Gov. Larry Hogan gives State of the State address as Senate President Mike Miller, left, and House Speaker Michael Busch listen. (Photo: MarylandReporter.com)
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 4, 2016)—The tone of Gov. Larry Hogan’s State of the State address to the legislature Wednesday was far more conciliatory than last year. But for many Democrats the tune was all too familiar, and they weren’t singing along.
Addressing the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, he used the word “together” 26 times and the word “bipartisan” six times in his half-hour speech. He talked about the legislators working with him and helping him, he challenged them “to put aside partisanship.”
“In the days ahead, I extend my hand to you—in cooperation and in devotion to our duty—and I ask each of you, and all Marylanders, to seek that middle ground where we can all stand together,” Hogan said. “Because together, we are stronger.”
“Thanks to your collaboration—we have begun to clean up the problems of yesterday. Now, let’s come together once again to take care of today’s challenges, and to provide for a brighter tomorrow.”
At another point, Hogan said: “This past year, we ushered in a new era of bipartisanship in Maryland.”
Bipartisanship claim has Dems laughing
Before the speech, Democratic state and local elected officials had gathered to criticize the governor.
Asked about evidence of Hogan’s bipartisanship, they laughed.
“We are here to work with Gov. Hogan,” said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, “but there is a point where your press releases, your press conferences have to match up with your policies. … This is about putting your funding where your mouth is.”
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a potential rival to Hogan in the 2018 election, was particularly scornful of Hogan's policies, asking “Where's the beef?”
“The governor has promised to provide record funding for education and yet how much money is in this budget beyond the minimum operating budget that’s required by law? Zero,” said Kamenetz. Money to tear down vacant houses and new money to invest in Baltimore housing? "Zero," Kamenetz said. A dedicated pot of school construction to pay for air conditioning units? "Zero," he said.
(The full video of the Democratic press conference is on the Facebook page of Bryan Sears of the Daily Record.)
Democratic criticism before and after
Those charges came an hour before the Republican governor had uttered a word from the rostrum of the House of Delegates chamber.
After the speech, Democrats said the rhetoric hardly matched the reality of Hogan’s first year.
“It was so far off the scale,” said Del. Frank Turner, a Howard County Democrat who is vice chair of the Ways & Means. “It was unbelievable,” said Turner, throwing up his hands.
His first-term Howard County seat mates, two of the three doctors in the legislature, were disappointed in a more subdued way.
“It’s disheartening to hear how bad the state is,” said Del. Terri Hill, after “how hard we’ve worked” to improve conditions and fund programs.
Del. Clarence Lam said, “He’s very quick to take credit for work that has been done by a lot of people. His words don’t match his actions.”
Still fuming over school funding
Particularly galling to Democrats is Hogan's boast: "This year, we will break our historic record-high investment in public education from last year, and thanks to your help, I have become the first governor in Maryland history to ever fully fund GCEI in his second year."
The legislature's "help" came in a bill forcing the governor to spend the money. Last May, Hogan said he let this legislation become law without his signature because he didn't want to fight a losing battle if he vetoed it.
The Democratic lawmakers and executives continue to fume that he refuses to release $68 million in Geographic Cost of Education Index Funds that they fenced off in this year's budget. And they complain that he takes credit for funding transportation projects with money that he wouldn't have if his efforts to repeal automatic increases in the gasoline tax had been successful.
Little news in familiar package
Hogan gave his 2,800-word speech almost exactly as written from teleprompters.
There was little new in its familiar but polished recitation of accomplishments:
"In just 12 months, we have added more than 55,000 new jobs—the largest gain in the mid-Atlantic region—and we’re adding jobs at one of the fastest rates in the entire country.”
"By improving our economy, creating jobs, standing up to special interest groups, holding the line on new spending, and belt-tightening all across state government, we have made tremendous progress toward solving our state’s fiscal problems."
All the legislative proposals had already been announced in press conferences and press releases, and most of the legislation had already been introduced. This lack of news is a familiar problem for governors of both parties, since the formal State of the State speech comes weeks after their budgets and legislative packages are sent to the General Assembly.
Comparisons to last year
Senate President Mike Miller, praised by Hogan in the speech as someone who "has spent a lifetime tirelessly working on behalf of all Marylanders," said the speech was "better" than last year's. Given that Miller found Hogan's address last year terrible, negative and one of the worst he had even heard, that was faint praise.
Last year's speech had been met by stony silence from Democratic legislators. Some parts of Hogan's speech this year were met with pockets of polite applause from Democrats, while Republican lawmakers stood and applauded several sections.
The only part of the speech that seemed to generate real enthusiasm from the Democrats was Hogan's praise of Pope Francis.
"Pope Francis challenged us to act 'without prejudice, without superiority, and without condescension'—traits that can sometimes drag down even the most well-intentioned of us," said Hogan, who was blessed by the pope on behalf of all cancer patients.
Republican leaders were puzzled by the Democrats' negative reactions.
"It was certainly bipartisan," said Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey. "This is a common sense guy…. He's done a tremendous job outside of the legislative session."
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga called the speech "inspirational" and "an olive branch" to Democrats.
"We do need to work together," Szeliga said. "I think it's a call to everyone."
Pushback from the governor's office
The Democrats' complaints at the morning press conference led to an unusually detailed pushback from Hogan's deputy communication director Doug Mayer.
In an email to reporters, Mayer said: "Instead of launching into partisan, counterproductive, and flat-out misleading attacks, like many of the press conference participants did this morning, below is a very direct and comprehensive review of the facts and the major investments being made in these respective jurisdictions."
"The main takeaway being this," said Mayer. "Prince George's County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore City represent either the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd highest level of funding in terms of direct local aid and in direct aid for K-12 education."