Hogan promises to keep ‘open mind’ on regional tax for Metro

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) softened his opposition Friday to a regional sales tax for Metro, telling Montgomery County business and political leaders that he was willing to “keep an open mind” on the issue.

“If local governments want to tax their citizens more, and that’s something their folks want, that’s for them to decide,” Hogan told a Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

But he also vowed that any tax would have to be strictly regional in nature.

“We’re not going to tax the people of Maryland all across the state to pay for Metro, I can tell you that,” he said.

Hogan met privately last week with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to discuss the long-term funding needs of the beleaguered transit system. Bowser favors a 1 cent sales tax or other dedicated revenue source. Hogan was cool to the idea and said he would discourage any such local effort in Montgomery or Prince George’s counties. A Hogan spokesman reinforced the point a few hours after the meeting, saying that the governor “has no plans to support a tax increase, regional or otherwise.”

Local officials were encouraged to hear that Hogan was willing to keep the door open.

“That’s a 180-degree difference in tone,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the council’s transportation committee. “That’s a big deal.”

Hogan warned that any increase in the state’s direct subsidy to WMATA, now at $500 million, would not be possible without major improvements in safety and customer service.

“If it’s not reliable and it’s not safe, people are not going to use it,” he said. “So first, we’ve got to fix some of those problems.”

The governor spoke during a joint Q-and-A session with state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who has become a close ally during Hogan’s two years in office.

When the subject turned to Hogan’s recent executive order extending summer school break past Labor Day, both Franchot and the governor lit into critics of the decision, which include state and local boards of education and Democrats in the General Assembly.

Franchot called Hogan’s order “the right thing on the merits for the state of Maryland” and said it will benefit children, who will be spared sweltering classrooms; parents, who have had to deal with “an irrational school schedule”; and the small-business community, which “pays the taxes to fund our education system.”

He accused fellow Democrats of arrogance in opposing the change, which polls show has broad public support. “My party, unbelievably, has apparently taken its popularity as a sign that it’s morally wrong,” Franchot said.

Hogan called the disapproval “silly, trivial and stupid” and scoffed “at whining people on school boards.”

The Montgomery County Board of Education has said it will seek a waiver from the mandate, which requires schools to end by June 15 and resume after Labor Day. But under Hogan’s order, waivers can be granted only in very specific cases, where a district has extensive weather-related closures or a longer school year is key to a school’s mission.

“I would say if the Montgomery County School Board goes against 75 percent of the people in Montgomery County, then they probably won’t be elected to the school board next time,” Hogan said.

The bipartisan “bromance” between the Republican governor and Democratic comptroller was on full view during the session at the Bethesda Marriott, as each lavished praise on the other. Moderator Lou Peck of Bethesda magazine asked whether, given their mutually fond feelings, the politicians would consider endorsing each other in 2018.

“I wouldn’t want to hurt his chances,” Hogan said.

Franchot recalled a recent conversation in which Hogan asked if there was anything he could do for him. “I said, ‘Governor, keep your distance.’ ”

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