Josh Kurtz: Annapolis in Miniature

Aerial view of Annapolis. Historic Annapolis photo

It has been a busy week in and around the State House, leading up to the holidays and the calm before the General Assembly session storm.

But it was also Annapolis in miniature – a perfect microcosm of all that is interesting and infuriating about the key issues and key players in state government and politics. It has also given us a glimpse of what the next several months may look like – maybe even what the next four years will look like.

Start with the biggest news – that the so-called Kirwan Commission, tasked by legislative leaders with reforming education policy and funding formulas in Maryland, will continue its work into 2019, meaning no final product or road map for legislation heading into the January session.

Now what are lawmakers going to do for three months?

There will be plenty going on, of course. But Kirwan was going to be the hottest issue of the upcoming session, eagerly anticipated by state legislators and local officials across the state as transformative, sure to produce a financial windfall and a new way forward after 90 days of tough choices and political horse-trading.

So the letter late Wednesday from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) that the commission must keep meeting rather than wrapping up its work and setting the stage for the big battle of the 2019 session, was a major shock.

Among other things, the presiding officers said in their letter that the Kirwan Commission “has more work to do to convince the Governor” that the reforms and expenditures it is recommending are worthy, essentially laying some of the blame for the delay at the governor’s feet. Asked about that at a news conference Thursday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) shrugged.

“I’ve been saying for two years we’ve been waiting for the Kirwan Commission to finish their report,” he said, adding that any attempt to blame him was misguided.

Josh Kurtz

Think about all this for a minute. When the Kirwan Commission was initially conceived, Democratic lawmakers thought it would set up a showdown with Hogan – daring him to reject proposals, however costly, to improve public education. That showdown may yet come.

But as Democrats first envisioned it, that showdown was going to take place before the 2018 election, making Hogan sweat and potentially vulnerable on the issue voters care most about. Then it was going to come in 2019, where it was going to be the defining debate of the first year of the governor’s second term and a momentum-building first test for a raft of energetic new lawmakers. Now it’s been pushed off to 2020.

To be fair, the commissioners are working hard. They are meeting often and putting in grueling hours. They are wrestling with weighty, complicated issues, and their work could have implications for the next generation or more.

But even though the commission is an independent entity, working carefully and on its own schedule, it’s answerable to Busch and Miller. Don’t they bear some of the responsibility for the confusion and delay? Doesn’t that serve as a reminder that these supposedly all-powerful leaders are not as in control – or operating as strategically – as their colleagues might expect them to be? And aren’t they, as a consequence, ceding some of the education policy high ground to Hogan, who is now free to pursue his own priorities for Maryland’s schools, without having to worry about a controversial, consequential and expensive package that he may not be eager to confront, let alone embrace?

Small wonder the Maryland State Education Association – stalwart allies of Democratic legislators and among the loudest critics of Hogan in Annapolis – said in a statement, “The status quo is unacceptable. Our kids can’t wait.”

So the General Assembly’s presiding officers enter the session with their No. 1 issue off the table – and without the biggest bargaining chip to use against a newly-reelected and popular governor who believes his mandate is even bigger than it actually is. And they will have to scramble now to put together a meaningful and substantive priority list to keep their members focused – and serve as a counterweight to the governor’s own less than robust agenda.

After winning reelection following a campaign in which he articulated no new policy proposals, Hogan has held three news conferences on policy initiatives – one on redistricting reform, one on school construction, and one, Thursday, on technical education. He has promised more of what we saw in the first term, and while that suggests something, he has been short on specifics.

In fact, if Hogan’s performance at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting is any indication, it may be fair to ask whether he’s got much patience for the job. Hogan cracked jokes at times – sometimes while his colleagues were speaking. But he was irritable at others.

When Joshua Tulkin of the Sierra Club raised questions about the proposed $90 million engineering and planning contract to consider widening Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway, Hogan snapped that Tulkin must prefer traffic congestion – a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – to free-flowing highways. When Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp began to ask state transportation officials questions about the contract, Hogan seemed annoyed; he was ready to wrap up the discussion.

It’s possible the governor wasn’t feeling well – he turned the gavel over to Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) after the lunch break. But he seemed churlish every time someone had the temerity to question his agenda.

This is a guy who won a smashing and history-making reelection. He is now enjoying attention from national center-right thought leaders and is looking forward to becoming chairman of the National Governors Association, which will only elevate his national profile.

So criticism of state contracts – including from his good friend and cheerleader, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, in one of the heated side-shows at this week’s Board of Public Works meeting? Looking ahead to 90 days of wild-eyed Democrats running through the corridors of the State House complex, goading him to spend money? No wonder Hogan seemed grouchy. He has always implied, if not said outright, that the three-month legislative session is his least favorite time of year.

This week also featured some other interesting developments that are worth watching going forward. At the Board of Public Works meeting, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) pressed state education officials to consider using the SATs as an alternative to a costly new standardized achievement test. Were we glimpsing his next attention-grabbing crusade?

It was a reminder that the BPW, an obscure, unique and important governing body, whose proceedings, Hogan’s breezy leadership of the panel notwithstanding, are often unfathomable. It can also be the source of great debate and great drama – and there could be drama about its lineup in the weeks ahead.

Also this week, Sen.-elect Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) penned a long and forceful commentary opposing the idea that Johns Hopkins University should be able to set up its own police force. It was noteworthy for its not-so-subtle criticism of Miller – a rarity for senators, let alone incoming members. It helped frame the debate, which could become one of the dominant issues before the Baltimore City delegation this year.

But it also threw shade at Washington’s district-mate, House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who used to work for Hopkins. And it signaled that Washington is not going to be a “get-along to go-along” freshman. Surveying the freshman classes in the Senate and House, there could be others.

Then there was the release Thursday of a report, still being digested, about accusations of sexual harassment on the State House campus in the past year. There is more to learn and more to be said about what’s happened in the past year and how legislative leaders plan to deal with it.

So in Annapolis, this was the week that was – not as calamitous as the week in Washington, D.C., to be sure. But significant and worth pondering just the same.

 

Rest up over the holidays, everybody. The next several weeks will be full of surprises.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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