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State Political Analysis: Bipartisan Talk Overwhelmed by Election-Year Partisan Politics

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Gov. Larry Hogan talked a lot about bipartisan cooperation in his State of the State address to the General Assembly last month. Democratic legislators say it was mostly talk.

There is little evidence of real give-and-take between the second floor of the State House where the governor and his staff have their offices, they say, and the first floor chambers where the legislators meet.

Democrats do not bother to talk about bipartisanship in a legislature where they hold two-thirds of the seats. But in practice, in most of 13 standing committees, there is real cooperation and respect between Democratic legislators and the minority Republicans.

Hogan and the Democratic leaders do agree, in general, that the extreme partisanship in Washington is bad, and Annapolis is much better.

Hogan mentioned Washington in negative terms six times in his address. “One need only look to Washington to see the destruction that is caused when hyper-partisanship and inflammatory rhetoric permeate the debate, and erode our faith in the institutions of government,” he said.

“We don’t want Annapolis to become like Washington, where bad policy is passed with a promise that a fix will come later,” Hogan said later in the speech. He was referring to the paid sick leave bill that Democrats overwhelmingly passed last month, overriding his veto. Hardly a bipartisan gesture.

Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat, gave the Democrats’ response to Hogan’s relatively short, 23-minute, 2,400-word speech — in sharp contrast to President Trump’s 80-minute message the night before.

King, whose remarks were pre-recorded, five times criticized “Washington Republicans,” and Republicans several times more. Key takeaway: Dems good, GOP bad.

Republican Hogan doesn’t want anything to do with Trump — and is more actively opposing his policies, such as cutting funds for the Chesapeake and cuts to Obamacare subsidies that will raise health insurance rates. Democrats, on the other hand, want to lump Hogan together with Trump, and those other nasty Washington Republicans.

No Turning Back

Hogan’s main message is that he is not at all like that other chief executive down the road, and that he gets along with everybody. As they have for more than a year, Democrats want to remind voters that Hogan is at least nominally of the same party as Trump, even though the president is pretty much his own brand.

Hogan’s other main message, besides touting more jobs, higher wages, an improving economy, great schools and a super-educated workforce, is that “we cannot afford to turn back now,” a phrase he used six times in his speech.

Translation: “You cannot afford to turn me out of office” in this year’s election.

On top of many smaller goals that legislators might have this session, Democrats want to pound home the message that “we cannot afford” to give Hogan a second term, especially with redistricting coming up in 2021.

Feds Giveth, Taketh

One of the issues where there should be bipartisan cooperation is fixing the damage done to some Marylanders by the new federal tax code.

In this case, the federal government giveth and the government taketh away.

If state income tax law is not changed this session, Maryland taxpayers will pay at least $572 million more in state and local taxes next year, while their combined federal tax burden would decrease by $2.8 billion, a report by the comptroller’s office found.

Its analysis calculated that 71% of the state’s taxpayers will pay less in federal taxes, 13% will pay more and 16% will pay the same.

The increase is mainly due to a new $10,000 limitation on state and local tax for federal itemized deductions. This will prompt the majority of taxpayers to opt for a new, larger standard deduction, said the comptroller’s report.

Under current law, Marylanders who choose a standard deduction on their federal income taxes are required to do the same for their state income taxes.

Hogan, who continually touts fairly meager tax cuts he’s been able to achieve, is loath to see any tax hikes for a state with among the highest income taxes in the nation. He favors a bill that would allow Marylanders to take standard deductions at the federal level, while still being able to itemize state deductions.

A few liberal Democrats would like to keep the revenue windfall and spend it, but all legislators know that you don’t raise taxes in an election year, especially when a GOP governor could use it as a political bludgeon.

Democratic leaders favor a slightly different approach, increasing Maryland’s skimpy personal exemptions and, like the governor, allowing people to itemize even if they take the standard deduction on the federal form.

With the goal of no inadvertent tax hikes, a compromise should be easy to achieve, but Democrats want to claim their plan is better than the governor’s.

The problem will get resolved in favor of most taxpayers in some fashion, because neither side wants to get blamed for higher taxes. If it were a Democratic governor up for reelection, a mutually agreeable solution would be a piece of cake.

$44.4B Budget

Hogan’s $44.4 billion budget plan was put together before the federal tax changes were passed and their consequences for Marylanders figured out. The budget increases by just 2%, with no new taxes.

You’ll sometimes hear lower figures bandied about for the size of the state budget. Some stories will refer to the state “operating budget” of $17.7 billion, but that’s just the “general fund” budget. That doesn’t include transportation spending or the federal funds, the largest single source of state revenues (29%, $13 billion).

The next biggest source of revenue is the personal income tax (22%, $9.8 billion), followed by the sales tax (11%, $4.8 billion).
Where does the money go? Health care in one form or another, but mostly Medicaid, eats up a third of the budget, $14.5 billion, followed by education, with an almost equal amount; then, it’s $8.1 billion (18%) for K–12 and $6.6 billion for higher education (15%).

Filing Deadline Feb. 27

By the end of the month, we’ll know how all the state and local races shape up. The filing deadline is Tuesday, Feb. 27.

You may have heard that there are eight or nine Democrats running for governor. But only one perennial Democrat candidate, Ralph Jaffe, has actually filed, along with his wife Freda, for lieutenant governor.

A major reason is that, like the Jaffes, a candidate for governor must file together with his or her running mate for lieutenant governor (LG). Only Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president, has announced an LG running mate, Susan Turnbull of Montgomery County, a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.

The other candidates seem to be having trouble finding an LG candidate qualified to run the state government. There’s no guarantee they’ll win the primary, particularly the four Democrats who have never held elected office, and no assurance that they can beat a popular incumbent — even though he has a scarlet “R” on his forehead.