State of the State Speech Offers a Glimpse Into the State of Hogan

By Bruce DePuyt

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) delivers the final State of the State address of his term cognizant of powerful realities, both positive and negative, that will determine whether he gets a second four-year stint as Maryland’s chief executive.

For a Republican in one of the most Democratic states in the nation, Hogan enters the election year with extraordinarily high poll numbers and campaign coffers that are plump with cash. But he is sailing into treacherous headwinds.

Anger toward President Trump and the Republican-led Congress threaten to boost Democratic voter turnout in November into the stratosphere, with results that could well mimic those seen in Virginia and Alabama, where Democrats romped to unexpected victories.

For better or worse, Hogan’s remarks follow Trump’s first State of the Union address by mere hours. The speech, like the campaign he’ll launch later this year, will be a test of his ability to navigate political crosscurrents.

“He’s pretty adroit,” said former Baltimore Sun reporter and columnist C. Fraser Smith. “My sense is that he’s pretty strong.”

While today’s speech in the House of Delegates chamber is, in theory, a chance to make the case for the administration’s 2018 legislative package, the reality is Democratic lawmakers will do most everything they can to deny Hogan additional victories, making the State of the State something of a rote exercise.

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Technicians in the House of Delegates chamber prepare Tuesday for the governor’s upcoming State of the State speech.  Photo by Bruce DePuyt

“He’s certainly not going to take any risk,” said former state Sen. David Harrington (D), head of the Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce. “He’ll talk about taxes and reducing regulations on businesses. But you’re not going to hear anything controversial.”

Nor, Harrington said, will lawmakers likely be swayed by anything the governor says. “It’s going to be pretty calm.”

Hogan has signaled, in the days leading up today’s speech, that he shares voters’ frustrations with national politics. After appointing a special “negotiating team” to work with the General Assembly on the impact of the federal tax overhaul and health care, Hogan said, “These problems have only increased due to the complete dysfunction and lack of action coming out of Washington for far too long.

“Very simply,” he said, “it seems that neither political party in Washington — Republicans or Democrats — have the ability or the will to fix these problems, and our state will need to address them head on.”

By contrast, Hogan is likely to tout what he describes as his bipartisanship and quest for “common-sense solutions” – though those policy prescriptions are occasionally delivered with sharp partisan jabs.

Hogan’s address will certainly include a lengthy review of his tenure, with a numbers-heavy recitation of what he views to be the administration’s successes in education funding, fiscal restraint, job creation and public safety.

It will also contain a warning on health care, “a very serious issue facing us, one that some people seem reluctant to talk about,” he said last week. Hogan said that changes in federal law “will force insurance rates in Maryland to increase by 50 percent or more.”

“Let me be very clear,” he continued. “The stakes here are tremendous. If nothing is done, rates will increase by at least 50 percent in the individual market. It’s possible that the market could entirely collapse. Thousands would lose their health care coverage.”

A loss of the state’s federal Medicaid waiver, he warned, would cost Maryland $2 billion. “The impacts of this are too far-reaching for us to risk getting it wrong,” he warned.

To punch back at Democrats’ criticism of his education record (and Maryland’s fall from first to sixth in the Education Week rankings), Hogan may reprise his recent criticism of local officials for a lack of rigorous oversight.

Other recent Hogan themes likely to reappear in his State of the State:

— Protecting Maryland from off-shore drilling

— The state’s pursuit of Amazon’s second headquarters

— His proposal to widen Interstate 270, I-495 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway

— Avoiding tax hikes, the issue that propelled the novice candidate to the governor’s mansion in 2014.

“It’ll be interesting if he says anything about Metro,” Harrington said.  “And of course, the big issue right now is the $15-an-hour minimum wage.”

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said Hogan has plenty to boast about.

“I look forward to hearing Gov. Hogan talk about the many successes that he’s had over the last three years and how he’s really improved the lives of people in Maryland,” she said.

Despite non-stop public squabbling between legislative leaders and the governor and his aides, Hogan said Maryland is not yet like Washington. “Nearly every day, we see the effects of divisive rhetoric and political polarization in Washington. But in Maryland, we have chosen a different path … to engage in thoughtful, honest and civil debate.”

Democrats say trashing national leaders is smart politics on Hogan’s part.

“He always comes up with speeches that are very bipartisan,” said House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City).  “I just want the follow-through.”

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