Governor Larry Hogan and Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch opened up the 2017 Maryland General Assembly. (Ulysses Muñoz / BSMG)
The General Assembly convened yesterday for the third legislative session of Gov. Larry Hogan's term, and the Republican appears to be coming armed with fiendishly clever strategy for driving the Democrats who dominate the House and Senate crazy: Act like one of them.
•Reviving an O'Malley-era program, Mr. Hogan proposed funding to train workers in green-energy jobs. He wants to create a Green Energy Institute in partnership with the University of Maryland Energy Research Center to foster investment in clean energy, and he wants to expand the state tax credit for electric cars.
•Again following an O'Malley-era policy, Mr. Hogan said he will allocate extra funds to hold tuition increases at public universities to no more than 2 percent next year, and jumping on an issue that was of central importance in the Democratic presidential primaries, he proposed helping those with student loans by making interest payments deductible on state income tax returns for most taxpayers.
•Standing next to Mayor Catherine Pugh at a community center in an East Baltimore public housing complex, Mr. Hogan proposed tax breaks for manufacturers who set up shop or grow in Baltimore and other areas of high unemployment.
•The Hogan administration secured a waiver from the federal government's usual rules to allow those leaving prison to be presumed eligible for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor that Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Trump administration have sought to eviscerate. The new rules will also allow Medicaid to pay for some inpatient drug treatment and better funding for at-risk pregnant women and newborns.
On most of those things, Democrats offer a response of "Yeah, but ..." Yeah, Mr. Hogan is offering a paid sick leave proposal, but it wouldn't cover as many people as the one that nearly passed the legislature last year. Yeah, Mr. Hogan is putting money in green energy programs, but he vetoed a bill last year that would have raised the percentage of Maryland's energy portfolio that must come from renewable sources like solar. Yeah, Mr. Hogan is proposing manufacturing tax incentives, but he didn't work very hard to get a similar bill passed last year, and he hasn't been talking to the Democrats who are building coalitions around legislation to do the same thing. (There isn't really a "yeah, but" on the Medicaid policy; pretty much everyone is happy about that one.)
More broadly, Democrats accuse Mr. Hogan of governing by press release — that is, making splashy announcements that sound better than they are and don't amount to anything because he doesn't follow up. Mr. Hogan may say he wants to work in a bipartisan manner, Democrats say, but he doesn't actually talk to members of the other party to find common ground. Mr. Hogan may say, as he did this morning, "I'm not going to play ... politics," but he goes around complaining about what he misleadingly calls the "road kill bill," legislation that ties his hands in no meaningful way, much as he campaigned three years ago on trumped-up outrage over the "rain tax."
There's truth in all of that. It's also true, despite Mr. Hogan's protests during the annual Annapolis Summit hosted by "The Marc Steiner Show" and The Daily Record yesterday morning, that he's no innocent when it comes to "coming out with any claws." His rhetoric and that of his administration can be plenty sharp, and he can be plenty partisan — for example, when Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, who has for years worked to secure the replacement of the Harry W. Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland, was shut out of Mr. Hogan's announcement of funding for the project. A Hogan spokesman suggested that was retaliation for Mr. Middleton's attempt to force the issue through legislation at a time when the administration opposed it. That doesn't really seem to fit with Mr. Hogan's pledge yesterday in speeches to both the House and Senate that he would seek to "disagree without being disagreeable."
But talk of bipartisanship, saying he doesn't "care which side of the aisle the ideas come from," and denying that he's focused on a re-election run in 2018 sounds great to voters outside the State House bubble. Democrats are making noises about closing ranks to stop Mr. Hogan's re-election — "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," House Speaker Michael E. Busch told Democrats at their annual pre-session luncheon Tuesday. That strategy worked last time there was a Republican governor. Passing veto-bait legislation that was popular with Democratic voters hastened Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s defeat 11 years ago, but Mr. Hogan's agenda and rhetoric suggest he won't fall for that trick again. Democrats can all put on their blue jerseys this legislative session, but it looks like they're going to need to draw up some new plays.