Gov. Larry Hogan may be having his most successful legislative session to date, succeeding with perhaps half of his largest package of fairly modest bills. The novice Republican governor has also been more sure-footed in dealing with the Democrat-dominated legislature, threatening to veto bills more than he did in his first two years.
Faced with a bleaker revenue picture, he has also bargained more successfully over budget issues, using his strong authority over spending to match the power of the Democratic majorities. The failure of Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare has also saved him from the huge loss of federal funding for Medicaid, forcing big cuts and loss of coverage for hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Democratic attempts to tie Hogan to Trump policies that are highly unpopular with Marylanders have also been at least partially successful. Last month, a Washington Post poll showed that Hogan’s approval rating had slipped 6 points to 65%, still a higher rating than the last three governors.
More troublesome, however, was the fact that 41% of registered voters said they would support him for a second term, and 37% preferred a Democrat. This has led to at least six prominent Democrats seriously exploring a race for governor next year.
If Congress approves proposals in Trump’s budget to cut funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, or chop other programs and staffing at many federal agencies, Hogan may have to face more budget and political problems later this year.
Defeat on Sick Leave
Hogan’s major defeat this session will likely come over the paid sick leave legislation that has passed both the House of Delegates and state Senate, but with different provisions that must be reconciled. Small-business groups, like the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association, among others, fought hard to make the bill more palatable.
Faced with broad public support that polls found for paid sick leave, Hogan proposed his own plan that provided sick leave benefits for employers of 50 or more people — which mostly offer sick days off already — and tax incentives for smaller firms. The House and Senate versions mandate the coverage for employers of 15 or more people, offering five to seven days a year off for full-time workers, and smaller amounts for part-time employees.
Hogan promised reporters at a mid-March press conference to veto the bills “immediately,” because they have the potential to kill thousands of jobs and “are disastrous for our economy.” The governor called the bills “partisan attempts to put points on the board and use them against me in the campaign” for his reelection next year.
If the Democratic leadership is able to pass the same version of paid sick leave by April 3, the legislators would force Hogan to act on the bill before the session ends on April 10.
Incentives for Some
Hogan’s sick leave bill never got serious consideration by lawmakers. It does not cover all small employers, only those which are “pass-through entities” such as sole proprietors, partnerships, Chapter S corporations and limited liability companies.
The Hogan bill does not offer incentives to small nonprofit corporations, small stock corporations or businesses that are losing money. And it does not offer tax breaks for business owners that make too much money — $200,000 for an individual or $250,000 for a couple.
Hogan’s tax incentives exempt the first $20,000 in income from Maryland taxes and potentially about $1,700 in tax breaks, according to a Hogan aide. This break would go even for small businesses that have long been offering paid sick leave to employees.
These tax breaks for pass-through entities proposed by Hogan were the top recommendation of the legislature’s Augustine Commission last year, Hogan’s aides have emphasized. The commission’s recommendation was an attempt to reduce Maryland’s high personal tax rates that make the state less competitive for business owners, and were unrelated to sick leave or employee benefits.
The tax incentives are estimated to cost the state $60 million a year in lost revenues.
The mandates in the House and Senate bill cost the state little but put an additional burden on employers who are not currently offering paid sick leave. Sen. Mac Middleton, the Senate Finance Committee chairman sponsoring the bill, pointed out that any employers offering more vacation or personal leave than the bills provide would already be in compliance and would not have to offer any additional benefits.
Hogan has been consistently pro-business in his policies. His sudden switch to support the ban on fracking, the underground hydraulic fracturing of rock formations to release natural gas, came as a surprise, particularly to his Republican allies in Western Maryland.
The Hogan administration had already proposed strict regulations to control the environmental hazards of the practice. With much larger deposits of natural gas in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, fracking was unlikely to happen any time soon in the mountains of far Western Maryland, where it would have been more expensive. A ban on fracking was also popular in statewide polls and even had support of some Republicans in the legislature.
Hogan said he also did not want to see a referendum on the issue, a referendum that would have energized the environmental groups that had made the ban a top priority this session.
School Board Change
The House of Delegates has already passed and sent to the Senate a compromise from the Howard County delegation that would change how Howard County school board members are selected.
In order to achieve geographic and potentially racial balance on the board of education, beginning next year five of the seven elected members would have to live in one of the five county council districts, but would still be elected at large, as would two members also elected at large who could reside anywhere in the county. There is also a student member on the board who is chosen by high school and middle school students, but the student cannot vote on many issues, including decisions on personnel, budget and school boundary lines.
A bill by Dels. Vanessa Atterbeary and Eric Ebersole to give the local school board power to fire the superintendent is apparently dead this session. Only the state school superintendent can fire a local superintendent, even though they are appointed by the local school board.
Race for State’s Attorney?
Howard County Deputy State’s Attorney Kim Yon Oldham is running for the top job with the endorsement of her boss, incumbent State’s Attorney Dario Broccolino, a Democrat, and Republican County Executive Allan Kittleman. Oldham is a Republican.
“I can’t think of anyone better qualified to be state’s attorney,” Broccolino said. “If she were my opponent, I would vote for her.”
“Kim Oldham is exactly the type of home-grown, career prosecutor we need running the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office,” Kittleman said. “Her record in the courtroom is unmatched, and she has a reputation for being strong and fair.”
Broccolino was elected twice with no opposition in the general election, and he was about as non-political as a state’s attorney could be. He also has little sway in the Democratic Party, and it is hard to imagine that no Democratic lawyer will run for the job. Rich Gibson ran against Broccolino in the Democratic primary in 2014 and got 31% of the vote.