Josh Kurtz: Out in the Cold

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By Josh Kurtz

There were nervous smiles and awkward pauses in conversation. But there was no mistaking what we were looking at last week when Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed Senate Bill 863, the “repeal” of what Hogan calls “the rain tax”: Hogan and leaders of the state’s environmental movement, sharing the stage in the Governor’s Reception Room – and more important, sharing some common sense of purpose.

They may have different interpretations of what the legislation actually does. And most environmentalists, of course, tried hard last year to keep Hogan from becoming the state’s chief executive. But both sides, it appears, are letting bygones be bygones – and will look for opportunities to work in concert, even if they don’t occur very often.

In the same way, Hogan and state employee unions, which were also big backers of the governor’s Democratic opponent last year, have reached a temporary détente after Hogan preserved the 2 percent wage increases for government workers that former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) reached – and bolstered the state contribution toward their pension funds.

Considering how skeptical Hogan had been about the state’s ability to honor the pay raises, he was downright effusive the other day about the large workforce he now commands.

"State employees are the backbone of our government and it is an honor to serve the people of Maryland alongside them,” he said.

Now contrast the current relationship between Hogan and these two pillars of the Democratic coalition, environmentalists and public employee unions, with the ongoing warfare between the governor and the Maryland State Education Association. The difference is stark and startling, and the discord could have wide-ranging political implications (disclosure: my wife is a public school teacher in Prince George's County).

No entity did more to support former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) in last year’s gubernatorial election than MSEA, the state teachers’ union. So it was hardly surprising that the union and the new governor got off on awkward footing.

But the relationship went from bad to worse – and it appears as if both warring parties should share the blame.

At a very basic level, neither side has gotten out of campaign mode. Hogan has been accused several times of keeping the campaign going when he should be focused more on governing. His State of the State speech, traditionally a governing blueprint, sounded like he hadn’t left the campaign trail. And when he talked in the speech about education, he was most enthusiastic about charter schools and providing tax breaks for contributors to private and parochial schools – agenda items that are anathema to teachers’ unions. There was little doubt that he was trying to poke MSEA in the eye.

When Hogan suggested he might not fully fund the so-called GCEI, a formula that provides supplemental state aid to about half the state’s school systems, including its largest and neediest, the MSEA essentially set up a war room, releasing dramatic data on what the cuts in additional aid could mean for each school district, staging rallies around the state, airing radio ads and designing creative persuasion campaigns online.

Throughout the General Assembly session, the MSEA, with a talented political and communications team, kept the pressure up, alternately fueling or echoing the outrage that emanated from legislative Democrats. Hogan and his aides, meanwhile, essentially flicked off the critics, arguing that the budget he submitted set aside a record amount of money for education – which did not directly address the criticism.

Hogan’s surprising insistence in the final days of the session that Democrats adopt his agenda in its entirety, after earlier reaching a budgetary compromise with lawmakers, seemed fueled in part by his pique at the teachers.

Hogan more recently has taken several steps back from his “my way or the highway” rhetoric of the session’s final days and made decisions on the budget that met his critics halfway – except for the teachers. The union, predictably, was not pleased, and pointed out that while education spending may technically be up, per-pupil spending will be going down.

Hogan ratcheted up his rhetoric against MSEA last week, accusing the union of “launching a heavily-financed smear campaign,” and making a reference to an ad that ran during last year’s campaign that suggested he would zero-out school construction funding.

It is clear now that Hogan has taken page from the national Republican playbook, a tactic perfected by his mentor, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, of scapegoating teachers and their unions for his state’s ills, real and imagined. So much for Hogan being a “different” kind of Republican.

Behind his affable veneer, Hogan now seems to be practicing the politics of personal resentments, a questionable tactic that did so much damage to his friend and former boss Bob Ehrlich. MSEA and House Speaker Mike Busch (D) are his two favorite punching bags – and are likely to remain that way.

But if Hogan is being a bully, then the teachers are being tone-deaf. No one is expecting them to be allies; there is zero doubt that MSEA will be endorsing the Democratic nominee for governor in 2018 and not Hogan.

But the same is true of environmental groups and public employee unions like AFSCME. They are almost certainly also going to endorse the Democrat in 2018 as well. Yet these groups have come to realize that the permanent campaign is not desirable, and that there ought to be some effort at finding a middle ground in the intervening years before campaign season returns.

That point was buttressed further by reports that two leading environmental groups, 1000 Friends of Maryland and the League of Conservation Voters, put out in recent days assessing Hogan’s first 100 days office. They didn’t pull any punches when it came to the criticisms they offered, but they also pointed out the things he’s done that they liked – including the cabinet members he’s appointed that they respect – and also laid out policy prescriptions that they hope he follows. Maryland LCV diplomatically said the governor has shown promise.

That’s a pragmatic approach that should serve the environmental agenda well during the next couple of years.

Does the agenda of the teachers’ union suffer because its leaders are at war with Hogan? That’s debatable – because the union’s position on the GCEI is in sync with legislative leaders in Annapolis, and has widespread support from county leaders of both parties.

Still, it might do the teachers some good to turn down the rhetoric for a while. Then again, Hogan hasn’t given them much reason to. In the end, nobody looks very good in a food fight.

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