By Barry Rascovar, for MarylandReporter.com
Talk about an uneven fight! When it comes to shaping the Maryland state budget Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. is the pre-determined champion.
Think of the budget as a balloon. The governor decides how much air gets pumped into the balloon ($40 billion). Once this is done, the legislature can let out some of that air but it cant expand the size of the balloon at all.
This year the new Republican governor embarked on a truth-in-budgeting drive, eliminating much of Marylands underlying structural deficit with $1.3 billion in cuts.
In other words, Hogan gave the legislature a dramatically smaller balloon to play with. And theres nothing lawmakers can do to create a bigger budget balloon short of raising taxes pretty much of a non-starter this year.
Hogans budget Deflategate
By taking a considerable amount of air out of former Democratic Gov. Martin OMalleys overinflated budget balloon of last year, Hogan created his own deflategate controversy.
While Marylands gregarious governor cant be compared to the frowning Bill Belichick of the NFLs deflategate kerfuffle, Hogan isnt making Democrats in the General Assembly happy.
The Black Caucus wants Hogan to reconsider his cuts to education in key aid categories that overwhelmingly impact two of the states worst-performing school districts Baltimore City and Prince Georges County. A number of rural counties lost education funding, too, and their lawmakers are upset as well.
Even Senate President Mike Miller, who is attempting to remain on good terms with Hogan, said, Weve got to try to get more money in the classroom.
Easier said than done, as the cagey Miller well knows.
New reality for Democrats
What Democrats are facing is a new playing field. Hogan brings to the table decades of experience as a real estate salesman. Hes got definite ideas on how to run the state in a business-like manner. That begins with keeping spending under control.
Thus, his first budget contains fewer transfers and gimmicks than during the OMalley years, or even the Ehrlich years. Hogan spread his budget cuts around, though education and health care the two biggest spending drivers took the heaviest hits.
Hogan also is seeking legislative approval to weaken the state spending mandates on education, health care and the environment, among others. He wants those mandates changed so that required funding grows at a slower rate than the states overall spending plan.
This is straight out of Economics 101 make sure you dont pay out more than you take in, and build in a cushion.
No Free Ride
If Democrats follow Hogans request, Marylands underlying structural deficit could be on the road to elimination for a few years.
But Hogan isnt going to be given a free ride.
Compromises on both sides are inevitable. The hit to education will be moderated and some other cuts will be, too.
With guidance from the Department of Legislative Services, lawmakers will make $100 million or more in budget reductions in other areas. They also could juggle fund accounts and transfers in a manner that creates more cash in the states general fund budget.
Give-and-take discussions with Hogan and Budget Secretary David Brinkley could be intense but will likely lead to common ground. In the end, the blow to education wont be as severe.
Lower Spending Mandates?
As for Hogans request to lower annual spending mandates, the General Assembly may take a firmer stand.
Democrats cannot totally rebuff Hogans request to re-write the spending mandates because they then would have to find the money to pay for this new funding an impossibility without raising taxes.
More likely, lawmakers will meet Hogan halfway reduce the annual, mandated growth contained in these spending formulas, but not as much as the governor wants.
The sad reality for lawmakers is that Hogan doesnt need a permanent change in the spending mandates to carry out his fiscal belt-tightening. If necessary, he can follow the same budget script in 2016 and beyond as this year, leaving lawmakers with little recourse but to go along with Hogan after hammering out some concessions.
Hogan wins either way.
Adjusting to this new playing field isnt comfortable for Democrats, who are used to having the governor tack on a few more tax increases to support ever-growing, mandated payments to local governments and social programs.
Yet Hogans budget adjustments are far from Draconian. Hes practicing traditional, conservative economics without being vindictive or mean-spirited. Democrats in Annapolis have little choice but to adapt. Their only effective weapons: Political negotiation and compromise.
Barry Rascovars blog can be found at http://www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar [at] hotmail.com.