Larry Hogan is using an old playbook to attack a plan to transform Maryland schools. What does he hope to gain?
Originally published in the Baltimore Sun
Five years ago, a little-known Republican named Larry Hogan swept into governor’s mansion thanks in part to a strategy that ― depending on one’s point of view ― was either clever or cunning.
Rallying his 275,000 “Change Maryland" followers on Facebook, Hogan rebranded a fee to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay as the “rain tax.” The fee was charged on pavement, not rain, but the name was catchy and it stuck. Soon, even Democrats were using it, and outraged voters cast ballots for Hogan in droves, condemning Maryland for moving so far left that nothing ― not even the weather ― was beyond taxation.
Now, Hogan is breaking out his old playbook.
Reprising his role as an anti-tax agitator on social media, the second-term governor has found a new Democratic initiative to demonize: a state commission whose goal is to transform Maryland’s public schools into a “world class” system.
The so-called Kirwan commission, nicknamed for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, for three years studied successful school systems across the world. Then it produced a 243-page report with three dozen major recommendations — including raising teacher pay statewide, offering full-day prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds and low-income 3-year-olds, and revamping high schools to offer a skills-based career path to all students who want that.
Together with General Assembly leaders, Hogan had appointed Kirwan to chair the commission, and the governor’s budget secretary is a member. But Hogan quickly blasted its findings. He took to Facebook to attack the high cost of the proposals — which legislative analysts say would rise to $4 billion annually after a 10-year phase-in.
Hogan began calling the panel the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission,” even though it is not proposing tax increases. And legislative leaders have said they will look first to gambling and other current revenue streams to pay for the package, before considering tax increases. Nonetheless, Hogan has told his followers a whopping $6,200 tax would be levied on every family in the state.
“Here’s something truly terrifying: a tax hike of at least $6,200 on every single Maryland family to pay for the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission’s proposals!” Hogan wrote on Halloween.
Days earlier, the governor posted a faked Baltimore Sun front page in which he pretended an editorial critical of his stance on education funding was supporting his position.
“For once the Baltimore Sun finally got it exactly right. The Kirwan Tax Hike Commission is the new Rain Tax!” Hogan wrote. The doctored front page included a goofy-looking photo of former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, a frequent target of Hogan mockery.
The governor’s posts frustrate education supporters such as incoming state Senate President Bill Ferguson, a former teacher who sits on the commission.
Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, calls Hogan’s scare tactics “lies” and says there is no universe of possibilities in which a $6,000 tax will be imposed on every Maryland family.
“The unfortunate reality of politics today is we are too often seeing alternative facts becoming the new norm,” Ferguson said of Hogan’s assertions. “What we need now is honest dialogue, face to face, with real numbers and a real plan.”
Hogan’s $6,000 tax figure is based on a calculation from his budget office of how the full Kirwan package of recommendations could be funded if it all had to be implemented next year and if it were paid for only by new state taxes, not any current revenue streams.
His forceful response to increasing education funding ― something Hogan once boasted about supporting ― has caused political observers to ask: Why’s he doing this?
In Maryland, funding education consistently polls as one of the most popular things a politician can do. Hogan is an avid reader of polls. He cannot run for governor again due to term limits, and he’s drawing battle lines across what is traditionally Democratic turf.
Does he want to run for Senate? Is he trying to make a name for himself in national conservative circles? Is he simply returning to his roots as an anti-tax activist?
Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, said the governor isn’t opposed to all of the recommendation from the Kirwan commission, and he supports robust funding for the public schools. But Hogan is concerned that large tax increases that Maryland families can’t afford will be needed to pay for what the Kirwan commission is proposing.
“Governor Hogan’s motives are the same as they were when he founded Change Maryland in 2011: to stop massive tax increases, bring common sense fiscal restraint to Annapolis, call out the Annapolis monopoly, and shine a light on politics as usual,” Ricci said in an email. “The politicians attacking him now are part of the same status quo crowd responsible for the 43 consecutive tax hikes and the fiscal recklessness that the governor was elected to clean up. He is doing what exactly what he promised to do, and what Marylanders voted for — twice.”
Before he announced his first run for governor, Hogan, then a businessman, launched a web-based advocacy organization called “Change Maryland” that whipped up discontent over the O’Malley administration and Maryland’s taxes and fees. After becoming governor, Hogan transformed the Change Maryland Facebook page into his own. But he’s now using the same moniker for a new political lobbying organization that can accept unlimited, undisclosed donations, the kind of war chest that critics decry as “dark money.”
The organization hopes to raise $2 million to pay for a media campaign to support his legislative agenda, including fighting the education proposals that General Assembly leaders have said will be a top priority of the annual 90-day legislative session that begins in January.
Education advocates plan to meet force with force. The state’s teachers union has begun running $500,000 in TV ads to support the Kirwan commission.
“The Governor of Maryland has a duty to uphold our state constitution’s mandate that all Maryland children receive an adequate and free public education," said Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat whose son attends city schools.
“Instead of engaging policymakers from his elected office, we have a dark money fueled campaign to further enshrine educational inequity. Marylanders want better schools and they have a governor organizing against the best interest of our children. What a baffling legacy.”
On Thursday night, Hogan held a high-dollar fundraiser for his new Change Maryland organization at the Maryland Live Casino. Called the “Governor’s Gala,” it featured tickets ranging from $1,000 per entry to $25,000 VIP tables.
Under Maryland law, donors may not give more than $6,000 directly to Hogan as a candidate per campaign cycle, and those donations must be disclosed. But Hogan’s event at the casino falls outside those laws, because Change Maryland Inc. and Change Maryland Action Fund are not part of his individual campaign committee.
About 100 protesters, some dressed up as the “Monopoly man” or other caricatures of millionaires, marched in the rain outside the event. Some held signs that said, “Our children can’t wait," and “$25,000 per pupil, not $25,000 per table.”
Rebecca Otte, a fifth-grade teacher from Howard County, came wearing a costume of pearls and a fur coat while holding a sign that stated, sarcastically, “Education is for the elite.” She said she wants to see increased funding for public schools to get more resources into the classroom.
“My class is huge. I’m exhausted. I love my job, but I can’t keep doing it the way I used to do it,” Otte said. “They keep increasing our demands and decreasing our funding. It’s absolutely ridiculous that a governor would raise money to oppose public schools."
On the other side of the issue, the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute ― of which Hogan is an emeritus director ― has been churning out a series of anti-Kirwan analyses, including one called “Kirwan Backers Earn 'F' in Math.” The author, Stephen J.K. Walters, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University, says there’s no way for Democrats to get around the fact that the Kirwan proposals will be “extraordinarily expensive.”
The commission’s proposals still need legislation to become law. But if enacted as proposed, they would require the state eventually to spend $2.8 billion a year more on schools, while local governments would have to pay $1.2 billion. Cash-strapped Baltimore would be hit particularly hard, needing to come up with $330 million a year more for public schools by 2030, analysts have said.
“Maybe true-blue Marylanders were willing to elect a Republican governor because we understand we need a 'brake’ on the most extravagant inclinations of the legislature,” Walters said.
Tension between Hogan and leaders of the commission came to a head last month when Hogan declined an invitation to meet with the panel.
“Based on reports in the media, it appears that you have some concerns about the Commission’s policy recommendations and the associated costs,” Kirwan wrote the governor. “Before we complete our work, the Commission would benefit greatly by hearing directly from you.”
Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s Democrat who has sparred with Hogan before on education issues, called Hogan’s refusal to meet with the commission “disheartening and sad.”
“I would have appreciated a conversation with the governor and engagement with the governor on: Is this good policy? Is this important or not important? Rather than just affordability,” Pinsky said.
Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, accused Pinsky of “political spectacle” to “distract from the truly disheartening reality that there is still no clear plan for how either the state or the counties can afford the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission’s price tag.”
Matthew D. Gallagher, president of the Goldseker Foundation, a member of a Kirwan commission task force and O’Malley’s former chief of staff, said Hogan is trying to spread “faux outrage and misinformation.”
“I don’t know what his motivation is,” Gallagher said. “Everybody can see the existing school funding formula ... for quite some time has not been serving the needs of the state of Maryland.” Gallagher noted the General Assembly has already set aside money to pay for the state’s portion of the first few years of Kirwan proposals. Hogan let that funding bill become law without his signature.
Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said he doesn’t find it perplexing that Hogan is fighting the Kirwan proposals so hard. If Hogan can stop or lessen the growth of the state budget, he will be doing the job voters elected him to do.
“Larry Hogan ran on the idea there had been 43 tax increases under O’Malley,” Eberly said. “The general conservative or Republican philosophy is that simply spending more money isn’t the same as making something better. I don’t think he can leave office with a substantial spending and tax increase happening on his watch."
Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College, said while it’s true voters generally support more spending on education, they often don’t support higher taxes. To the extent Hogan can reframe the debate to be about taxes and spending ― versus improving public education ― he can move public opinion.
Deckman said she could see Hogan trying to set himself up to play a bigger role in the Republican Party nationally after the presidency of Donald Trump ends. Hogan said last month he is writing a book about his time as governor called “Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, and the Toxic Politics that Divide America.”
“I’d be surprised if Hogan would run for Senate,” Deckman said, noting the governor has publicly said he’s not interested in that. “He’s more likely to capitalize on the ‘Never Trump’ feeling that some conservatives have. After Trump, what’s going to happen? He’s going to try to be positioned to be a force within the Republican Party.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.