Josh Kurtz: Checking in With Mike Busch and Mike Miller

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By: Josh Kurtz

With 72 years of legislative experience between them, with 40 years’ collective experience as the presiding officers of the Maryland General Assembly, Senate President Mike Miller (D) and House Speaker Mike Busch (D) know how to take the long view. And in separate interviews last week, both Busch and Miller seemed relatively sanguine about the political developments of the past few months, even if they are hardly what the two lawmakers bargained for.

“I’m not worried,” Miller said. “The electoral process is playing itself out. It’s democracy. It’s not always pretty.”

But like everyone who follows the State House closely, Miller and Busch are wondering how the second half of this year’s legislative session is going to pan out – and what kind of progress might be made over a four-year term of divided government in Annapolis.

In some ways, the presence of a rookie Republican governor doing battle with these wily veterans who have solid Democratic legislative majorities behind them seems like an unfair fight. Miller and Busch know how to get what they want, with compromises here and there, while Gov. Larry Hogan (R) by comparison knows very little about the legislative game.

In private conversations, Busch and Miller are dismissive of Hogan’s agenda – mainly because, in their view, he doesn’t seem to have much of one. According to associates who have spoken with them, the presiding officers expect Hogan to restate his commitment to lowering taxes like a mantra over the next four years. But they’re not sure if Hogan is going to offer much else of substance in his first term.

Still, Miller and Busch are painfully aware of the November election’s dire implications. Hogan’s anti-tax message worked impressively; now, not only is there a Republican living in Government House, but Democratic lawmakers in conservative districts were wiped out – and it may be difficult for the Democrats to win back that territory. Both men are convinced that national Republicans will spend millions to re-elect Hogan, lock down those districts and try to make further gains, creating the potential for a permanent partisan divide in the General Assembly like the one on Capitol Hill.

“The problem I have is making sure that the middle holds,” Miller said. This will not only create sound policy, in his view, but will solidify the political standing of moderate and conservative Democrats.

“Compromise,” he said, “is not a dirty word.”

Busch, too, says he’s ready to compromise. But the dynamic in his chamber is a little different from the one Miller faces. On an ideological spectrum, Busch is maybe the third or fourth most conservative Democrat in the House. His caucus has dozens of junior members champing at the bit with very liberal priorities.

Asked what he’d consider a successful legislative session, Busch listed five goals: a balanced budget, fully funding K-12 education, limiting attempts to adjust Medicaid reimbursements in the state, “honoring our state employee contracts,” and preserving the state’s stormwater management law. But these priorities don’t sound like much of a compromise at all, given Hogan’s rhetoric.

“There will be some differences,” Busch acknowledged, “but I think we’ll get through it.”

Democrats in both chambers have resisted Hogan’s calls to gut the stormwater management law, or fund education below mandated levels, or promote charter schools. In some cases, lawmakers are using the budget to achieve their goals.

“The administration put in its budget – it’s now in our hands,” Busch said.

Miller offered a compromise measure on stormwater management last week that has been co-sponsored by 30 of the chamber’s 47 senators, including some of its most liberal members. If there is any action on that subject in the legislature this session, it will likely be this bill.

“He’ll be able to say the rain tax was treated fairly,” Miller said.

But Busch mocked Hogan’s contention that eradicating sediment and other pollutants at the Conowingo Dam will be a major driver for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

“That’s so far out there that a rocket ship couldn’t bring it back,” he said.

Meanwhile, Miller has embraced what he calls “structural reforms for charter schools.” While the Senate leader conceded that Hogan’s charter schools bill will “be a very hard sell in the House,” he believes some kind of compromise measure can get through both chambers of the legislature. Though it won’t give Hogan everything he wants, Miller predicted that the governor would be able to claim victory there as well.

Busch does not dispute the idea that a watered-down charter school bill is possible, but cracked, “Until the governor was elected, I didn’t know we had a problem with charter schools.”

Both legislative leaders loudly panned Hogan’s proposal for halting automatic increases in the state’s gas tax, casting the plan as bad for the state’s economic development efforts.

Miller predicted that even Hogan supporters who hate high taxes would see the wisdom of investing in transportation and infrastructure projects.

“When they drive up the highway and see the construction that’s going to take place, they’ll understand why we can’t repeal the gas tax,” he said.

Busch said legislators and Hogan can find common ground by focusing on business development, “building a relationship that’s going to stress economic development using our transportation and our higher education institutions as research centers.”

Miller and Busch are proud of the work of the Augustine Commission, which recently produced a long list of recommendations for improving the state’s business climate. While Hogan has applauded the document, the legislative leaders are waiting to see whether the governor who boasts that Maryland is now "open for business" advances any measures to achieve the goals laid out in the commission’s report.

“The governor’s got to get focused on job creation,” Busch said.

As they look ahead, both Miller and Busch see Hogan as something of an enigma. Miller knows Hogan fairly well through their long, shared history in Prince George’s County politics, and he sees similarities between the new governor and his father, Lawrence Hogan Sr., a former congressman and Prince George’s county executive who was an anti-tax crusader but was otherwise a political moderate.

But the legislative leaders and their lieutenants are somewhat puzzled by the team Hogan has assembled. He’s got Republican and Democratic pragmatists, particularly in his legislative and policy shops, with plenty of Annapolis experience. But he’s also surrounded himself with other advisers who have worked in national Republican politics – political true believers with a harder edge.

Both Miller and Busch said their experience from 2003 to 2007 dealing with former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), who was more overtly partisan than Hogan, though fairly similar philosophically, informs their strategy now.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Miller said of the new governor. “He could have had the personality of William Donald Schaefer and the fiscal sense of Bob Ehrlich.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication.  Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews
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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.