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Hogan and Maryland lawmakers might not get along, but they're working

Hogan and Maryland lawmakers might not get along, but they're working
Gov. Larry Hogan holds a press conference in the Governor's Reception Room in the State House on March 8. (Baltimore Sun)

The list of partisan slights and political spats in Annapolis has been endless. Suggestions of racism. Sarcastic Twitter hashtags. Public shamings on the floor of the House and Senate. And one inflammatory news conference after another to demand action.

Yet with three weeks remaining in the General Assembly's annual session, the majority of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's agenda is winning approval from the Democratic-dominated legislature.

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"It's not about him — as controversial as he can be," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "It's about our constituency."

Of the 17 bills introduced by Hogan, lawmakers have advanced or passed seven. And bills that capture the concept behind another three are progressing under the names of other authors.

Those measures are expected to give law enforcement officers raises and help people with student debt buy homes, among other things.

In some cases, lawmakers approving those bills say they didn't know whether they were moving versions written by the governor or by one of their colleagues.

"I honestly don't know whose name is on that bill," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who is vice chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee. "We deal with content."

That's fine with Hogan, his spokesman said.

"He doesn't care if his name is on the bill, not at all," Matthew A. Clark said. "He cares about good policy."

The high-profile bickering — over building a jail in Baltimore or a hospital in Prince George's County, over whether the governor communicates enough or lawmakers work hard enough — has masked the less entertaining business of passing laws in Annapolis.

The governor's budget is awaiting House consideration after being lightly revised and unanimously approved by the Senate, and the legislature has moved forward on Hogan proposals to give state police and corrections officers raises, increase funding for the Maryland State Arts Council and to help some people with student debt roll it into certain mortgages. They also agreed to enhance funding for open spaces and to reduce a series of fees, including for birth and death certificates.

In most cases, however, the governor's proposals are not moving exactly as he envisioned them. Lawmakers in the House of Delegates, for instance, added $14.5 million to the open-space bill to give a boost to Baltimore city parks. Although they moved forward with his plan that would have reduced dozens of fees, there were many other fees that lawmakers were unwilling to reduce.

Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, said that's because the governor picked fees for reduction based on which of his predecessors raised them.

"There is no rhyme or reason to the fee bill, other than to say 'Martin O'Malley raised it and I'm lowering it,' because any fee Bob Ehrlich raised, he could care less about," said Madaleno, vice chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

"It's not about achieving some sort of public purpose," Madaleno said. "It's all about achieving a political purpose. And it should not come as a surprise that, as fellow politicians, we can see through that."

Republicans say that the popular governor can claim victory regardless of whether his bills pass.

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"If they don't want to pass fee reductions, in some ways, Hogan is a winner," said Republican House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore County lawmaker who is running for the U.S. Senate. "He can go back to the public and say, 'I fought like a tiger.'"

Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the governor would benefit even if his proposals failed.

"It pits him versus the legislature," Cluster said. "If they want to be the ones looking like obstructionists, I'm sure that won't help them politically. Especially against a governor with a 70 percent approval rating."

Politicians on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the political fracas is necessary, and some argue it has been effective.

Hogan promised to spend millions demolishing vacant homes in Baltimore, but sent down a budget that did not include the money for it. Likewise, he publicly supported building a hospital in Prince George's County but did not initially include the money to build it.

In both cases, lawmakers complained publicly until the governor sent down supplemental budgets that included the money. And in both cases, lawmakers also advanced bills to require the governor to spend money on those projects in the future.

"A high-profile fight is to point out and draw attention to the deficiencies," said Democratic Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore City's House delegation. "He's responded to that. … And maybe in the future he can be less dramatic."

Some of Hogan's top priorities appear unlikely to get out of committee. His plans to grant tax cuts to retirees, limit spending mandates, give scholarships to students who graduate early and revamp how the state draws congressional lines have not advanced, and key lawmakers and aides said they do not expect them to.

Neither will a bill to grant a 10-year tax exemption to manufacturing companies that move here.

"It's a fine idea, but we want to help the businesses who are already here," said Del. Frank Turner, a Howard County Democrat and vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

Even so, Clark said, Hogan deserves credit for changing the conversation in Annapolis, and pointed to the package of tax relief — developed by Democrats — that will advance to the Senate floor this week.

The administration bills that have advanced, several lawmakers said, did so in part because legislators liked the policy or because it mirrored something Democrats were already working on.

One committee voted against Hogan's plan to reduce a business filing fee by $200, in large part because the governor's team did not lobby very hard to pass it.

"They're no different than any other lobbyist," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, which killed the bill.

"You have to come and work your bills. You have to bug the chairman. You have to go to each and every member. You have to make your pitch, ask, 'Can I have your vote?'" said Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who has served in the legislature for 21 years. "Bills aren't just going to just pass because you propose it. You've got to work it.

"Somebody's got to get off their ass and work. You've got to push your ideas."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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