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Commentary COVID-19 in Maryland Government & Politics

Josh Kurtz: Hogan’s Strategy on Legislation? The Pandemic Plays a Big Role

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), at a news conference earlier this month, has had the State House to himself for the past several weeks. Photo by the Executive Office of the Governor.

President Trump opened up his daily White House briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic Monday by attacking Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

Hogan’s announcement Monday that the state had purchased COVID-19 testing kits capable of performing 500,000 tests from a Korean company was broken first in The New York Times and received widespread national media coverage. Hogan has been a mainstay on network and national cable chat shows since the outbreak of the virus, and he thought so much of his administration’s efforts to buy the testing kits from South Korea that he gave the endeavor a name worthy of a military campaign: Operation Enduring Friendship.

Hogan, in his role as chairman of the National Governors Association and as the rare Republican willing to take issue with the provocations and prevarications emanating from the president’s mouth, is right in the middle of the national conversation about the biggest crisis of our lifetime.

So when Hogan aides say the governor is too busy to focus on the pile of 650 pieces of legislation now sitting on his desk that the General Assembly left him last month, they aren’t kidding.

But at the same time, while Hogan isn’t relishing the suffering and uncertainty the dual economic and public health disasters are causing his constituents, this is a comfortable place for him to be, managing a crisis without having to muck about in policy scrapes and political gamesmanship with Annapolis Democrats.

The governor is no fan of the legislature. It pains him when lawmakers are at work, making sausage and moving in ways he wishes they wouldn’t. He tends to retreat from the spotlight when they’re in town, except to throw a brickbat or two.

So not only has the pandemic enabled Hogan to elevate his profile considerably — and perform masterfully, incidentally, when it came to mobilizing the state to prepare for the worst of the public health crisis — it has also liberated him from having to think too much about the legislature and its work product.

But as a May 7 deadline for taking action approaches — that’s when Hogan has to sign bills, veto them, or let them become law without his signature — he and his team will have to at least focus a little on what the legislature left behind.

Last year, Maryland Matters was in the prognostication business, speculating about eight bills that Hogan might veto. Although he did veto eight pieces of legislation, the governor only nixed three of the bills we spotlighted, and let the other five become law without his signature. Still, not a bad record for us, we thought.

We were going to try our hands at prognostication again this year, and began preparing a list of bills that Hogan might veto. But the pandemic has made the exercise very tricky. And the wise men and women in and around the State House whom we would ordinarily consult for such a list seem as perplexed as we are.

Theories abound, though. The most common and logical: With the possibility that the pandemic could blow a $3 billion hole in state revenues, Hogan will veto any bill with a high price tag.

So goodbye, under this theory, to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the pricey and exquisitely-plotted education reform package. Goodbye to the tax increases designed to pay for it.

Goodbye to the legislation advanced by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) to provide an extra $57 million a year in funding for the next decade to the state’s historically black colleges and universities. Goodbye to the horse racing industry rescue plan that relies so heavily on casino revenues — because they’ve dried up. Goodbye to even smaller unfunded mandates, like the few extra million bucks the legislature coughed up for the struggling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Another, less likely theory, even though it carries a certain logic, is that Hogan might actually allow some tax bills through. The state will badly need revenue, this theory goes, and why shouldn’t Maryland, say, tax online advertising revenues collected by Amazon, Google and Facebook? Although he inveighed against all the tax increases attached to his predecessor, Hogan has not minded spending the additional transportation revenues generated by the higher gas tax passed during former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s second term.

Questions also abound about the HBCU legislation. Hogan may not like the cost. But he may decide it’s worth the price to get a longstanding and contentious lawsuit out of the way in the midst of a pandemic.

The likeliest scenario — though again, nothing is for certain — is that Hogan lets a lot of bills through without his signature. This sends a message that Hogan is doing the bare minimum to keep the gears of government running, and can return as quickly as possible to managing the crisis. If flawed legislation gets through, because Hogan’s team did not have the bandwidth to vet it, administration officials can always argue that it can be dealt with in next year’s General Assembly session.

Legislative leaders may have handed Hogan a gift when they announced Monday that they would not return to Annapolis for a special session in late May — an idea they had floated a month ago as they adjourned early for the first time since the Civil War.

It would be inaccurate to call this a retreat. The legislature’s presiding officers were weighing a number of factors when they decided to scrap the idea. But it also signals to Hogan that they do not want to go to war, at least in the short term, over any of his vetoes.

The legislature has reserved the right to schedule a special session later in the year. But don’t bet on it. There’s enough uncertainty — in the world and with the state budget especially — for General Assembly leaders to wait until January to make decisions about fighting Hogan, even if he does veto the crown jewel of their legislative agenda, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. That can be rescued later.

During the final days of the General Assembly session, when it was clear that COVID-19 was a frightening and unmanageable menace, Hogan subtly — and some of his staffers and allies not-so-subtly — criticized lawmakers for sticking around town and churning through countless pieces of legislation. But those bills were important to someone — lawmakers, their constituents, interest groups of various sizes and influence — and regardless of what Hogan decides to do with them, they will get short shrift now.

But that’s not Hogan’s concern.

If someone did a poll today, the governor’s approval ratings would probably hit all-time highs (and he just might score higher among Democrats and independents than Republicans). Hogan loves his poll numbers; they give him plenty of leeway to decide as he pleases on all the legislation before him.

The road ahead, however, will not be easy. Deciding to shut the state down in the name of saving lives was the easy part. Deciding when and how to reopen the state’s crumbling economy, especially for a politician who has proven to be a great manager but does not possess a deeply-ingrained governing vision, will be considerably more challenging, and fraught with political peril — as we’ve already seen with the “reopen” protests targeting him and his fellow governors.

During these trying times, Hogan would no doubt like to dispense with legislative business as expeditiously as possible. He now has to decide how best to accomplish that goal, and what combination of bills he’ll sign, veto or let through without his signature.

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Josh Kurtz: Hogan’s Strategy on Legislation? The Pandemic Plays a Big Role