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Assembly session ends in acrimony over budget

Senate President, Mike Miller, declares Sine Die at midnight.

A legislative session that began with pledges of bipartisanship ended Monday night with General Assembly Democrats and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan embroiled in acrimony over Maryland's budget.

Lawmakers cut $200 million from the new governor's $40.5 billion budget proposal and implored him to spend that money instead on public schools, state employee pay and health care initiatives.

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Hogan said that "was very unlikely."

He told reporters Monday evening he was elected to deliver tax relief and fiscal responsibility, and said the Democrat-controlled legislature did not go far enough to trim long-term spending.

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Voters "demanded change in Annapolis," he said. "That's what I'm here for."

The new governor took office in January promising to curb state spending and deliver tax cuts, but Democrats questioned whether trimming popular programs such as aid to education would please state taxpayers.

"No one said in November, 'Don't fund education, don't fund health care. And take services away from the most vulnerable Marylanders,'" said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "It will take a long time to build bipartisan support in the future."

A group of education advocates followed Hogan from the State House to the governor's mansion Monday evening, heckling him with a chant that riffed off the governor's "Change Maryland" campaign slogan. "Don't shortchange Maryland!" they shouted.

In a retaliation for Hogan's comments Monday, the legislature passed in the waning minutes a law stripping the governor of the discretion to limit some education funding a year from now. Hogan said he would consider vetoing that bill, and early Tuesday morning declared the legislative session a "success."

"We feel really good," Hogan said. "We didn't get everything we wanted, they're not going to get everything they wanted, but overall it was a strong session. I think it's good for the taxpayers of Maryland."

The 435th session of the General Assembly featured not only the first divided government in eight years, but also the largest freshman class in more than two decades. The Assembly passed a first-of-its-kind ban on fracking, a law to grant quicker divorces, the first major rewrite of public records laws in 45 years and provisions to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

Hogan had asked the legislature for tax relief for small business owners, retired first responders and military retirees. He also wanted legislation to encourage more charter schools, repeal mandatory fees he derided as "the rain tax," and give businesses a new tax credit for donating to private schools.

Lawmakers responded by giving him a minor tax break for military retirees and a "rain tax" repeal that increased reporting for local governments. Delegates approved a watered-down version of the charter school law late Monday night. Hogan had described the latter as "probably better than having nothing."

The 90-day marathon of lawmaking and politicking saw the Assembly send more than 600 bills to the governor's desk for his possible signature. But the session ended at midnight Monday with a far different tone than the optimistic promises of collaboration that punctuated the pomp of its early days.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the deteroriating atmosphere was driven in part by politics, partly by substantive policy differences and by "some petulance."

Miller said "there was blame on both sides," and noted that the House leadership didn't read one of Hogan's proposals across the desk — a breach of protocol widely regarded as a snub.

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"The only thing now is to have him understand what has happened," Miller said. :He's a first year governor. He's only been in office a few months, he's never held public office before. And we want to work with him."

The budget had been given initial, overwhelmingly bipartisan approval last month with yes votes from all but 10 of the legislature's 188 members. On Monday it was pushed into law without a single Republican vote. A Senate debate over long-term education spending devolved into fingerpointing over who was to blame for the rift.

"We get to the 11th hour, and the governor just can't take yes for an answer," Sen. James Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat, said. "The governor said ... 'My way or the highway' and brought the partisan spirit of Washington to Annapolis."

Republicans said the legislature wasn't granting the governor the respect given his Democratic predecessors, and that Hogan was not being radical in refusing to spend $200 million.

"It's not the money," Sen. Justin Ready of Carroll County said. "It's the principle."

Hogan said the $200 million would be better saved, and took credit for taming budget growth and preventing any tax increases. "We think it's a pretty good deal for the taxpayers," Hogan said. "We think it's a win."

Education leaders in some of the 13 counties that had hoped to share the extra education money — including several that Hogan carried in his upset election victory — cautioned that Hogan's budget choices could trigger layoffs.

Carroll County schools Superintendent Steve Guthrie said the lost money would "translate into a reduction of 50 teaching positions and make it difficult for us to fund our negotiated agreement" with unions. Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said the school system would forgo repairs at three high schools: Dulaney, Patapsco and Lansdowne.

The political chasm dividing the governor and legislative leaders represented just a half of one percent of state spending, but signified a major disagreement in priorities.

Democrats wanted $68 million more for K-12 education and another $68 million to stave off a 2 percent pay cut for state employees in July. A pool of $64 million they hoped would pay for health care-related initiatives, including paying more to mental health providers and people who work with the disability community, treating heroin addiction, and providing health care for some poor pregnant women.

Hogan wanted to use $75 million of that money as an extra contribution to the state pension system, contending that to do otherwise would be fiscally irresponsible. He suggested divvying up the rest between schools and healthcare. And the governor had proposed a series of long-term spending caps to education, disability workers, community colleges and other initiatives that the legislature rejected.

The charges about the pension irked the legislature's fiscal leaders, whom the administration had congratulated for their work only a few weeks ago.

"We thought we produced a budget that the governor was also proud of, only to find out in the wee hours of the session that he does not," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and House Appropriations chairman.

Conservative groups praised the tenor of the session in its closing days, while liberal activists were dismayed.

"Because of the governor's leadership, small business has a security about knowing we didn't have to an increase in taxes," said Jessica Cooper, Maryland executive director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

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"We're seeing the two faces of Larry Hogan – the campaign side and the governing side. The election of 2014 is over and we expect him to govern now," said Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland Working Families.

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