By Josh Kurtz
When Gov. Larry Hogan’s office released the list of the 200-plus bills he plans to sign into law on Thursday, conspicuously absent was the measure to mandate paid sick leave for a large segment of the workforce.
This means that between now and Saturday, Hogan has two choices: veto a bill that polls well with the electorate, handing Democrats an issue they are sure to exploit; or let the legislation become law without his signature, disappointing business groups and many of his fellow Republicans.
What will the governor do? And what are the potential political consequences?
“He’s between a rock and a hard place, with no one to thank except himself,” said Pat Murray, a former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party who has worked for both House Speaker Mike Busch (D) and Senate President Mike Miller (D).
The concept of paid sick leave has been debated in the legislature for several years. Up until this year, Hogan had been cool to the idea. But he attempted to get in front of the issue shortly before this year’s legislative session began, proposing a less robust version of the bill.
The Democratic-led General Assembly ignored Hogan’s legislation, passing its own, more generous version with apparent veto-proof majorities. And there wasn’t any evidence that lawmakers and the governor’s office spent much time negotiating over their differences.
Hogan quickly declared he would veto the Democratic bill once it passed. But will he follow through on the threat?
“Hogan was shrewd when he tried to co-opt sick leave, but he shanked himself when he threatened to veto the bill that’s on his desk,” Murray said. “If the bill becomes law, he’s got a lot of explaining to do to the business community. If the bill doesn’t become law, he’s handed Democrats a popular issue to bludgeon him with for the next year and a half.”
This week, the Working Matters Coalition, the group that spearheaded the push to pass the earned sick leave legislation, has issued daily news releases laying out the arguments for Hogan to sign the bill. It is calling the daily briefings “Hogan Watch.”
“I’m just biting my nails every day,” said Liz Richards, the coalition’s executive director.
Richards said that her group has prepared responses for every possible scenario – and that, if Hogan vetoes the bill, supporters of earned sick leave will urge the legislature to override the veto. (Someone else will have to lead the fight, however. Richards’ contract runs out at the end of this month and she is planning to move to Chicago soon.)
Maryland Democrats, already feeling emboldened about 2018 thanks to President Trump’s sinking poll numbers, are sure to try to keep the issue of paid sick leave in the public eye if Hogan vetoes the bill. A vote to override the veto would undoubtedly be job No. 1 for lawmakers when the General Assembly reconvenes in January – that much closer to the November 2018 election, when more voters will presumably be paying attention than they are now.
But a Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that even though Hogan has proposed a limited version of the sick leave bill, there could be a political payoff to vetoing the legislation, despite the noise Democrats and their allies will make. That’s because next year, Hogan is going to need to attract every single Republican voter he can get.
“It’s something his base will find acceptable,” the strategist said – and will also reinforce Hogan’s argument that Maryland has become more business-friendly under his administration.
Most business groups, which are largely aligned with the governor, have made it clear that they oppose the sick leave legislation and have been urging Hogan to veto it. In an opinion piece for Maryland Reporter earlier this week, Mike O’Halloran, the Maryland state director of the National Federation for Independent Business, said that small business owners are concerned that Hogan hasn’t already vetoed the legislation.
“It was not long ago we heard Gov. Larry Hogan declare House Bill 1 ‘dead on arrival’ should it reach his desk,” O’Halloran wrote. “From the time he made that declaration to the time the Legislature presented him with the bill on April 27, nothing has changed that should give the Governor pause on carrying out his threat.”
Hogan can let the bill become law without his signature – that’s a tactic he’s used on a few occasions with controversial legislation, most notably the budget measure this year providing emergency funding for Planned Parenthood if federal aid is stripped from the family planning organization.
“I think there would be an extraordinary amount of disappointment in the business community if the governor didn’t veto the bill,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.
Locklair Tolle said Hogan’s sick leave bill was “quite reflective of the compromises we wanted to make” and that the legislature’s bill contains “very little” of what the business community was seeking in a sick leave law.
But just as legislative Republicans remain loyal to Hogan even if they are infuriated by his occasional deviations from party orthodoxy, Hogan’s support from the business community isn’t likely to erode significantly if he lets the legislation become law, because Democrats – nationally and in Maryland – are moving farther to the left, making it more difficult for business leaders to support them.
O’Halloran in his op-ed credited Hogan with improving the state’s business climate. Hogan can point out that he already endorsed the concept of paid sick leave and pledge to keep business interests uppermost in his mind as the state begins to administer the new law.
Hogan is a shrewd and talented politician – and also one of the luckiest in recent Maryland history. And this time, with another big decision coming up, luck may once again be on the governor’s side.
Said the Republican strategist: “Whatever decision he’s going to make, the timing of the decision, over the Memorial Day weekend – it’s probably a good thing.”