The Daily Record: Election ‘mandates’ clash in Annapolis

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on TheDailyRecord.com on April 17, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Were you hoping for a celebration of bipartisanship in Annapolis when the General Assembly adjourned Sine Die last Monday?

It didn’t happen.

Instead, as the midnight hour struck on April 13 we were left with a taste of late-session public acrimony between Governor Larry Hogan and legislative leaders over the state budget. This despite the fact that there was considerable give and take during the session and that the $40 billion budget passed by lawmakers reflected 98 percent of the budget the governor submitted to the General Assembly in January.

Nevertheless, the 2015 session ground to a halt with passage of a budget that nobody in the State House seemed happy with.

So what caused the wheels of collaboration to veer off the track when only weeks ago legislative leaders and the Governor’s office were trumpeting what they said was bipartisan agreement on a budget that delivered key fiscal outcomes for the Republican governor as well as a Democrat-led legislature?

The session-ending budget acrimony reflected what we all probably should have anticipated – a clash of election-day mandates.

The governor likes to say that he was elected to reduce taxes and cut spending. That was his successful campaign theme and thus his election mandate.

Leaders in the legislature, where voters elected a large Democratic majority in both the Senate and the House, say their mandate is to maintain quality education, provide fair wages for state employees, and fund programs such as health care for those in need, including the disabled and the disadvantaged.

Governor Hogan knows that he has a small window of opportunity to deliver on his mandate of tax and spending cuts. But, Maryland’s budget process, although driven by strong executive powers, can be significantly impacted by seasoned legislators who understand the process and how to leverage their power to meet what they see as their mandate.

This is not simply a Democratic legislature versus a Republican governor. Former Democratic governors would candidly tell you that their budgets were altered by previous legislatures even more than the current governor’s.

A second election-related dynamic was at play in Annapolis this session. Those Democrats who were defeated last November were not progressive Democrats, but moderate to conservative Democrats who were replaced by conservative Republicans. The consequence is that the legislative bodies are more polarized between progressives, who have one election mandate, and conservatives who perceive a different election mandate.

What is hard to fathom – and was a shock as the session drew to an end – was the fact that two weeks ago all but 10 Republicans in the House and Senate agreed with the work of the budget committees. Suddenly in the last day or so the Governor and Republican legislators had a change of heart – not a single Republican voted for the budget. The underlying rift wasn’t personal – and perhaps not even purely partisan –  but a clash of conflicting perceived election mandates.

Budget animosity aside, lawmakers passed a number of business-related measures, including legislation stemming from February recommendations of the Maryland Economic Development and Business Climate Commission, a group of legislators and private sector leaders jointly appointed last year by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch.

Such measures included the creation of a Secretary of Commerce to oversee state economic development activities, a new marketing arm charged with creating a branding strategy for the state, a customer service training program for state employees and an Apprenticeship Maryland workforce training program.

Lawmakers also retained tax credits for research and development, biotechnology investment and commercial renovation of historic properties. They retained funding to facilitate technology transfer, investment in small, minority and woman-owned businesses development, stem cell research, commercialization of research at academic institutions and cybersecurity investment.

Conversely, proposed legislation to create a tax credit for angel investors that was strongly supported by the Greater Baltimore Committee did not emerge from either the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, where hearings drew strong support from angel investors and economic development professionals. The GBC will again promote the passage of this tax credit next year.

Meanwhile, lawmakers declined to pass a number of bills that would have negatively impacted the state’s business climate, including legislation to increase the minimum wage in Baltimore City and to require combined reporting for corporate tax purposes. They also rejected numerous attempts to reduce revenue earmarked for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

Despite the contentiousness of the past few weeks, there is ample room for all sides to claim success this session. Governor Hogan can claim victory for greatly reducing current and future spending and putting a significant dent in the state’s structural deficit.

Legislative leaders can take credit for restoring education funding and providing funding for a state employee pay increase.

Both sides can take credit for repealing the co-called “rain tax” and for ultimately clarifying provisions addressing stormwater management.

Was the session-ending spate of acrimony good for Marylanders?  It’s rarely good when elected leaders decide to talk past one another or fail to communicate. But the opportunity exists in coming weeks and months for emotions to settle and for lawmakers to realize that it is easier to serve the best interests of constituents across the state by working together.

It will take some effort, but the Hogan administration and General Assembly members must spend a part of the interim overcoming the session-ending disappointments and establishing a basis of trust.

To serve the state’s best interests, lawmakers must sort out and understand their policy differences and identify constructive middle ground on key business climate issues before the 2016 session begins next January.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His email address is donaldf@gbc.org. 

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