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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Instead of Railing Against Hogan's Budget, Assembly Democrats Should Focus Efforts on Reforming the Process

It's abundantly clear that most Democratic members of the Maryland General Assembly are not pleased with major elements of Governor Hogan's proposed budget. The most contentious issues include a significant reduction in the rate of increase for spending on K-12 education and the elimination of a promised 2% cost of living increase for state employees. House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate Budget Committee Vice Chair Richard Madaleno have been among the most vocal opponents of the budget. Numerous Democrats have pledged to fight Hogan's budget.

But their pledges and their passions amount to next to nothing. There is precious little that any Democrat (or Republican) in the Assembly can do to substantively change Hogan's budget. Maryland adopted an executive centered budget process via a constitutional amendment it 1916 and ever since the General Assembly has been without the power of the purse. According to the constitution of Maryland, the Assembly cannot increase spending in the governor's budget and it cannot move funds around in an effort to increase funding in one area by reducing it elsewhere. All the Assembly can really do is reduce the amount of spending proposed by the governor.  The Assembly can introduce legislation to provide funding for programs - but only if the legislation identifies a funding source (e.g. raising taxes). Certainly, members of the Assembly can work with Hogan and try to convince him to introduce a supplemental budget that provides more funding for programs they value, but failing that, Hogan's budget will stand.

If Democrats in the Assembly really want to make a difference they will work to support SB 660, sponsored by Senators Madaleno, Guzzone, and Manno.  The bill would undo a constitutional amendment that has long outlived it's usefulness. The key section in the state constitution can be found in Article 2, Sec. 52 (6):
(6) The General Assembly shall not amend the Budget Bill so as to affect either the obligations of the State under Section 34 of Article III of the Constitution, or the provisions made by the laws of the State for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools or the payment of any salaries required to be paid by the State of Maryland by the Constitution thereof; and the General Assembly may amend the bill by increasing or diminishing the items therein relating to the General Assembly, and by increasing or diminishing the items therein relating to the judiciary, but except as hereinbefore specified, may not alter the said bill except to strike out or reduce items therein, provided, however, that the salary or compensation of any public officer shall not be decreased during his term of office; and such bill, when and as passed by both Houses, shall be a law immediately without further action by the Governor (amended by Chapter 373, Acts of 1972, ratified Nov. 7, 1972).
So in Maryland, the General Assembly is allowed to amend the budget to increase or decrease appropriations for the operation of the General Assembly or the judiciary, but it all other cases it may only reduce or eliminate spending. This is simply ridiculous! It's hard to imagine anything more counter to the concept of representational democracy than a legislature without the power of the purse. In no other state are legislators so irrelevant to the budget process. In roughly half of the states, governors are tasked with developing a budget (much like the president), but that budget is then subject to revision by the legislature. In the other half, the governor and the legislature share the responsibility of making the budget.

How did we wind up with such an executive-centric process? We overreacted to a budget crisis. Maryland was faced with a huge deficit in 1916 and the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the General Assembly. Our solution? Strip the Assembly of its budget power and hand it all over to the governor. We see how well that worked out. Our ongoing struggles with structural deficits make clear that executives are not any better at budgeting than are legislators.

It's time for Maryland to undo the overreaction of 1916. Instead of offering what are largely hollow pledges to "fight spending cuts," legislators should instead focus on an amendment to the state constitution that would restore the legislature's proper role in the budget process. SB 660 would restore the legislature's role while still respecting the power of the governor. The legislation is far from perfect, especially with regard to the line item veto restrictions that it would place on the governor, but it's a good start.

And no, I'm not proposing this because there's a Republican governor or because I agree with those who would have you believe that Hogan's budget is a draconian overreach. I'm proposing this reform for the same reason I support redistricting reform, because both proposals would boost accountability and representation - two essential ingredients for democracy (unfortunately, none of the redistricting reform legislation introduced thus far is worth discussing).

** I'd like to add that I think Republicans in the Assembly should line up in support of this reform as well. There have been 2 Republican governors in the last 4 decades in Maryland. In most circumstances the GOP is totally shut out of the budget process. If the Assembly actually played a meaningful role then the GOP could gain opportunities to have a role as well. And keep in mind, the GOP made historic gains in the 2014 election. In the Senate, they GOP is 5 seats away from being able to filibuster legislation, thereby earning an automatic seat at the bargaining table. There are 4 Democratic Senators who won with less that 52% of the vote and another 4 or 5 who won in districts carried by Larry Hogan. At present, the MD GOP is one or two election cycles away from being a full-fledged minority partner in governing in the General Assembly. Wouldn't it be better to be a minority partner with the ability to influence the budget as opposed to a minority partner forced to wait for the next Republican governor? 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Maryland Senate Democrats Offer A Clear Reminder of Why Hogan Won

In response to Larry Hogan's "partisan" and "campaign-like" state of the state speech last week, Senate Democrats in the MD General Assembly have decided to take a page from the Mitch McConnell School of Partisanship by slowing down approval of Hogan's appointments and by subjecting the appointees to retaliatory treatment... In other words, Senate Democrats are responding to a speech by jeopardizing the proper functioning of state government. It's always great to see my state Senators behaving like my 4 year old... 

I wrote last week that I believed Hogan committed a strategic error with his first state of the state address as it was a time for more cooperative language. But Hogan did win. And he won comfortably against the Maryland Democratic Establishment's hand-picked and coddled candidate. And Hogan won on a message and an agenda identical to what he proposed in his speech before the Assembly. So what did Assembly Democrats expect to hear? Did they think Hogan would stand before them, hat in hand, and pledge to make a better Maryland for more Marylanders? If they did, they were either naive or arrogant.

And let's keep something very important in mind. Martin O'Malley's state of the state speeches were partisan as well. And in recent years they amounted to little more than test runs for potential campaign themes in a future presidential run. And as Assembly Republicans sat on their hands, Democrats dutifully rose and applauded. But no one in the Assembly or the press cared that O'Malley was being partisan. No one cared that his speeches may have offended Assembly Republicans. With Hogan's speech, Democrats got a taste of their own medicine and decided they didn't like it. Too bad.

Yes, I think Hogan made a strategic error with the speech, but Senate Democrats are behaving like children. I half expect them to announce plans to hold their collective breath until they turn blue if holding up his nominees doesn't force Hogan to come before them seeking forgiveness. 

Senate Democrats may be pleasing the party faithful, the partisan activists, and the other members of the state Democratic establishment that failed to deliver victory in November, but I suspect that their behavior is reminding a lot of voters why they decided to stay home and a lot of other voters why they decided to vote for Hogan.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Hogan May Have Stumbled, But State Democrats Fell Flat

Newly elected governor Larry Hogan delivered his first State of the State address this week and though he started off on the wrong foot he planted a firm landing. Hogan opened his speech be repeating much of his campaign rhetoric concerning the weak state of Maryland's economy. I believe he got some bad advice. He should've opened by saying the election was over, the time for assigning blame passed, and time to work together at hand. Instead, he told an Assembly full of Democrats that they had horribly mismanaged the state and he was there to fix their mess. That's an odd strategy considering that Hogan can't accomplish any of his broader agenda without the support of some Assembly Democrats. But once Hogan transitioned to his 11 point plan he recovered quickly and closed strong.

Even though I think Larry Hogan erred a bit in his speech, the Democrats' reaction has been downright ridiculous and really shows how coddled the establishment has been in this state. In reality, Hogan offered a pretty modest and moderate agenda - no automatic gas tax increases, a small personal property tax exemption for small businesses, a repeal of the so-called Rain Tax (keep in mind that the Total Maximum Daily Load mandate from the EPA applied to Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. But only Maryland implemented a tax to comply. So other approaches do exist), restrained growth in the rate of funding increases, renewed support for public financing of gubernatorial elections, and a fair redistricting process. There is nothing radical, ridiculous, our unreasonable in this agenda.

But state Democrats reacted as if Hogan had offered right wing, fire and brimstone red meat. Democratic Senator James Rosapepe suggested the speech represented a mix of Republican and Tea Party appeals. I'm sorry, but if Hogan wanted to appeal to the Tea Party, he would've delivered a far different speech. In reality, Hogan's speech was a reasonable response to the 2014 election results that saw the election of only the 2nd Republican governor in 4 decades and included record gains for Republicans elsewhere in the state (and if MD had a non-partisan redistricting process the GOP gains would've been even greater). It's a sad commentary that to some state Democrats moderation and pragmatism is equated with Tea Party extremism.

Unfortunately, too many Assembly Democrats had become accustomed to having a fellow partisan come before them, heap praise upon all they were doing, and tell them to keep up the good work. Voters sent a different message last November (only a fool would blame Anthony Brown for the outcome). The days of praise are over (for at least the next 4 years). Hogan's speech offered a rude awakening to many in the Democratic establishment and their reactions suggest that many had still not come to grips with the outcome of the election. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Anne Kaiser's Democratic response was a tone deaf bit of fluff that should have been backed by a choir of Democratic Assembly members singing "Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie. If voters agreed with Kaiser's take on the state of the state then Anthony Brown would've delivered the State of the State address and not Larry Hogan.

In the end, Hogan's speech, the official Democratic response, and the reaction of establishment Democrats tell us that Hogan understands the results of the 2014 election, but that many Democrats still don't. I mean who could sit stone faced and silent in response to a call for fair redistricting reform? Turns out the answer is nearly every Democratic member of the General Assembly. Hogan may have stumbled a bit out of the gate, but it was establishment Democrats who fell flat in the end. Yes, Hogan needs the support of Assembly Democrats to accomplish many elements of his agenda, but in a state where the governor essentially dictates the budget and wields a veto pen, Assembly Democrats may need him more.