Hogan's softer road

Why is Larry Hogan killing a handful of bills as softly as possible?

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan essentially wrapped up the 2015 legislative calendar by deciding the fate of some of the more controversial bills passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. While one can debate the merits of some of his individual choices — whether to veto, sign or embrace the tepid middle ground of allowing measures to become law without his signature — a pattern emerges, not only in his choices but in the language he used to describe them.

This is a governor who is not interested in picking fights, in provoking opponents or for expending political energies on matters about which he has limited interest. When it comes to things he cares about, he's more than willing to fight, sometimes unwisely. But on most everything else, Mr. Hogan's predilection is to sidestep.

In vetoing legislation that would have granted voting rights to ex-inmates on their release from prison rather than upon completion of parole or probation as is provided under current law, Governor Hogan announced he saw a "proper balance" in waiting until an individual's debt to society was fully repaid before returning to him the right to vote. He offered no rants against the bill's Democratic sponsors for seeking to bolster their numbers at the polls.

Similarly, in his veto of the hotel tax bill — legislation that would have required hotel rooms purchased through Internet intermediaries like Travelocity to be subject to sales tax based on the customer's purchase price and not the vendor's cost — he did not deride the bill as an effort to raise taxes, as the measure's opponents claimed. Instead, he said such legislation is "premature" because the issue remains a matter of interpretation of existing law that Comptroller Peter Franchot is pursuing in the courts.

Coming from a politician who made lowering taxes or at least blocking further tax increases the centerpiece of his campaign for office, it's an exceptionally restrained approach (and perhaps yet another indication of the importance he places on his alliance with Mr. Franchot, his crucial second vote on the Board of Public Works).

Mr. Hogan threaded the needle on hot-button social issues as well. He vetoed the bill to decriminalize marijuana paraphernalia not because he objected to its intent but because (he claimed) of an unintended consequence that police wouldn't be able to arrest someone for smoking pot while driving. On a policy level, that doesn't make much sense — the ACLU and others say police would still have the tools they need to stop people from getting high while they drive. But politically, it keeps the Republican governor looking simultaneously tough on drugs and in line with a shift in societal attitudes about marijuana. Similarly, his decision last week to allow LGBT anti-discrimination bills to become law but without his signature allowed him to follow the will of a majority of Marylanders who favor equal rights for all while not closely associating himself with a cause rarely favored by his party's influential right wing.

What's notable in Mr. Hogan's unruffled posture is not his choice to stay away from the errors of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and hew a more flexible line — a style he promised the day he was sworn into office — but that he hasn't employed it more broadly. His recent choice to withhold $68 million in school aid funds from Baltimore and other subdivisions in Fiscal 2016 while failing to veto legislation that will force him and his successors to appropriate those same dollars in future years remains a bit of a head-scratcher. As was his choice to pick a fight with House Speaker Michael E. Busch by withholding funds from the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, a moment of pettiness that would seem to accomplish little.

There are times when Mr. Hogan seems thoughtful and disciplined, as when he held his tongue (for the most part) during the protests over the death of Freddie Gray or softened his position on the "rain tax repeal" during the legislative session without his supporters seeming to notice. But then there are moments in which he seems unaware of his authority and its limits — such as his claim that education money could be used to bolster the state pension system or his hastily-adopted toll reduction scheme that includes eliminating the fee for E-ZPass users but only for those who are state residents, a distinction likely to prove unconstitutional.

Affable but inexperienced, tax-averse but not above allowing tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities to rise, pro-business but also willing to accept tougher regulations when they are strongly supported, Mr. Hogan may prove to be the nation's most pragmatic Republican governor, or at least its least predictable. But the one thing that's certain is that he's no ideologue — and that makes him a far greater threat to Democratic hegemony in Annapolis than Mr. Ehrlich ever was.

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