There’s something awfully peculiar when a governor vetoes legislation that passed the General Assembly with just a handful of dissenting votes, as did the bill to provide more transparency in emergency procurements. And when he announces he’s allowing more than 400 bills to become law without his signature — including such benign measures as the establishment of a task force on oral health, which passed the legislature with just one dissenting vote among 188 lawmakers — it only seems stranger. But this has become the new norm under Gov. Larry Hogan, who appears to be more concerned about keeping up Republican appearances for a potential run for higher office than in serious and engaged governance of his own state.
Last Friday produced an avalanche of 19 vetoes. And that was on top of four bills he vetoed Wednesday and many others he nixed during the 90-day legislative session. Some of the vetoes are surely on brand — such as his opposition to legislation requiring local governments to stop housing Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees — but many others seem to be more about appearances. Specifically, about wanting to look like Horatius at the bridge fending off the liberal Democratic horde. And that suspicion is surely reinforced by the governor’s own veto messages which, to put it mildly, stretch the truth about the bills in question.
Take, for example, his veto of the Local Tax Relief for Working Families Act (Senate Bill 133/House Bill 319). In reality, the measure was fairly simple. It gave local governments the right to set income tax rates on a sliding scale instead of a flat tax. This is known as a bracketing, and it means a person making a million dollars a year might face a slightly higher tax rate than a family pulling in a five-figure income. And here’s something else to keep in mind: It would not have raised the maximum local tax rate. Local governments could still charge no more than 3.2% (and half of them already do). That’s one reason why we urged the governor to sign the bill when it was approved weeks ago.
But to read Mr. Hogan’s veto message, one would think he had just spared Maryland taxpayers from a post-pandemic recovery roadblock. The legislation “masquerades as tax relief,” he writes, “when in reality there is no requirement for counties that implement a bracketed tax system to actually cut taxes.” That’s true, but they don’t have to cut taxes now. This would have given them the tools to do so. If anything, the veto makes tax relief less likely, at least until the General Assembly returns in January and overrides the veto. Counties don’t have the authority to reduce taxes unless they give millionaires and working class families the exact same treatment, which makes tax cuts more costly and less fair.
Mr. Hogan has always had an uneasy relationship with the legislature, and he’s long had a tendency to fudge the truth about fiscal matters, having run for his first term crusading against a “rain tax” that was nothing of the kind. But for a politician who was so openly critical of Donald Trump, he’s got more than a few qualities in common with him. And that’s probably not an accident. The governor has demonstrated an interest in the 2024 presidential race, but he knows he has to sharpen his Republican credentials if he’s to survive his party primaries. Coming from Maryland, a state with left-of-center tendencies, would seem a drawback in a party now dominated by the far right — unless you spin the narrative of the lonely, principled, battle-weary warrior. But that requires evidence of a war that vetoes, and perhaps even unsigned bills (as legally meaningless as they are), can provide.
The hitch is that the vetoes mean some very fine measures are now kept off the books — for a year or more — because of the political needs of a lame-duck governor who recently described himself to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt as a goalie “out there stopping bad things.” His opposition to procurement transparency or even legislation mandating local and state planning for the next pandemic may well stem more from how such reforms might validate criticism of his own stewardship of the crisis than his alleged concerns about cost or red tape. Yet the net result is that Maryland will be less prepared for the kind of health crisis that a COVID-19 variant might yet offer.
Perhaps his motives are ultimately immaterial. His vetoes of an expansion of collective bargaining rights, of greater investment in transit or of taking the governor out of parole decisions (as most states do) were more like business as usual for a governor uninterested in better pay, help for Baltimore’s distressed neighborhoods without access to jobs or doing something serious about long-standing racial inequities in the state’s prison population. That hardly makes them much better. Marylanders will still suffer the same.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.