Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s fifth State of the State address Wednesday was a paean to bipartisanship and a celebration of his first-term accomplishments.
But as he unspooled his legislative agenda, Hogan did not hesitate to throw a few jabs in the lawmakers’ direction. And as the 28-minute speech progressed it became abundantly clear that the Republican governor’s priorities are widely divergent from those outlined by Democratic lawmakers a day earlier.
Still, the speech overall was an exercise in good vibrations. It was interrupted for applause 20 times and was buttressed by Hogan’s signature attempts to contrast Annapolis with the toxicity in Washington, D.C. He praised lawmakers for embracing “commonsense pragmatism.”
“We have spent the past four years working together to tackle our common problems by accepting our shared responsibility to solve them, and we have shown the rest of America that a divided government does not have to be a divisive government,” Hogan said.
He jokingly thanked House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) for inviting him to speak – a none-too-sly reference to President Trump being invited, then disinvited, then re-invited, to deliver the State of the Union address. And he paid tribute to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who is battling cancer – just as Hogan did in 2015.
“I can attest to how tough the battle is that you are facing, but I also know your strength and your never-give-up spirit,” the governor told Miller, who is being treated for advanced-stage prostate cancer. “And I want you to know that we are all praying that you come out of this stronger than ever. God bless you.”
Hogan delivered his address at a time when he is attracting national attention from pundits and certain Republican leaders who have grown disenchanted with Trump and have suggest that Hogan’s relatively moderate politics and willingness to work with Democrats make him a potentially strong alternative to Trump in 2020.
“For our little state it’s nice to have someone considered who is taken with some degrees of seriousness about it,” said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who attended Hogan’s speech.
Unlike his inaugural speech two weeks ago, Hogan’s address Wednesday did not touch on national themes, other than to draw contrasts with Washington. Although he laid out an array of policy initiatives, many have been aired before – and some have stalled in previous legislative sessions.
The governor’s legislative package lacks big-ticket items, but he clearly wants tax relief to be a major part of it. Although he promised a “major tax cut” during an appearance earlier this week on PBS’ “Newshour,” his agenda actually includes eight smaller tax measures that could add up to $500 million in relief over the next five years if adopted.
Hogan urged legislators to take advantage of the state’s sound economy “to provide additional tax relief to Marylanders who desperately need it the most.”
Hogan is seeking tax breaks for retirees; for businesses that provide paid parental leave for their workers; for Marylanders repaying their student loans; for retired law enforcement, fire, rescue, correctional officer, and emergency response personnel; and for businesses that expand into designated “opportunity zones” across the state.
“Now that we have created such an incredible economic turnaround in Maryland, we can afford this responsible, targeted tax relief,” Hogan said. “Let’s do the right thing and give some of this money back to the people who have worked so hard to help make it happen.”
Business leaders were quick to applaud the governor’s menu of proposed cuts.
“It’s refreshing to hear Gov. Hogan say that small business owners will be one of the targeted groups to receive tax relief, and you can be sure any money they receive will be invested back into their businesses,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “It is likely to spur expansion, additional job creation and the purchase of new equipment, which will further boost the state economy.”
But Democrats have been hesitant to embrace tax cuts, even with a bit of a fiscal cushion this year – especially following recent forecasts that show the state facing structural deficits in the years ahead.
Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery), a vocal progressive, called the notion of cutting taxes “crazy.” Miller was a little more circumspect about Hogan’s tax proposals.
“I’m not sure we’re going to be able to deliver on all of it, but some of it we can,” he said.
Hogan urged lawmakers to get behind his proposal to spotlight the sentencing records of judges presiding over violent crime cases, and he chided the legislature for resisting a measure to impose stronger mandatory sentences for repeat offenders who use guns while committing acts of violence.
“We’re talking about taking our communities back and saving lives,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll), who serves on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Hogan’s approach is the best way to reduce violent crime.
“Fighting this crime epidemic will take more than just more police officers and law enforcement personnel,” he said. “It requires prosecutors and judges who are willing to put these repeat violent offenders in jail for long periods of time.”
But Miller questioned the proposal to monitor the sentences that judges mete out, arguing that “they’re entitled to the sanctity of their decisions.”
And while Democrats have also spoken about combating crime in Baltimore and other pockets of the state, many disagree with Hogan’s prescriptions, and note that he pushed for mandatory sentencing bills last year.
“I think the governor’s operating under a ‘lock ‘em up’ mentality that’s circa 1970’s,” said Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Hogan also diverged with Democrats – and called them out – when the topic turned to redistricting reform. Hogan noted that the legislature has resisted his measure to take the task of drawing congressional and legislative lines out of the hands of partisan politicians and place it with a nonpartisan commission.
“Please do not hide this legislation in a drawer again this year,” Hogan beseeched the lawmakers. “Listen to the will of the people of Maryland and finally bring this bill to the floor of both chambers for an up or down vote.”
Hogan spoke about protecting the environment, but he stopped short of endorsing greens’ top legislative priority for this session – boosting the state’s clean energy mandates. He said that while he’s supportive of efforts to boost clean energy jobs, he wants to make sure they are based in Maryland and don’t cost ratepayers extra money. But environmental leaders said they remain hopeful.
“We are pleased Governor Hogan mentioned climate change during his State of the State today and the need to work together for more affordable renewable energy opportunities that create jobs,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “The Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, which will ensure our state runs on 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, does just that.”
For all his talk of bipartisanship, Hogan’s priority list barely touched on any of the agenda items that legislative leaders unveiled a day earlier. Giving the official Democratic response, which was aired on Maryland Public Television Wednesday immediately after Hogan’s speech, House Majority Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), said, “We will work with Gov. Hogan when we can. But we will not sacrifice our Democratic values and principles to cut deals.”
Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.