Center Maryland: Maryland’s next four years: gridlock or progress in Annapolis?

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on November 7.

By Donald C. Fry

When Governor Larry Hogan is sworn in on January 21, it will mark only the second time in the last 47 years that Marylanders have elected a Republican governor and a Democrat-led state legislature.

Given the level of contentiousness that existed in the State House from 2003 to 2007 during the administration of the last Republican to occupy the second floor – Governor Bob Ehrlich – an obvious question lingers after the confetti is swept up and election-night celebrations have ended.

What can Maryland voters expect this time around from a GOP governor and a Democratic-dominated state legislature? Will it be political gridlock or constructive policy making?

It could go either way. Although Republicans gained seats in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly, Democrat majorities will still dominate the House and the Senate.

The fact that most Republican gains occurred in districts that had been represented by moderate or conservative Democrats could only serve to promote increasing polarization and potential gridlock. Center Maryland columnist Josh Kurtz notes that the election yielded Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch a diminishing roster of moderate Democrats in the General Assembly.

But throughout the campaign and in his first press conference as Governor-elect, Hogan, a seasoned private-sector manager, has expressed a sincere eagerness to get things accomplished and to work with Democrats for productive outcomes.

What would a Hogan administration agenda look like?  As did his opponent Anthony Brown, Hogan provided few specifics in public debates and campaign appearances. But in conversations with business leaders, Hogan offered the following insights into his potential framework for governing on a number of key issues for business advocates.

Management style

Hogan describes his leadership style as “management by walking around.” His number one issue: closing “a huge disconnect between Annapolis and the rest of Maryland.”   Hogan said that, in essence, he will act as the state’s CEO. He adds that his chief operating officer will be Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford – who has substantial experience as a high-level federal government administrator both before and after serving as Maryland’s secretary of General Services from 2003 to 2006.

Top issue: competitiveness

Hogan says he will focus on Maryland’s competitiveness and that his top priorities will include tax reform and regulatory reform – two issues that the Greater Baltimore Committee and other business leaders cite as top strategic priorities for strengthening Maryland’s business climate.

State spending

Hogan contends that getting state spending under control is a fundamental strategic element to improving Maryland’s business climate and complements his focus on tax and regulatory reform.

For example, he notes that much of Maryland’s budget is comprised of “non-discretionary” spending – mandatory spending dictated by legislated formulas. He says he will seek to work with General Assembly leaders to alter funding formulas to rein in mandated spending.

Hogan says that during his first General Assembly session he plans to focus less on legislation and more on budgetary issues, holding the line on the state’s budget and identifying waste, opportunities to save and taxes that could be rolled back. He contends that, including waste that has already been identified by state officials, a 5 percent cut in the state’s budget could “easily” be achieved without Draconian measures.

Democrat leaders in the General Assembly say they are skeptical of such pronouncements, but are willing to listen to ideas.

Education

Hogan says that, despite having some of the best public schools in the country, there is a big gap between the best schools in our state and the worst. Education quality in Maryland is “not just a money issue,” Hogan says. He seeks education decision-making to be made by parents, teachers and principals by “pushing as much of the money and the decision-making to the local level.”

Hogan says he favors charter schools, but contends that expansion of effective school choice in Maryland has been hampered by one of the weakest, if not the weakest, charter school law in the country and union opposition.

Transportation issues 

Hogan favors “reordering” transportation spending priorities to channel more funding to roads. The future of Baltimore’s planned light rail Red Line is one key issue about which Hogan appears to be at odds with business leaders. He has said he would like to build it eventually, but is concerned that Maryland can’t afford it now.

Clearly a challenge for transportation advocates will be to convince Hogan of the Red Line’s high value to the Baltimore region, where it would dramatically impact mobility and business growth by transforming an existing hodge-podge of fragmented transit elements into an integrated rail transit system.  The project is about to receive $900 million in federal funding and is in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital budget.

Ironically, the Red Line project was launched and construction dollars were initially provided during the Ehrlich administration.

A similar transit project in the Washington suburbs, the Purple Line, faces uncertain prospects as well.

Meanwhile, voters’ overwhelming approval on November 4 of statewide Question 1 – ratifying a constitutional “lockbox” provision for the state’s transportation fund passed by the General Assembly last year – should significantly stabilize availability of future funding for transportation projects. It addresses a previous stated concern expressed by Hogan over legislative “raiding” of transportation funding for non-transportation uses.  Hopefully, this newfound stability can serve to potentially ease Hogan’s concern over available funding for the Red Line and other transit projects.

At the very least the Red Line and the Purple Line could serve as valuable bargaining chips for Hogan in negotiating other priorities he will seek from Democratic lawmakers.

Energy 

Hogan says he favors pursuing “every potential solution” to cultivate renewable energy resources. But the state needs to move forward on options “that make economic sense” and refrain from passing on the costs of inefficient options to ratepayers, he adds.

He favors moving forward with extracting natural gas (“fracking”) in a safe and environmentally-friendly way.

These are just a few examples of glimpses Hogan has offered about potential strategic approaches on issues that relate to Maryland’s business climate and competitiveness for economic growth and job creation.

Hogan said often during the campaign that the evidence of his sincerity and substantive commitment is the fact the he has taken a year off from his business to run for governor, not because he cares about being a politician, but because he loves Maryland and believes that “we can turn this state around.”

Now, as a result of Tuesday’s election results, he’ll have to the opportunity over the next four years to work on implementing his ideas and strategies from the governor’s office.

But what develops over the next four years could be even bigger. If Governor-elect Hogan can successfully work with the Democratic dominated legislature to accomplish a majority of his stated campaign goals, he has the opportunity to change elective politics in our state for years.

The question remains: will the next four years in Annapolis be about politics or about producing good public policy?

The clear message that voters across the country delivered to elected officials in both political parties at all levels of government is simple – it is time to stop the bickering and obstructionism and work together to find consensus to solve problems. Let’s hope that message remains embedded in Maryland’s elected leaders.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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