Laslo Boyd: Becoming Governor Hogan

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Larry Hogan was elected governor last November and inaugurated in January.  As of May, however, it’s begun to look as though he hasn’t quite figured out the job.

That’s really not surprising nor is it actually a criticism.  Most people take a while to become familiar with a new position.  Any of last year’s candidates would have needed some on-the-job training and a learning curve.

In Hogan’s case, almost all his professional experience was in the private sector.  He’s finding out that governing the State of Maryland is quite different from running a real estate business.  He’s also discovering, sometimes reluctantly, that the State Constitution provides him with partners, including a state legislature which is very protective of its prerogatives.  That body also often has very different views from those of the occupant of the Second Floor of the Statehouse.

Hogan’s first few months in office were characterized by a number of different approaches to exercising his powers.  At times, he seems to lurch from one position to another without any explanation why.  He’s won praise for some actions and drawn strong negative responses for others. 

As Governor, Hogan has not established a clear pattern for his term in office.  As of now, he still has time and flexibility to shape the critical relationships that will determine the likelihood of his success.   However, recent actions, if not addressed and corrected, may limit his options and lock him into a cycle of conflict that dooms any chance of leaving his mark on the state.

One highpoint was the way in which he started his term, focused on collaboration and moderation.  Maybe it was just a matter of style, but in January he convinced a lot of people that he was not going to pursue an ideological agenda or seek confrontation with Democrats who control the General Assembly.  Even then, however, it wasn’t clear what Hogan was in favor of or what his goals as governor would be.

A second round of positive reviews resulted from Hogan’s approach to the protests that turned into riots in Baltimore.  He conveyed a take-charge attitude, was visible and present, and showed a level of leadership that was widely appreciated.  Even the sniping in the media between Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not really diminish the positive image that he established during that period.

Contrast that “kinder and gentler” Larry Hogan with the partisan, confrontational Larry Hogan who delivered a campaign-like State of the State Address.  Or the one who, in the last days of the legislative session, undercut and torpedoed a budget deal that his administration had made with the leadership of the General Assembly.  I’ve talked to a number of key participants in those discussions who still don’t understand what motivated the governor to pick that fight.

Then, last week, Hogan administered a self-inflicted wound that totally defies logic.  By deciding to line-item veto a capital budget project in Speaker Mike Busch’s district, the Governor picked up three strikes on one pitch.  First, his decision looks petty and vindictive.  You might wonder whether his chief advisor on that decision was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose confrontational style charmed people initially but is now wearing exceedingly thin.

The second flaw with the decision is that it shows that Hogan and his team don’t understand the powers of the office or the constraints of the Constitution.  Vetoing a capital budget item does not free up money that can be spent for operating budget purposes.    That’s Budgeting 101.  Then there’s the problem that the Governor can’t spend on projects that have not been authorized by the General Assembly.  Finally, there’s the small matter that the legislature has the ability to override a veto, something you wouldn’t bet against in this case.

But as disturbing as the first two strikes are, what puts Hogan back in the dugout is his gratuitous sticking his finger in the eye of a person whose cooperation he will need in the next three years if he wants to get anything done.   Hogan may have become too enamored of his “new sheriff in town” rhetoric, but this is a huge political mistake.  Directly disrespecting the Speaker is a rookie mistake and he better figure out how to correct it soon.

I confess that I don’t understand Hogan’s wild swings between collaboration and confrontation.  I really do believe he is still in a learning phase.  Beyond that, it’s hard to know who on his staff or outside is influencing his thinking.  Chris Christie?  Other Republican governors?  Staff who come from a different political environment than Maryland?

Another relevant factor is the apparent absence of any driving set of political goals or underlying philosophy of government.  His campaign for office focused almost exclusively on opposition to tax and fee increases under Martin O’Malley.  The General Assembly is never going to make those rollbacks easy, which may have come as a surprise to Hogan.

The “repeal” of the Republican labeled “rain tax” didn’t really change anything but will be touted as a victory.  The rollback of tolls may be popular in the short term, but will exact a heavy cost in terms of new transportation projects and maintenance of infrastructure in the future.   That’s about the extent of the low hanging fruit available to a Republican governor facing a legislature dominated by Democrats.

Where does Hogan go from here?  There’s no question that as head of the executive branch he will have a significant impact on many aspects of life in Maryland in the next three and a half years.  He can also cut back on state spending through his budget powers.  If he does, however, the General Assembly is likely to respond by adding legislative mandated spending, the opposite of what Hogan intended.

If he wants a legacy that is more than four years of partisan conflict, Hogan will have to figure out how to build or rebuild a constructive relationship with Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch.   Let’s see how he handles his next time at bat.

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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.