After weeks of promising bipartisanship and refusing to make policy announcements that might rile Democratic lawmakers, Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has picked his first political fight, coming out swinging against environmentalists and their powerful allies in the General Assembly.
Mr. Hogan vowed Monday to roll back proposed new regulations that would limit phosphorus runoff from farms, siding with Eastern Shore farmers who rely on phosphorus-rich chicken manure for fertilizer and against environmentalists who blame it for choking the life out of the Chesapeake Bay.
The regulation, known as the “phosphorus management tool,” or PMT, has been hotly debated in the state for years and was key to the green agenda of outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who is trying to finalize the rule before he leaves office next month.
“The first fight [when I take office] will be against these politically motivated, midnight-hour phosphorus management tool regulations that the outgoing administration is trying to force upon you in these closing days,” Mr. Hogan, a Republican, said in a speech to the Maryland Farm Bureau Convention in Ocean City. “We won’t allow them to put you out of business, destroy your way of life or decimate your entire industry.”
His hard-line opposition guaranteed a scuffle with environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers as soon as he’s sworn in Jan. 21.
It likely won’t be the last or the biggest brawl for Mr. Hogan, who will be only the second Republican governor in Maryland since 1969 and will face a Democratic-dominated General Assembly. But it’s the first time the moderate Republican and former businessman has drawn blood in the political arena since his upset victory Nov. 4 over Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who promised to carry on Mr. O’Malley’s agenda.
“It’s disappointing to hear him saying it, because he’s been so consistent in striking a bipartisan tone,” said Joanna Diamond, director of Environment Maryland. “But we do think there is enough support in order to save the bay and PMT is the No. 1 [problem], according to scientists.”
Maryland’s agriculture industry has warned that the regulation would impose devastating costs on food production, especially on the Eastern Shore’s chicken and grain farmers. A recent Salisbury University study estimated that it would cost Eastern Shore farms $22 million.
Environmentalists point to scientific research that show phosphorus pollution, mostly from agricultural runoff, is a leading cause of dead zones and algae blooms in the bay.
During a string of appearances since his win last month, Mr. Hogan has repeatedly rebuffed questions about what will top his agenda when he takes office. He regularly told reporters that Mr. O’Malley was still the governor, and the Democratic incumbent makes the policy until he leaves office.
But Mr. O’Malley’s rush to complete the environmental rule in his last days in power has infuriated Mr. Hogan.
“They shouldn’t be trying to sneak something in under the wire during the midnight hour of their administration,” he said last week.
Environmentalists insist the regulations, which have been in the works for about four years, are not being rammed through at the last minute.
“I don’t think they are 11th-hour — they’re overdue,” said Alison Prost, the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
She urged Mr. Hogan to sit down with environmentalists “before he goes too far down a road of picking a fight in the General Assembly.”
Mr. Hogan also has drawn fire from environmentalists for campaigning to repeal another one of their top priorities: the “rain tax” that Mr. O’Malley imposed on residents whose property includes paved surfaces and contributes to runoff water pollution.
“These are very critical environmental policies that the state debated for years and figured out that, unless we are going to let local water quality languish, we need both these policies,” she said, adding that Mr. Hogan is “coming out very strongly against them.”
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George’s County Democrat and a driving force behind the regulation, said the next governor’s attack on PMT was “very shortsighted.”
“I don’t know why he’s coming out so strongly on reversing it,” he said.” I just hope he’s not pandering to the farm community.”
Mr. Pinsky, who is chairman of the chamber’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, which has to sign off on the rule, said it likely will get completed before Mr. Hogan takes charge.
The new governor will have the power to rewrite the regulation, and plenty of time to do it during the three-year phase-in period. But the environmentalists will fight him every step of the way.
Mr. Pinsky promised that a legislative version of the rule would be pursued if Mr. Hogan succeeds in reversing the regulation.
“Legislation would trump regulations,” he said.