Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan gives his State of the State address to the combined House and Senate in Annapolis. (Video by Joshua McKerrow)
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan struck a conciliatory tone Wednesday as he delivered his second State of the State address to a General Assembly dominated by Democrats.
Hogan described the past year as one of compromise and joint accomplishments — a characterization Democrats later questioned and Republicans embraced.
The governor tried to enlist the legislature to help him push an agenda of small tax cuts and limited spending, which he described as reflecting the state's "middle temperament."
"In the days ahead, I extend my hand to you — in cooperation and in devotion to our duty — and I ask each of you, and all Marylanders, to seek that middle ground where we can all stand together," Hogan said.
The speech stands in contrast to his remarks last year, which criticized what he saw as the state's failings under Democratic leadership. That address was widely panned by Democrats as divisive, and Hogan mentioned it Wednesday as he offered an olive branch.
"As you may know by now, I'm a man who speaks candidly. It's the only way I know how," Hogan said. "Last year when I stood before you, I was very direct about the challenges that were facing us. It's because I care so much about this state, its people, and our future — just like each and every person in this chamber does."
Hogan made a pitch for the "modest and reasonable tax cuts" that he proposed a few weeks ago. He wants to cut taxes for retirees and small businesses and increase tax refunds for the state's poorest families.
"Together, let's usher in a new era of ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit in Maryland," he said.
Hogan opened the speech by thanking the Democrats who preside over the legislature, first praising by name his chief political opponent, House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime Hogan friend who has nonetheless stepped up criticism of the governor's communication style, also received praise.
"Though there are sometimes points of disagreement, at the heart of each of us is a man fiercely proud of this state that we all love," Hogan said.
Hogan's speech, as prepared, included the word "bipartisan" six times. And he reiterated accomplishments of the past year as things "we" did together.
Miller, of Calvert County, gave the speech a mixed review.
"I feel it was a 100 percent improvement from last year in terms of bipartisanship," he said. "I would not give it an A-plus or even a B-plus. It was a good speech."
Miller said it wasn't a "problem-solving" message. He said it failed to address such matters as the health care needs of Prince George's County, the transportation needs of Montgomery County and the need for housing demolition funds in Baltimore.
"It was a feel-good speech driven by polls," Miller said.
Busch, who represents Anne Arundel County, praised the emphasis on bipartisanship but expressed dismay that the governor hadn't addressed issues such as the $70 million in education aid Hogan left unspent last year.
"There are some gaps between the rhetoric of the speech and the reality of the implementation of those programs," he said.
Baltimore Del. Talmadge Branch, the majority whip, said actions speak more strongly than the governor's words.
"We want to see him step up to the plate and put his money where his mouth is," Branch said.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, a Republican who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said Hogan's speech sets the stage for both parties to work better together in Annapolis.
"I think he's put an olive branch and a challenge for all of us: Let's not be Washington, D.C. Let's not be gridlocked. Let's not fight and argue all the time," she said. "But let's work together to solve problems in Maryland."
Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Republican from Washington County, said the tone was a clear shift from last year.
"His call for bipartisanship is very powerful," he said. "I think that's what the people of this state want."
Serafini said he thought Hogan had learned from the reaction to last year's speech.
"It was not the intent last year for there to be a divide, but I think it was taken that way," he said.
Some rank-and-file Democrats were less diplomatic than their leaders.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe of Prince George's County described Hogan's speech as a "nothing-burger."
"I agree it was not confrontational, the way last year's was. Clearly he gets credit for learning from his mistakes," Rosapepe said. "I give him an A on tone and an incomplete on substance."
The governor stressed that it was important for the state to help Baltimore heal from rioting last year and improve conditions for its poorest residents.
He has pitched a plan to ramp up the demolition of vacant houses in the city, but many Democrats are hoping for a more sweeping intervention. And they bristled when Hogan didn't include money in this year's budget for the project and were skeptical of his promises to add it later.
In his speech Wednesday, Hogan appeared to temper expectations about what he would be able to deliver.
"While we do not have an unlimited amount of taxpayer money, we will always have an unlimited capacity to listen to worthwhile ideas and creative solutions that know no party bounds," Hogan said.
"The renewal of Baltimore City, and the continued growth of our entire state, will require an environment of trust and cooperation — one in which the best ideas rise to the top based upon their merit, regardless of which side of the philosophical debate they come from."
Just before the governor spoke, the chief executives of Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties said during a news conference that Hogan's budget priorities were shortchanging their jurisdictions.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz compared seeing the governor's budget to ordering a Big Mac and finding no meat inside.
"Where's the beef?" he said, flanked by Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings-Blake, Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett.
The governor asked the legislature to endorse the rest of his agenda, selling his ideas as moderate steps backed by the majority of state residents.
Hogan wants to draw new manufacturing firms to the state by waiving corporate and some income taxes for a full decade, a proposal pushed before by Democrats.
He also asked for support to address the heroin epidemic, change the way congressional lines are drawn and pass policies that reduce the state's prison populations.
Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said he saw Hogan's progression as a leader reflected in the speech. He pointed to the challenges the governor has faced over the past year, including his battle against cancer, rioting in Baltimore and the recent snowstorm.
"Governing is a process. I think people grow in office," McMillan said. "You know they say the strongest steel is tempered in fire, and it's fair to say his first year was filled with a little bit of heat."
Maryland Policy & Politics Newsletter
Keep up to date with Maryland politics, elections and important decisions made by federal, state and local government officials.