Josh Kurtz: Season of Uncertainty

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Annapolis at Christmas-time is picture-postcard perfect.

But the beauty and serenity of the town belies the jitteriness of Maryland’s political classes.

From Democratic staffers worried about their jobs, to the slow roll-out of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan’s (R) cabinet appointments and policy initiatives, to lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates scrambling to adjust to the new reality – not to mention Democratic activists waiting for a party savior, or the Next Big Thing, or at the very least a coherent sense of direction – what should be a time of peace and reflection has instead become an unprecedented period of fear and loathing. Worsening fiscal conditions for the state and local governments sure don’t help matters, either.

A few questions began to be answered last week, when the presiding officers of the legislature unveiled their full committee rosters and Hogan announced his first four cabinet nominees – though none was for the top-tier agencies that help define a gubernatorial administration.

But those pieces of news were overshadowed by the selection of University of Massachusetts President Robert Caret, a former president of Towson University, to be chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Caret knows Maryland, and he has ties to former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), which means he should be comfortable with Hogan and vice-versa.

One wonders, though, whether Caret realizes just how big a fiscal calamity he’s returning to. Either way, his arrival heralds more uncertainty, after a dozen years of Brit Kirwan at the head of the public higher-ed system.

(And speaking of higher-ed matters, how about the contract to newly-minted consultant Ken Ulman, by foundations connected to the University of Maryland at College Park? There are myriad implications…)

It’s crystal-clear that sizeable budget cuts are coming to state government, and that no program will be spared. Some very popular initiatives – even some necessary ones – could be on the chopping block. And if the Democratic legislature doesn’t give Hogan the cuts he wants, he can always go to the friendlier Board of Public Works seeking more. His top advisers, Joe Getty and Bobby Neall, are creatures of the legislature, and may be girding for a fight with the Democrats despite Hogan’s professions of bipartisanship – a fight that may not be necessary given the BPW option.

Legislatures are by their very nature reactive. So lawmakers will of course be reacting to what Hogan does – and also to last month’s election results.

At a certain level, it’s probably fair to say that Senate President Mike Miller (D) and House Speaker Mike Busch (D) aren’t all that upset that Hogan won. On the ideological spectrum, Miller and Hogan aren’t that far apart, and both presiding officers are well aware that they lost some key seats because of the progressive achievements – critics would call them the liberal excesses – of the O’Malley years. With Hogan rather than Democrat Anthony Brown living in Government House, chances of progressive bills emerging in the next few years – either social legislation or spending measures that need to be sold to moderate voters in swing districts – are pretty slim.

Miller heads into the next four years with nine Democratic senators sitting in districts that Hogan won, and he’ll be looking to protect them. They are: John Astle of Anne Arundel County, Jim Brochin of Baltimore County, Ed DeGrange of Anne Arundel, Ed Kasemeyer of Howard County, Kathy Klausmeier of Baltimore County, Jim Mathias of the Lower Shore, Ron Young of Frederick County, Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County – and Miller himself.

But Busch, with a much more liberal caucus – in fact, it’s hard to think of more than a couple of Democratic House members now who are to the speaker’s right – will have the tougher job. Busch has already signaled his resolve to fight any effort by Hogan to drastically cut taxes, and he’s installed the steely Del. Maggie McIntosh (D) to lead the fight as the new chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

In all, the 26-member panel will have an eye-popping 15 new members, including seven freshmen Democrats. Even though many are stars of the freshman class, they’ll have a steep learning curve, meaning Busch, even with McIntosh as chairwoman, will continue to hover – much as he did when Norm Conway was chairman.

All the House committees will see significant changes – after all, there are 58 freshmen in a body of 141 members, and there will be a 59th if Del. Kelly Schulz (R) is confirmed as Hogan’s Labor secretary. But tonally, the biggest change undoubtedly will be on the Judiciary Committee, where longtime Chairman Joe Vallario (D) lost conservative cronies like Dels. Kevin Kelly (D) and Luiz Simmons (D) and instead finds himself with lefty newcomers like David Moon, Marice Morales and Will Campos.

And speaking of liberals, a big question going forward is which lawmakers will rush to fill the void on the left, much as then-Del. Peter Franchot (D) did when Ehrlich was elected governor in 2002. Sure, well-established progressives like Sens. Paul Pinsky (D) and Jamie Raskin (D) will be doing their thing. But are there Democratic members ready to assert themselves now in newfound, significant ways?

Look to Sen. Rich Madaleno (D) in the upper chamber. As the new vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, he’s poised to take on some of the fights that McIntosh will wage in the House – though he’ll often be usurped by Kasemeyer and Miller, who may be more conciliatory toward Hogan than their House counterparts. Still, Madaleno knows the budget process like few others and can be expected to try to make the case against Hogan’s priorities.

Other possibilities include Del. Craig Zucker (D), a Franchot protégé who is going to take over the health care subcommittee on the House Appropriations Committee – he saw his boss make the most of the vacuum on the left – and Del. Ben Barnes (D), who was just transferred to Appropriations and is expected to make some noise on higher education matters.

And it probably won’t be long before certain freshmen – breaking with Annapolis tradition – start asserting themselves.

So there’s uncertainty now for sure – but that will start to change, for better or worse, shortly after the New Year. Let’s enjoy the quiet while we can.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.