Republican Gov. Larry Hogan marked the start of a $22.8 million construction project to relieve traffic congestion in Annapolis on Wednesday, but he didn’t invite House Speaker Michael E. Busch to the event in Busch’s home district.
It was at least the third time in the past year that Hogan, who has frequently boasted of a bipartisan approach to governing, has not invited Democratic lawmakers to announcements of transportation projects in their counties.
Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College political scientist who has been supportive of Hogan, questioned the governor’s political judgment.
“You maximize the political effect of that by inviting the speaker to be there,” Eberly said. “In many respects it betrays the image that Hogan has cultivated.”
Joined by an all-Republican group of elected officials including Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, the governor announced that the long-planned project to add an eastbound traffic lane to the Severn River Bridge would begin next week. The bridge on U.S. 50 has long been a choke point for Annapolis commuters and weekend travelers to the Eastern Shore.
Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and longtime proponent of the project, was not there. Aides said he had not received an invitation from the governor’s office.
Hogan said the announcement was a public event and that any member of the General Assembly could have dropped by.
“I didn’t know the speaker was up and well enough to attend public events, though he certainly would have been welcome,” Hogan said.
The governor was referring to Busch’s liver transplant in June. The speaker spent more than two months recovering at home but has been coming to the office in recent weeks.
Hogan said that in deciding whom to invite, “we really focused on people who support the project and helped make it happen.” He pointed to Busch and other elected Anne Arundel Democrats voting for a 2016 bill he said would have forced the cancellation of the Severn River Bridge lane addition and other highway projects.
Democrats have consistently insisted that Hogan has distorted the implications of the bill, which required the Maryland Department of Transportation to develop a scoring system for major projects. They point to language in the bill that would have given the administration authority to fund a lower-scored project over higher-rated ones as long as it provided a written explanation.
Hogan and General Assembly leaders reached a compromise this year on legislation delaying the implementation of the scoring system until after the 2018 election.
Busch said he isn’t disturbed by the lack of an invitation to Wednesday’s announcement and is happy to see construction start.
“I don’t have to be there,” he said. “My constituents and the citizens of this area know I’ve been an advocate of this project.”
The speaker pointed out that the project was first funded in 2013, shortly after he helped then-Gov. Martin O’Malley pass a gas tax increase that has helped fund Hogan’s ambitious road-building plans. Busch said O’Malley, a Democrat, put that project in the state transportation plan at his request.
Not inviting Democrats to road project announcements is part of a “pattern and practice” that reflects poorly on a governor who claims he wants to work across the aisle, Busch said.
The speaker pointed to Hogan’s decision to exclude Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County, from a November announcement of plans to replace the nearly 80-year-old Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River in Southern Maryland.
Middleton, who had championed that project for more than a decade, said the governor’s office asked him to leave when he showed up. The senator had won passage of a bill, which Hogan vetoed but was up for an override vote, that would have required the governor to move forward with a roughly $1 billion bridge replacement project the administration had resisted.
The senator said he’s happy the bridge is on track and has since met with Hogan to “bury the hatchet.” But he said there’s “a better way’ of handling such disagreements.
“You’re a bigger person when you put aside the petty stuff and try to bring people together,” Middleton said. He pointed to the July groundbreaking of a new Watkins Mill interchange on Interstate 270.
That project, an important goal for lawmakers from northern Montgomery County, was added to the state’s plans after Democratic legislators from the area pressured the administration. The lawmakers said they were not invited to the groundbreaking.
Democratic lawmakers, however, said Hogan did invite them to Monday's groundbreaking of the Purple Line project.
Del. Kumar Barve, who chairs the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said Hogan’s approach contrasts with that of the last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
When Ehrlich fought to build the Intercounty Connector, he “would reach out to all of us,” Barve said.
He said it reflects well on a governor to have people from the opposing party at his public events.
“It’s good politics to do it that way,” he said. “That’s why I feel a little puzzled about stuff like this.”
Hogan's approach also differs from that taken by his Democratic predecessor when he announced plans to move forward with the replacement of the more than 80-year-old Dover Bridge on the Eastern Shore in 2013, shortly after winning passage of the gas tax increase.
O'Malley invited elected officials of both parties to the announcement, including Republican legislators who had voted against the increase that helped fund the project just months before.
O’Malley was repaid with lavish praise from a GOP senator who was one of the speakers.
“He is not doing it for any political reasons,” said then-Sen. Richard Colburn. “Governor O’Malley is appropriating money for these projects on the Eastern Shore because he knows it’s the right thing to do.”
Eberly said a governor takes a risk when inviting a lawmaker of another party that the legislator could try to upstage or embarrass the chief executive. But he added that Hogan could have safely taken the chance.
“I don't think Mac Middleton or Mike Busch would fit that bill,” Eberly said.