Laslo Boyd: All Roads Lead to the Speaker's Office

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By: Laslo Boyd

Mike Busch, Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, is about to about to begin working with his third governor. His reflections, as he described them to me last week, on the first two, Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley, set the context for what he expects from the newest arrival to the second floor of the State House, Larry Hogan.

As Busch put it without the smallest bit of irony, he “clashed” with Ehrlich.  Both were brand new to their positions and the Speaker acknowledges that both made mistakes.  Busch survived and learned from his and now is starting his fourth term as Speaker.  Ehrlich didn’t do nearly as well, having been shown the door by voters after a single term as governor.

According to the Speaker, Ehrlich could have been successful if he had been more willing to compromise with the legislature.  In Busch’s view, a package that included both slots and new taxes could have passed in the second year of Ehrlich’s term if only he had worked with the General Assembly.   Busch points to other opportunities lost during that period, including a badly mishandled effort to deal with medical malpractice insurance and a missed chance to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure through a gas tax increase.

The Speaker notes that both Ehrlich and O’Malley inherited large budget deficits, the same reality that Larry Hogan now faces.  Additionally, Ehrlich had from the start of his term the prospect that Martin O’Malley would run against him in 2006.   According to Busch, this led Ehrlich to calculate all his decisions through a re-election campaign perspective.

In contrast to his relationship with the former Republican governor, Busch saw himself sharing policy priorities with Governor O’Malley.  There was much more give and take during his eight years and a willingness from O’Malley to put an effort into the relationship that Ehrlich never did.  Facing the “worst depression in forty years”, O’Malley raised state revenues and downsized government.

We spoke last week before O’Malley’s interview in which he criticized Anthony Brown for not having vigorously defended their record of eight years appeared.  Busch certainly has no hesitations about his support for the O’Malley years but does express disappointment that key elected Democratic officials were not able to turn out more votes for the Lt. Governor in the November election.

That observation highlights the internal tension in the State Democratic Party and the challenge of how to be more successful in future elections.  Was 2014 an aberration in which a not-ready-for-primetime candidate ran a lousy campaign?  Or are Democrats facing a structural problem in an electoral base that only shows up for Presidential elections?  Who leads the effort to answer these questions is far from obvious at this point, but you know that Mike Busch will be in the room for the discussions.  You also know that he will have a significant impact on what kind of record Larry Hogan achieves between now and 2018.

The Speaker is full of compliments for how Hogan has done so far, so far being still a week before he takes office.  Significantly, Busch sees a more open approach to dealing with the legislature and a tone that is collaborative rather than confrontational. 

Busch was also very clear on his own views about how to address the challenges facing the new governor.  Hogan should take a four-year perspective on the issues and not try to do everything in the first year.  This first session should, if Hogan follows the advise of the guy now entering his 13th year as leader of the House, be focused almost entirely on the budget.  Major policy initiatives should wait until the second year.

The state’ business climate is definitely going to get attention, although Busch argues that the General Assembly has already begun the process of addressing that issue through the establishment of the Maryland Economic Development and Business Climate Commission chaired by formed Lockheed CEO Norm Augustine.  An interim report is due in February and is likely to be the focal point of the General Assembly’s response to any efforts put forward by the new administration.

Busch also points to the willingness of the legislature to increase the gas tax as a demonstration to the business community of the state’s commitment to improving Maryland’s transportation infrastructure.  These examples underscore that the Speaker will not be a passive player in the next four years, but will expect to be consulted by Governor Hogan.

Meanwhile, Busch has the challenge of dealing with almost 60 new members of his chamber, many of whom have no experience in government.  Getting beyond the apparently mundane but actually sensitive issues of assigning office space and parking, the Speaker will have to figure out how to get 140 other delegates working in some measure of common purpose.  When I asked him about that challenge, he pointed out that he’s an “old teacher and coach” and looks forward to the task.

Mike Busch is a force in Annapolis.  With 12 years of experience as Speaker, he knows how to wield the power of the office with skill and agility.  He has definite views about how best to proceed “doing the people’s business.”  Working with him can lead to positive outcomes.  Working at cross-purposes from him can make the job of governor much more difficult.  Next Wednesday, Larry Hogan begins a new learning curve that will surely impact how successful he will be in his new job.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.