s two thoroughbred one-mile tracks, is making noise, once again, about moving the crown jewel of Free State racing, the Preakness Stakes, to Laurel Race Course.

 

Pimlico Race Course

Pimlico Race Course

It’s a non-starter — and the Stronach folks probably know it.

Legally such a move can’t take place without General Assembly approval, which won’t happen.

From a racing standpoint, owner Frank Stronach would have to be brain-dead to transplant the Preakness.

All the fabled history would be lost. Laurel races couldn’t be compared with the 140 years of past Preakness performances at Pimlico. Different track, different racing surface, different times for traversing a mile and three-sixteenths.

Laurel, as built, can’t hold 140,000 fans; Pimlico can and did this month. Nor is it a certainty Laurel could draw even a respectable Preakness crowd.

It’s an isolated, suburban site where families are more interested in their kids’ soccer games than a horse race. No one can walk to the track, or catch a bus, easily. Few folks from the Baltimore region would make the long trek.

Sure, Laurel’s a nice, more up-to-date track, but to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.”

Diminished Triple Crown

A Laurel Preakness would diminish the prestige and currency of racing’s Triple Crown, thus devaluing Stronach’s Maryland holdings.

It also would be perceived as a huge slap at Baltimore just when the city is trying to recover from April’s civil unrest and the black eye it received nationally and internationally. The bitterness from such a move would be harsh and unforgiving.

On paper, consolidating Maryland thoroughbred racing at one track might appear a no-brainer, but it isn’t once you start peeling back the multi-layers of reality.

What the Stronach folks really want — given the fact a one-track racing schedule is illegal and probably a long-term money-loser — is concessions from Baltimore City and the state of Maryland to offset the two tracks’ operating losses, estimated at $5 million to $8 million annually.

There are a number of ways politicians could provide the track owner with financial help.

Subsidy Options

The state legislature, for instance, could revise the division of slots revenues slightly to allocate up to $10 million annually if the Stronach Group holds a spring-summer meet at an upgraded Pimlico.

The state already guarantees each of Maryland’s two standardbred tracks $1.2 million a year for just 40 days of racing. The money comes out of the slots revenue designated for bolstering purses at those harness-racing tracks at Rosecroft and Ocean Downs.

Stronach’s thoroughbred tracks are expected to receive nearly $46 million in slots revenue for purse awards in fiscal 2017 and close to $50 million by 2020. Surely the law could be amended to let the tracks apply for a subsidy from that account to offset operating losses .

Pimlico logo

Both the state and city also could work with the Stronach Group to float inexpensive bonds for some of the improvements at Pimlico.

Baltimore City, which already is giving over $100 million in tax breaks and another $300 million in public subsidies to developers of Harbor Point downtown, could offer a similar but smaller package of infrastructure improvements and long-term tax rebates if the Stronach Group turns Pimlico into a redeveloped, multi-entertainment center.

Stronach’s Contribution

While Frank Stronach has dragged his feet in putting dollars into his Maryland tracks, he has been a good corporate citizen, even footing the bill for an expensive machine tool-and-dye training school south of the Pimlico track that taught inner-city residents the skills needed to secure good-paying, in-demand jobs.

Thanks to millions in slots revenue already designated for future race track improvements, Maryland has signaled its willingness to help revitalize thoroughbred racing.

Now it needs to seal the deal in a way that ensures Pimlico’s future and offers hundreds of new jobs for the depressed community that lies to the historic track’s south and west.

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Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

May 18, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. makes it sound like he’s riding to the rescue of Maryland’s underfunded pension program that has been continually “raided” by evil Democratic legislators in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan (left) & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

What a bunch of hogwash. It’s pure Hogan hypocrisy.

Hogan’s stance — torpedoing a $68 million education appropriation to the state’s most populous jurisdictions and shifting some of that money into the state pension fund — is based on politics, not policy.

Indeed, Hogan is a late convert to the cause of pension-fund integrity.

Silent Secretary

When legislative analysts went before House and Senate budget panels and proposed a 50 percent reduction in Hogan’s $150 million supplemental appropriation to the pension fund, the governor’s budget secretary not only failed to object but congratulated lawmakers for their assiduous work in responsibly paring Hogan’s budget request.

Not until it became politically expedient later in the session to slam Democrats for cutting the supplemental appropriation in half did Hogan belatedly turn into a pension-funding hawk.

Since then, he’s continually referred to Democratic lawmakers’ “raid” of pension money.

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

The pension agency got so offended at this misguided gubernatorial propaganda pitch that it issued a press release regarding “the mistaken impression that the pension fund had been ‘raided’ by the General Assembly during the recently-completed session. This is not the case.”

No Dipping Allowed

The agency explained that the dispute centered on how much extra should be spent to help the state more quickly reach full funding to pay for future pension payouts. The state’s required $1.8 billion budget contribution to the retirement account this year remained untouched.

Indeed, it’s illegal for the legislature or the governor to “dip into” the $45.7 billion pension fund. That money can only be used to make pension payouts. No “raids” are permitted. But you’d never know that from listening to the governor’s spiel.

Hogan’s pension purity pursuit was his way of diverting attention from his other action — denying important state dollars to Baltimore City and other high-cost subdivisions to help them avoid layoffs or cuts in school programs.

He said it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to give that money to the schools instead of pouring it into the pension fund.

He’s got his priorities reversed.

The greatest immediate urgency is bolstering education achievement in distressed communities like West Baltimore. That takes money.

Further fortifying the state’s pension program can be done more gradually over the next decade or two.

Harsh Consequences

Especially in light of civil unrest in poor, racially blighted Baltimore neighborhoods, Hogan’s decision to yank $11.6 million away from the city school system seems short-sighted and counter-productive.

The consequences of his action could be quite harsh when the General Assembly meets next January.  This slap in the face to Baltimore schools won’t be forgotten. Nor will legislators from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties forget Hogan’s slight, either. They lost a combined $37 million in school money.

The governor’s next big decision could be the fate of the two mass-transit lines affecting those three major jurisdictions — the east-west Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

His actions on the two lines could prove pivotal in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers. Deep-sixing either project will prompt an uproar. Yet Hogan is intent on appeasing his conservative base by finding ways to sharply reduce mass-transit costs.

He’s playing with political dynamite.

If he sets off a Democratic explosion over the fate of the Red and Purple lines, the resulting fallout could cripple Hogan’s efforts to constructively deal with the General Assembly over the next three years.

Judging from his rejection of supplemental education aid, this governor seems determined to restrict Maryland’s future spending habits at all costs. His goal is to lower taxes. Everything else is secondary.

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Minimalist Legislative Session

By Barry Rascovar

April 15, 2014 — Not much was expected from the 2015 Maryland General Assembly session — and we weren’t disappointed.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Think I’m kidding? Then try this one on for size:

(Fill in the Blank)

“The Maryland legislature’s greatest achievements this past session were _______________________,  ___________________________ and  ______________________________.

I couldn’t complete that sentence.

There was no big-league legislation to crow about when the final gavel sounded sine die Monday night.

If you, too, have trouble coming up with truly significant steps forward by the General Assembly this session, you’re not alone.

It got so bad that when the Baltimore Sun spent 24 column inches on legislative achievements, every section detailed the General Assembly’s failures — not successes — on education, transportation, environment, criminal justice and health. Few accomplishments were even mentioned.

Turnover Hurt

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

High turnover after Assembly districts were re-drawn before last year’s elections meant a large number of freshmen lawmakers spent the 90-day State House gathering learning the ins and outs of lawmaking, how to file their expense accounts, where the bathrooms are located and what it takes in practical terms to get bills enacted.

No wonder this was a minimalist session.

New Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. didn’t help matters. The Republican came into office with zero experience as an elected official, just a handful of campaign promises and no legislative agenda.

The wish list he submitted proved thin and lacking in substance or realism. Few of his bills passed; those that did were given Democratic-friendly face-lifts.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan failed to provide the Maryland legislature with strong guidance or leadership — other than his effort to chop  the size of the state budget. He was a no-show on legislative matters for much of the session.

Uber, Divorces & Midwives

When the most newsworthy votes deal with Uber’s taxi service, granting quicker divorces, allowing midwife home-births, higher speed limits and letting ex-felons vote, it signals that Maryland lawmakers knew they weren’t ready to tackle heavy-duty issues.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Who says every General Assembly session must contain blockbuster legislation? Sometimes it’s nice to know state lawmakers are content to tinker around the edges of state law.

That means taking small steps to clarify existing statutes, modernizing antiquated sections of the Maryland code and giving interest groups incremental adjustments instead of sweeping change.

Who Sets the Agenda?

Legislatures are not designed to provide strong leadership on dominant social issues. Too many people are involved — 181 in Maryland’s case. It’s up to the governor to set the agenda each year. He’s the state’s top elected leader after all.

But Hogan wasn’t prepared to lead so soon after his surprising election last November. Next year, though, should be different.

His challenge will be to assess what practical moves can be made to help grow jobs in Maryland, improve education and transportation, protect the environment and public safety while helping the state’s large underclass.

Then he’s got to find ways to reach out to Democrats in the legislature for support.

Failure to do so could make next year’s session an even bigger disappointment.

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Hogan: Strike One

By Barry Rascovar

April 14, 2015 — In his stubbornly conservative and highly politicized approach to governing Annapolis over the past week, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. took a step that may seal his fate as a one-term governor.

Hogan: Strike One

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Let’s see: In just a few days Hogan managed to alienate and infuriate state workers, public school teachers and education advocates, disability workers, supporters of medical assistance for poor pregnant women and doctors who treat Medicaid patients.

He also left a trail of non-accomplishments.

Hogan’s refusal to follow-through on a final budget accord and instead turn the issue into a political football left Democratic legislators resentful and itching to show they can play hardball, too.

For someone who entered the governor’s mansion as Mr. Nice Guy cooing bipartisanship, Hogan ended his inaugural legislative session as Mr. Tough Guy defiantly declaring great success for what was clearly a disappointing 90-day performance.

Seeds for a Pushback

His flimsy legislative agenda got shredded. He turned victory on the state budget into an easily avoidable defeat.

He sowed the seeds for a strong Democratic pushback that could make Hogan’s legislative life miserable over the next three years.

The Republican governor’s inexperience showed.

He let hard-line ideologues on his staff get their way. Democrats reacted by tying his hands in future years on making budget cuts to education. They blocked him at nearly every turn.

Teacher layoffs that are sure to follow from Hogan’s budget-cutting actions will haunt him. He has awakened a key element of the Democratic Party’s base. Teachers and public school parents in core Democratic jurisdictions will neither forgive nor forget.

Pay Cut Coming

He also made enemies of 80,000 state workers by cutting their paychecks 2 percent, starting in July.

He still has a chance to spend the money set aside by the legislature for those two groups but that would require political accommodations Hogan doesn’t seem willing to make.

The irony is that Hogan had a golden opportunity to negotiate a budget giving him much of what he wanted without enraging large voting groups.

Indeed, Democratic negotiators thought it was a done deal — until Hogan made intentionally unacceptable demands at the last moment.

The new governor showed his naiveté and lack of insight into Maryland’s complex legislative process. His hard-nosed, conservative roots were showing.

His biggest mistake: Failing to accept the divided nature of governance in Maryland. Election as governor does not entitle Republican Hogan to rule the land in an imperial, “I’m the boss” manner.

Democrats firmly control the General Assembly. They are co-rulers. They make the laws, set policy and sit in judgment on the governor’s budget.

Hogan can’t demand obeisance to his legislative wishes. He can’t insist Democrats support a decidedly Republican agenda. Yet that’s what he tried to do in the final week before Monday’s sine die adjournment.

Budget Progress

Picking up the pieces won’t be easy for the governor.

He did, though, take a major step toward truly balancing the state’s budget. Simply by trimming government spending in the next few years, identifying areas where money can be saved without significantly impacting services and keeping expenditures lower than Maryland’s growth rate, Hogan can tame the state’s structural deficit demon.

But don’t expect savings large enough to support major tax cuts. Even if that were to happen, Democrats in Annapolis would write laws that re-direct this surplus in ways more appealing to their constituents in Maryland’s big, Democratic subdivisions.

Hogan gets the next nine months to operate without legislative interference. He’ll have time to assess his next moves and prepare more carefully for the 2016 General Assembly session.

Will he seek to re-build bridges to Democratic lawmakers on issues of mutual concern?

Or will he continue to take the path of political opportunism that makes governing impossibly difficult in the Maryland State House?

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Hogan’s Choice

By Barry Rascovar

April 13, 2015 — Has Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. overplayed his hand? We’ll find out today as the Maryland General Assembly tries to wrap up its 2015 session.

Hogan's Choice on budget compromises

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan has two choices: Continue to play hardball with the Democratic legislature and risk losing all of his legislative priorities, or negotiate a settlement that gives everyone partial victory.

The first choice is really the nuclear option.

Hogan already has dug in his heels a couple of times in budget negotiations by demanding full passage of his partisan agenda that Democrats find unacceptable. Meanwhile, he says he won’t give Democrats what they want on education, Medicare and salary adjustments.

Another Ehrlich?

This “my way or the highway” approach is what punctured former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s balloon and led to four years of bitterness and open warfare between the political parties in Annapolis.

Does Republican Hogan, who was part of the Ehrlich administration, wish to go down that dead-end road again?

He shouldn’t misread the election results. This state remains heavily Democratic, as reflected by the make-up of the General Assembly. For a Republican governor, power-sharing is the only rational road to travel — if you want to make headway on your goals and win reelection.

Today, Hogan must decide if he wants to fight or smoke a peace pipe. It shouldn’t be a difficult call.

Shrinking Budgets

Even if he gives Democrats what they want in the budget, Hogan still has achieved his immediate objective — sharply lowering Maryland’s structural deficit and sending a clear signal that more slimmed-down budgets are coming.

Hogan is in control. But he could lose that advantage if he touches the third rail of Democratic politics in Maryland — aid to education.

A sharp cutback in state education funding for large Democratic subdivisions would be met by howls of protests by parents. It might well lead to teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and bitter anger in those subdivisions.

Why risk hostility that could sabotage cooperation with the Democratic legislature over the next three years and foreclose chances of Hogan gaining Assembly approval of his promised tax cuts?

Negotiating Tactics

So far, the governor has played the budget negotiating game well. He’s kept Democratic leaders off-balance. He’s already moved Democrats in his direction.

Indeed, he made them look foolish on their efforts to strip money from state worker and teacher pension accounts. He’s also won concessions on a handful of bills he wants passed.

If he cuts a deal at this stage and declares victory, Hogan will emerge from the session with incremental successes and few hard feelings on the Democratic side.

That’s not a bad outcome given the fact that most legislative triumphs take more than one session to achieve — and that legislative victories for a Republican governor in Maryland are always difficult.

Of course, compromise won’t please hard-edged  conservative Republicans who will accept nothing less than Democratic capitulation. Hogan would be wise to ignore them and focus on the bigger picture.

He’s got four years to construct a positive list of accomplishments. He’s made a sound start over the past 90 days. He’d be foolish to blow it at this late stage.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.