We doubt Gov. Larry Hogan intended to make Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's head explode with his State of the State speech last week, but it might wind up working out for him politically, if not for the people of the state substantively. The governor's address was heavy on recycled bromides from his stump speech and not equal to the occasion, but it looks downright statesmanlike in comparison to the ensuing petulant overreaction from the Senate president and his loyal lieutenants. Nonetheless, it may have given Democrats an excuse to kill legislation they didn't like anyway.
On Friday, the Senate delayed confirmation votes for the first five of Mr. Hogan's cabinet secretary nominees to come before it, and senators were not at all subtle about the connection between that decision and the State of the State speech. The contrast with Mr. Miller's attitude on the opening day of the legislative session, when he predicted before even holding any hearings that all of Mr. Hogan's nominees would be confirmed, is not flattering. It suggests that the Senate's role to advise and consent is a function of the Senate president's mood and not the quality of the nominees.
We would not necessarily make too much of this chain-rattling by Mr. Miller. A delay in confirmation votes is petty, but it may well end up being fairly inconsequential. Mr. Miller had been unusually positive about Mr. Hogan in the lead-up to and opening days of this General Assembly session, and some in the State House are theorizing that this amounts to a recalibration to account for discontent among the progressive and black caucuses about his support for the state's new Republican governor.
Even before last week's speech, Mr. Miller was creating some space between himself and Mr. Hogan by saying lawmakers would need to work to restore some of the governor's cuts to education funding formulas. At the time, he exhorted his caucus to "do this with smiles on our faces." It would be entirely conceivable that after Mr. Hogan asked for a fence-mending meeting Sunday, things will settle down again.
Nonetheless, Mr. Miller's overreaction, however short-lived it may be, gives Mr. Hogan a boost back onto the political high ground. There are, however, a few pitfalls he needs to watch out for.
After the State of the State, both Mr. Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said they did not expect most of Mr. Hogan's agenda to pass. That may well have been the case regardless of what Mr. Hogan said in his address — tax breaks were always going to be a tough sell (and rightly so) at a time when aid to education and Medicaid coverage for low-income pregnant women were on the chopping block. But the governor needs to be concerned about whether a general climate of acrimony gives Democratic leaders an excuse to kill bills he might otherwise have embarrassed them into supporting, such as redistricting reform, replenishing the fund that provided public financing for Mr. Hogan's gubernatorial campaign, and a strengthening of Maryland's charter school law.
The governor also needs to be mindful that in his effort to mollify Mr. Miller he doesn't ignore the other key player in Annapolis: Mr. Busch. It was a blunder for Mr. Hogan's administration to release a statement last week affirming the governor's "utmost respect" for Mr. Miller but failing altogether to mention Mr. Busch. Governor Hogan has requested a meeting with the speaker, too, so perhaps he can make amends.
During the Ehrlich administration, Mr. Busch was mainly known for stopping the push from the governor and Senate president to legalize slot machines. But Mr. Hogan may now find the greater danger is not that Mr. Busch will reprise the role of Dr. No but that he will start saying yes to legislation that puts the governor in a bind.
The last few years have seen something of a reversal of the historical relationship between the House and the Senate. Instead of being the saucer that cools the passions of the House (as George Washington supposedly described the function of the U.S. Senate), Maryland's Senate has in recent years become the starting point for progressive legislation with the House operating as the skeptic. That was the case with marriage equality, in-state tuition for immigrants without legal status and marijuana decriminalization, among other issues, during the last four years. Mr. Busch could be the one who decides, for example, whether mandatory paid sick leave — an issue broadly popular with voters but deeply unpopular with Mr. Hogan's base — lands on the governor's desk.
Some tension is inevitable when Maryland elects a Republican governor, but Mr. Hogan's best chance to enact his agenda (and get re-elected) is to ensure that the public sees him as a reasonable, honest broker in the partisan dynamic. Mr. Miller's overplaying of his hand helped erase Mr. Hogan's minor State-of-the-State stumble, but the governor still needs to carefully consider the lessons of the last week. This was just the first minor bump of what could be a very long four years.