Josh Kurtz: The State of the State of Hogan

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What does the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., have to do with Maryland?

It’s an interesting question to ponder as Gov. Larry Hogan (R) prepares to deliver his second State of the State address this week.

These annual speeches are some of the best opportunities for Marylanders to get to know their governor and his priorities – which remain hazy at best for most voters. The timing of the Flint crisis is purely coincidental, but it represents something of a cautionary tale where Hogan is concerned.

While there is plenty of blame to go around for the grievous contamination of Flint’s water supply, it happened on the watch of a businessman governor, Rick Snyder (R) – who was swept into office promising to scale back taxes and regulations, run government like a business, and do everything in his power to boost business interests in the state.

Sound familiar?

Hogan is part of a national trend – along with Snyder, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts – of Republican businessmen who never held elective office becoming governor, pledging to reduce the size and scope of government.

You can add to that list North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), a former Duke Energy Co. executive. He was mayor of Charlotte, helping to set policy, for several years. But a professional manager runs that city on a day-to-day basis.

Under McCrory’s watch, two years ago, a corroded water pipe ruptured at a shuttered Duke Energy coal plant, dumping 82,000 tons of coal ash, a toxic slurry of watered-down coal dust, into the Dan River in Eden, N.C. It was the third biggest coal ash spill in U.S. history. McCrory administration environmental regulators, who literally changed their agency’s mission statement so it would become more business friendly, were forced to scramble to try to crack down on the governor’s former employer. It wasn’t a pretty sight – literally or politically.

In Michigan, the switch from using Lake Huron water for Flint’s drinking supply to using the Flint River was supposed to have saved $6 million. But the river water is far more corrosive, causing aging lead water pipes to crumble, leaching lead into the drinking supply. So there you have it – $6 million in touted savings resulting in a public health crisis of unknown duration and incalculable costs.

It is hard to imagine such an environmental disaster happening in Maryland, even under a Republican businessman governor. The environment is too important to too many people here, and Hogan’s secretary of the Environment, Ben Grumbles, is a canny administrator who is liked and trusted by most of the state’s green leaders.

But Hogan has displayed tendencies to emphasize politically popular, short-term savings – like reducing the Bay Bridge toll from $6 to $4, and cutting certain taxes and fees – that may prove to be shortsighted. So Marylanders may want to think about the long-term implications of what Hogan advocates in his State of the State speech – and what he does in the months ahead.

Last year’s speech was a revelation for many people – certainly for many Democratic lawmakers. It represented the demarcation line, the time the short-lived era of bipartisan good feeling in Annapolis came to an end.

Hogan essentially delivered a campaign speech, listing everything that he saw as wrong with the state, blaming his predecessor and Democratic lawmakers for the mess. It infuriated Senate President Mike Miller (D), who was previously inclined to be friendly.

A year later, Hogan’s still blaming.

Hogan has made it clear where he stands – and who he stands with, and that’s with the people and jurisdictions that got him to Government House in the first place.

Cut all funding for the Red Line in Baltimore – and redistribute it for rural and suburban highways. Show lukewarm support for the Purple Line and make Montgomery and Prince George’s counties pay more. Limit funding for the county hospital in Prince George’s.

As soon as he got a clean bill of health, Hogan embarked on a four-day swing of Western Maryland, where he ran up enormous vote totals. He has yet to make a single official appearance in Montgomery County, one of four jurisdictions that went Democratic in 2014, since taking office. How often has he been in Prince George’s – other than to attend Terps games? (To be fair, with his cancer diagnosis, Hogan had to scale back his public schedule dramatically for months – but where he has and hasn’t gone since is still telling.)

Ask Hogan about Democratic legislators’ priorities and concerns, and he’s churlish, brushing them off, incredulous that he’s being asked to address the critics at all. No doubt he’ll give lip service to bipartisanship in his State of the State speech. But will he make any real peace offerings – or are his lofty poll numbers emboldening him to the point where he doesn’t feel the need?

Larry Hogan is hardly the world’s greatest orator. He reads quickly. He barely modulates his voice.

We’ve had plenty of governors who never gave a great speech, of course. Style hardly matters; Larry Hogan’s State of the State address may be the most important message Marylanders hear all year.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.