Analysis: Larry Hogan Meets Harry Houdini

By Josh Kurtz

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) had three doors he could walk through after the Democratic-led General Assembly passed a version of paid sick leave legislation he could not abide.

He could sign the legislation – highly unlikely, given his rhetoric about it. He could let the measure become law without his signature – a politically expedient tactic he has used before. Or he could veto it.

But Hogan is a political Houdini: He found a fourth door on Thursday – and a possible political escape.

He did, in fact, veto the bill. But, amid the inevitable criticism that would follow such a move, he also took several steps to try to regain the upper hand in the debate over how to expand paid family leave in the state.

“As I have repeatedly said, I fully support paid sick leave benefits for Marylanders,” Hogan asserted.

The governor on Thursday signed an executive order creating a multi-agency task force to study the impact of sick leave on small businesses and come up with recommendations for emergency legislation that could be introduced on the first day of the 2018 General Assembly session and, theoretically, become law almost immediately. He tasked state Labor Secretary Kelly Schulz to lead the study and put forth a proposal by December.

Hogan also ordered paid sick leave benefits extended to 8,000 contractual employees at state agencies – and urged the legislative and judicial branches to do the same. And he decreed that for large state procurement contracts, preference will be given to bidders whose companies provide paid sick leave to their workers.

But legislative leaders, who ignored Hogan’s own less expansive sick leave bill this year, signaled that on the first day of the 2018 session, their plan is to override Hogan’s veto of their legislation.

“This was House Bill 1 because it is a priority for the General Assembly and it will be a priority to override in January,” House Speaker Mike Busch (D) said in a statement.

Predictably, the many advocacy groups that worked to pass the Democrats’ version of sick leave reacted angrily to Hogan’s veto. Equally predictably, business groups expressed their relief and support.

Hogan likes to use the words “commonsense” and “compromise” to describe his priorities and legislation, and that has especially been true with paid sick leave. But there is scant evidence that Hogan or the General Assembly bothered to explore any sort of compromise during the 2017 session or the months leading up to it. Busch on Thursday called the Democrats’ bill “carefully balanced” – and said it was written with small businesses in mind.

The lack of effort to reach a compromise is especially noteworthy given that Hogan’s legislative office is led by one ex-lawmaker, former state Sen. Chris Shank (R), and features another, former Del. Keiffer Mitchell (D). Former state Sen. Marty Madden (R), who remains popular with his ex-Democratic colleagues, is a senior adviser. And Schulz, Hogan’s Labor secretary, once served on the House Economic Matters Committee, which wrote the sick leave legislation.

But neither side seems interested in compromise. In fact, Hogan sounded Thursday like a man eager to start campaigning and bludgeoning the Democrats.

“We cannot afford to turn back to the failed job-killing policies of the past,” Hogan said at his news conference. “Our administration fully supports paid sick leave benefits for Marylanders, but we cannot and will not support this job-killing bill passed by the legislature, which would hurt the very workers that they are pretending to want to help. The refusal of legislative leaders to meet us halfway, to negotiate with us, or to try to reach a compromise represents the very kind of politics that people are completely fed up with.”

But Democrats believe the paid sick leave issue is a political winner for them.

“Today the people of Maryland saw the Hogan Hype Machine at it again,” said state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D), a likely candidate for governor, in a statement. “…Sadly, Hogan sat on the sidelines while Democrats in the legislature did the hard work. If Governor Hogan truly cared about providing sick leave to more working Marylanders, he would have signed this compromise legislation today.”

And Maryland Democratic Chairwoman Kathleen Matthews said, “Voters will remember in next year’s election that Governor Larry Hogan put his own agenda ahead of the health of working Marylanders and their families.”

Will they remember?

Polls have shown that expanded paid sick leave is broadly popular in Maryland. But most voters probably aren’t paying much attention to the differences between Hogan’s measure and the legislature’s.

So what will happen in the next several months? By not just vetoing the Democrats’ bill but also extending the debate, Hogan seems to have bought himself more time and given himself another opportunity to assert his support for the concept of paid sick leave.

Will the voters buy it? And will it actually yield tangible results?

It’s easy to see angry activists turning up at the Schulz-led task force meetings across the state, like the supporters of Obamacare protesting at congressional Republicans’ town halls around the country. That’s not necessarily a desirable optic for Hogan – though it could always backfire on the advocates in this ever-more polarized political environment.

What’s clear is that we don’t really know where this debate will be in January 2018 – or in November 2018, for that matter.

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