Maryland's 188 legislators will be sworn in tomorrow at the start of the General Assembly's 435th session, but the most important figure in Annapolis, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, won't join them until his inauguration a week later. This will be the third time in the last four terms that the capital will see a change in the party that controls the governor's mansion — a string of fluctuation Maryland hasn't seen in nearly 50 years — and it comes at a time of unusually high turnover in the legislature. As such, it's hard to predict what the next 90 days will bring. Will the Republican Mr. Hogan enjoy a honeymoon period with the Democratic legislature, or will the two sides jockey for partisan advantage from the start?
Our hope is that this legislative session amounts to something of a feeling out period between the new governor and the General Assembly in which they can establish a productive and sustainable working relationship for the years ahead. That may sound Pollyannaish, given how fiercely the Democratic leaders in the legislature fought with the state's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and how determined they were to deny him a second term.
But Mr. Hogan is not Mr. Ehrlich — indeed, he professes to have learned some important lessons from his former boss' struggles — and the Democrats don't have an obvious challenger waiting in the wings, as they did eight years ago in the form of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. (Or an able second option, as they did in then-Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.) And divided government works in other states. New Jersey's Democratic legislature has a decent relationship with Gov. Chris Christie, and five of the last six governors of liberal Massachusetts have been Republicans, with no obvious ill effect on the Bay State.
Maryland has just come off an extremely consequential eight years under Gov. O'Malley. We have witnessed major policy changes on taxes, spending, the environment, criminal justice, energy, social issues, gambling, education and more. There are plenty of progressive interest groups pushing for the legislature to keep up the trend, the results of the election notwithstanding. And Mr. Hogan is no doubt also feeling pressure from conservative groups to roll back as much of the O'Malley legacy as possible.
We would argue for moderation on both sides. Maryland's current budget troubles will force some important debates that could set the tone for the next four years. The election of an outsider as governor affords the possibility that some long-needed reforms can finally be enacted. And some recent developments in the state will demand a response. But beyond that, we recommend that both the governor and General Assembly approach major policy choices with some caution.
Governor O'Malley's actions this month to restore balance to the current year's budget leave Mr. Hogan with about a $750 million gap between the state's anticipated revenues and spending for the next fiscal year. That's a significant challenge, to be sure, but not an unprecedented one. In fact, Gov. Ehrlich had it much worse when he took office, and although Mr. O'Malley inherited a large cash cushion to help in his first year, he faced bigger anticipated holes later in his first term, and much bigger ones in his second as a result of the Great Recession. The governor and legislature have come into the annual session facing shortfalls of this magnitude or greater more often than not in recent years, and the path to passing a budget that meets the legal requirements of balance without completely solving the state's underlying fiscal problems is by now well worn.
But Governor-elect Hogan faces a more difficult challenge, both because of circumstances and his own choices. Some of the tactics Governor O'Malley and the legislature employed are, as a practical matter, no longer available. Thanks to a constitutional amendment voters approved, Mr. Hogan cannot so easily borrow money from the state's Transportation Trust Fund to balance the operating budget. And Mr. O'Malley's strategy of borrowing open space funds and filling the resulting hole with capital borrowing has far outlived its usefulness, as it has contributed to a burgeoning debt load for the state.
Moreover, Mr. Hogan has set the laudable goal of balancing the budget without tricks, and the questionable one of including tax cuts in his first year's agenda. Just because lawmakers can paper over the annual budget gaps doesn't mean they should. The state is in need of a difficult discussion about what it can sustainably afford so that all those who depend on state services can plan based on realistic assumptions. Seeking to place the budget in permanent structural balance through cuts to discretionary spending alone is simply not feasible. Instead, the governor and lawmakers need to recalibrate the formulas that drive the vast majority of state spending.
We understand Mr. Hogan's reason for including tax cuts in his initial agenda. He campaigned on the issue, and he no doubt wants to keep faith with his supporters. But he never promised to slash taxes overnight, instead saying that he would seek reductions only after identifying spending cuts to compensate for them. Given that he is coming into office with a larger than expected budget gap to fill, and at a time when Maryland's economy appears to be growing more slowly than that of the nation thanks to federal government cutbacks, now is not the time for him to suddenly become reckless.
There's another reason to take a deliberate approach to tax policy. A business competitiveness work group convened by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is finalizing its recommendations now and is expected to address the impact of Maryland's tax structure on its economic climate. The backing of that effort by the two top Democratic leaders in the General Assembly suggests the possibility of a broader reform that makes Maryland a more attractive place to do business while at the same time ensuring that poor and moderate-income residents don't bear a disproportionate burden for financing state spending. That kind of reform would take time, but it would have the potential to be much more beneficial than some quick tax cuts to fulfill a campaign pledge.
If you had to pick the progressive constituency that's most nervous about Mr. Hogan, it's probably the environmentalists. On the whole, they had a good eight years under Governor O'Malley, who built on Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth legacy and on Governor Ehrlich's landmark effort to upgrade wastewater treatment plants. Mr. Hogan has repeatedly vowed to repeal Maryland's stormwater management fee, commonly known as the "rain tax." When pressed, he has said his reasoning is not that he disagrees with the need to mitigate the flow of polluted stormwater into the Chesapeake Bay but that he has concerns about the way the state required some counties but not others to impose the fee. If Mr. Hogan has a fairer, more equitable idea for funding the stormwater mitigation projects Maryland needs to comply with Environmental Protection Agency pollution mandates, we're all ears. But we hope lawmakers will resist any attempt to weaken the state's commitment to cleaning up the bay.
Likewise, Mr. Hogan may try to undo new phosphorous management rules the O'Malley administration recently advanced after years of delays. That would be a mistake; existing efforts to control the excess application of that nutrient to farm fields are clearly inadequate. Mr. Hogan will also make the final decisions on whether or how the state moves forward with allowing hydraulic fracturing — better known as "fracking" — for natural gas in Western Maryland. The O'Malley administration gave its blessing to fracking, under strict but as yet undetermined regulations, and it's all but inconceivable that Mr. Hogan will reverse that decision. We hope that he and the legislators who will be tasked with reviewing his administration's regulations of the industry are mindful of just how dependent Western Maryland is on its pristine environment for tourism. The state cannot afford to make mistakes here.
Mr. Hogan says he wants to strengthen Maryland's charter school law, which is among the most restrictive in the nation. We hope the legislature will work with him to release the stranglehold local boards of education have on the process for granting charters, which has made them rare everywhere but Baltimore City. And we hope he and lawmakers can find a way to provide charters with some additional flexibility from the regulations traditional schools must follow so that they can have more room to experiment with new models of education.
However, the legislature should resist if Mr. Hogan follows through on his campaign pledge to "hit the pause button" on the implementation of new curriculum and tests tied to the Common Core educational standards. The roll-out of Common Core was admittedly rocky in some jurisdictions, but the fault lies not in the Common Core itself, which is a national movement to increase the rigor of K-12 education to better prepare students for college and careers. Students, parents and teachers need time to adjust, and the state's implementation plan calls for just that. It will be years still before exams tied to the Common Core have consequences for teachers' performance evaluations, for example. Backtracking now would be a mistake.
Paid sick leave
A broad coalition of progressive groups is renewing its push to require that Maryland companies with 10 or more employees allow workers to earn paid sick leave. They make some compelling arguments for the notion that employees should not feel economic pressure to show up for work when they're sick — particularly since one sector of the economy in which that benefit is rare is food service, giving the proposal significant public health implications. However, there is little data on how such a policy works on a state-wide level, and we would like to see more evidence of its economic impact before it is adopted here.
Police discipline reforms
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is joining a push by the American Civil Liberties Union and others to reform Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers bill of Rights, a 40-year-old law that is among the most restrictive of its kind in the nation. The law constrains police departments' ability to investigate and discipline officers accused of misconduct, an issue that has come to a head in recent months here and nationally amid an outcry over the improper use of force by officers in several high-profile cases. It needs to be reformed in a way that provides police chiefs with more authority to weed out bad cops and provides the public with greater transparency about the disciplinary process.
Good government reforms
Mr. Hogan promised to reform Maryland's redistricting process, which effectively places complete control over the redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines after each census in the hands of the governor. That has led to some of the most gerrymandered congressional district lines in the nation; legislative lines are somewhat better, thanks to the requirements of the state constitution, but they are still routinely drawn with partisanship in mind. Mr. Hogan should join with progressives in the legislature to take the politics out of the process in as much as possible. He should also work to improve Maryland's overly restrictive Public Information Act to grant citizens better insight into how government works.