John O. Sullivan
“He shall, from time to time, inform the Legislature of the condition of the State and recommend to their consideration such measures as he may judge necessary and expedient.” -Article II, Section 19 of the Maryland Constitution
Last week, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland delivered the annual State of the State address to a television audience and a joint meeting of the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. The address is a state-level mirror of the President’s State of the Union, in which the Governor addresses the Maryland General Assembly and Marylanders, and effectively rolls out his agenda for the coming year. This comes as Governor Hogan’s third, and arguably one of his most important legislative sessions as governor. It also had the added backdrop of a looming gubernatorial battle in 2018, his own sky-high popularity, and the Democratic leadership’s growing panic at the prospect of a two-term Republican governor.
The address covered a fairly wide range of topics, carefully chosen to tout the Governor’s achievements and refute criticisms against him as Maryland moves into what will likely be a divisive legislative session. One of those achievements was Maryland’s economic growth. In his State of the State, Gov. Hogan said:
We are experiencing tremendous job growth, business growth, and an exciting economic resurgence in Maryland. Businesses are returning to – and expanding in – our state once again. Maryland truly is Open for Business.
On the campaign trail, then-candidate Hogan campaigned hard on economic “pocketbook” issues, like lowering taxes, cutting back on government fees, and making Maryland more business-friendly. Whether you attribute it to an accelerating national recovery from the recession or to Governor Hogan’s Maryland-specific policies, unemployment is in fact down almost a third, from 6.0% when he took office to 4.2% now. The national unemployment rate has fallen during this period as well, though Maryland’s has fallen slightly faster (30% reduction compared to 28.8% reduction) and remains slightly better (4.2% MD unemployment vs 4.7% US unemployment).
Hogan also drove hard on Education. Governor Hogan has been continually criticized by leading state Democrats on education, which is good politics even if the attacks aren’t always factually accurate. In May 2015, Hogan was widely criticized for funding a juvenile prison after refusing increased funding for Baltimore City schools (even though by not having the prison, the state was violating federal law and housing juveniles with adults in the same prison). He was also attacked for withholding money from schools in order to further endow the state pension fund. This past fall, after withholding money from schools, the largest Maryland teacher’s union denounced him, prompting Hogan to call them “union thugs” (set aside the fact that the General Assembly intentionally forced Governor Hogan into a corner by making the programs to be funded “all or nothing,” not allowing the Governor to pick and choose the programs to fund). Governor Hogan was criticized as the 2017 legislative session began for “cutting” funding to schools, even though he was following the school funding formula established by the Democrat-controlled legislature. As recently as this week, Maryland Democrats have made efforts to liken Governor Hogan’s education policies to Trump and Betsy DeVos, saying “Governor Hogan continues his record of putting private and charter schools before public schools,” The Democrats are clearly trying to paint a picture when it comes to Governor Hogan: that he’s anti-teacher and anti-schools. While this picture is inaccurate at best, it remains a compelling narrative. In the words of the great Joshua Lyman “according to every poll conducted in the universe, the issue that concerns Americans more than any other is education.” Democrat attempts to tie Governor Hogan to Trump have failed, their attempts to put him on the wrong side of issues like the environment haven’t caught much traction, their attempts to drag him down with petty trivia and ephemera have been comical. The only plausible club Democrats seem to have in their bag to drag Governor Hogan’s approval ratings down is education. Even that hasn’t worked yet, but people care about their kids and they care about education. Hogan was wise to shoot back and advocate his own education agenda from the unfiltered bully pulpit of the State of the State address.
Governor Hogan also had a recurring theme of bipartisanship mixed with policy advocacy. Put more simply, the main message of the speech was “I’ll work with the Dems, but I also have better ideas than them.” One of the key points of this theme was the Governor’s advocacy for his paid sick leave plan. The governor’s plan would require businesses with at least 50 employees to provide 5 days of paid sick leave, and offer tax benefits to businesses with less than 50 employees that still choose to offer paid sick leave. The governor, through his press office, has described this plan as “common sense, balanced paid sick leave benefits that have the potential to cover nearly all working Marylanders without placing an unmanageable burden on job creators.” Democrats, of course, are grumbling that Hogan is just stealing their ideas and marketing them as his own. The part they left out is where he steals their ideas and then makes them more centrist (and in some ways, better). Governor Hogan also touted law enforcement issues, along with his Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force. Drug use is an issue that Maryland (especially Baltimore) Democrats have been screaming about for decades with little actual policy success, but as it has become an issue of national prominence, Governor Hogan took action and has made himself a leader on an issue that is growing in the eyes of Marylanders (I’ll leave out the part about how relieved I am that White Republicans have finally noticed there is a drug problem in America).
Of course, there was a little pandering to be had too. Election season is right around the corner, after all. Hogan dropped in a line about passing the Hometown Heroes Act, which would exempt retired military, police, fire, and first responders from paying income taxes on their pensions, a piece of legislation that makes little sense from a policy standpoint but will surely draw wide support. I mean come on, who couldn’t get behind supporting people who dedicated their lives to saving others? He also spent multiple paragraphs on the Chesapeake Bay. The full body of Governor Hogan’s legislative portfolio suggests he is not especially strong on environmental issues (Just last week, Democrats voted to override Hogan’s veto of a clean energy bill), but Marylanders LOVE the Chesapeake Bay. 81% of Marylanders in 2013 supported halting a natural gas project to study the impact it would have on the Chesapeake Bay. Marylanders voluntarily chose to spend an extra $11 million over 14 years for more expensive “Save the Bay” license plates that raised money for bay restoration projects. In 2016, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation received almost $6 million in individual donations and membership contributions. Marylanders don’t mess around when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay, so it’s always good for a Maryland politician to be for saving it, even if it is in words only.
On the whole, though Governor Hogan is no great orator, it was a superb speech. Even with his massive popularity, Governor Hogan has his work cut out for him to retain the Governor’s Mansion. Typically, the third legislative session of a Governor’s term is particularly important and divisive for Republican governors in Maryland. While he still has another session and State-of-the-State address before reelection, in Maryland the third SOTS has traditionally been considered to be the unofficial kick off to a sitting Governor’s reelection campaign, and Hogan nailed the tone and message exactly. He was able to advocate for his own agenda while remaining above the partisan politics that dragged down Maryland’s last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich. We’ll see how long he is able to remain above the fray, but Governor Hogan was able to look very gubernatorial and centrist, which is exactly what he needs right now. If I were a leading Democrat seeking the governorship, I’d be sweating bullets right now.
You can read the full text of the governor’s State of the State address here.