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As Hogan Plans Budget Cuts, Unions Feel Shut Out

Christopher Connelly/WYPR

  Two of the largest state employee unions say they’ve yet to get face time with Gov.-elect Larry Hogan or his top officials as the he draws up a budget likely to include big cuts. The incoming Republican governor will have to propose a budget two days after he’s sworn in next Wednesday, and he’s promised a drastic change from the business as usual of outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who had a strong relationship with teachers’ and state workers’ unions.

Hogan won election promising to trim spending and cut taxes, and he has doubled down on that promise since, despite a projected deficit that's grown to more than $1 billion dollars.

“No question that our first initial session we’re going have some tax cuts,” Hogan said last week.

But the governor-elect has been coy about exactly where he’ll find the savings to plug the budget gap and still manage with decreased tax revenues. The dearth of details has many advocacy groups worried.

Pat Moran, who heads the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 3, the union that represents about 30-thousand state workers, says state workers have been hard hit during O’Malley’s budgets to adjust to recession-era belt-tightening. More than 5,000 staff positions have been cut over the last 8 years, and Moran says state employees can’t take much more.

“You have less people doing more work, and at some point that breaks,” Moran said. “At some point you have to say we cannot do more with less. We’ll end up doing less with less.”

Hogan ran as a moderate. Now, Moran is waiting to see if he’ll govern as one.

“Will he work collaboratively with the people who will provide the services that are on the front line doing the work? That’s the question,” Moran said.

Moran has some ideas for where the governor-elect might find cuts without hurting state workers. He thinks top-heavy departments like the Department of Transportation could thin management and supervisory positions, which account for a third of that department’s employees. And he says public contractors, which are often less tightly monitored than public agencies, could be audited to find fat to trim.

But Moran has yet to share those ideas, he says, because he hasn’t been allowed to meet with Hogan, though he has been told he will meet with Hogan eventually.

The state’s largest teachers’ union has fared only slightly better, according to Sean Johnson from the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA). Betty Weller, the union’s president, did meet with a member of Hogan’s transition team. Johnson called the meeting “preliminary.”

“Everyone’s trying to get their time with the governor-elect directly, with key folks on his staff, and with so much focused around the budget, everybody’s very anxious to have those conversations with budget personnel,” Johnson said.

Like AFSCME, the group threw its weight – and cash – behind Hogan’s opponent, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in the hard-fought election last year. But MSEA’s Johnson says now that the election’s over, education should transcend partisan divides.

“I don’t think there’s a Democratic way to educate students or a Republican way to educate students. I hope Gov. Hogan doesn’t either, just sees the issues we advocate on are less important or minimized simply because endorsed a different candidate.”

Education makes up nearly half of the state’s general fund expenditures, and school construction is a big chunk of the capital budget. That could make it an appealing target for someone looking to shrink spending. This week, the teacher’s union launched a petition drive and a radio ad campaign to put public pressure on the incoming governor. 

“As the new governor and general assembly work to make Maryland attractive to businesses and our families,” the ad says, “the role of our schools is critical. It’s not the time to do less for our students, we must step up and do more.”

Hogan told reporters the ad campaign was premature at a news conference yesterday. “We haven’t proposed any cuts to education. Obviously, they’re putting the cart before the horse, I would say.”

Hogan didn’t comment further, but his office said he’s fielding requests from numerous groups who want input on the budget. A spokesperson said Hogan’s team will met with AFSCME, and that Hogan’s chief of staff, Craig Williams, is planning to attend the teachers’ union’s legislative open house.

Republican governors and public unions have had little love for each other in many states over the last few years. It won’t take long to see how much common ground they can find here in Maryland.