The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland policymakers gather with legal marijuana, climate change and a multi-billion dollar in surplus on the agenda

The Maryland State House in Annapolis on Jan. 14, 2021. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Maryland lawmakers convene Wednesday with an unprecedented $4.6 billion state surplus and plans to tackle legalizing marijuana, mitigating climate change, potential tax relief and a host of other long-simmering — but unaddressed — goals in an election year.

Paid family leave, a solution for parents struggling with a child-care crisis and measures to address violent crime across the state are top priorities for the legislature’s Democratic supermajority, whose leaders say the uneven pandemic recovery has dictated what deserves their attention.

“We’re going to ask a very simple question: Is this helping the families who have been left behind in post-pandemic Maryland?” said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who also promised to put legalizing marijuana on the 2022 ballot for voters to decide.

The vastly outnumbered Republicans say they also plan to push proposals to reduce violence, as well as tighten election security and give parents more say in school curriculums — including on the teaching of racism’s role in the American history.

All the while, lawmakers will refine the legislative maps that have helped give rise to the General Assembly’s Democratic supermajority in a state that votes deeply blue in national elections, yet has more than 40 percent of the electorate unaffiliated or Republican voters.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said “fair” legislative maps were on his top three priorities for this year, after addressing violent crime and delivering some form of tax relief. He outlined five proposals at a Tuesday afternoon news conference, including eliminating taxes on retirement income, making permanent a cash payment to the working poor and giving tax breaks or financial incentives to manufacturers and developers who participate in certain state economic development programs. He also suggested waiving filing fees for corporations and family farms.

Before they were announced, Democrats were skeptical they would embrace his ideas.

“I’m not going to say right off the bat ‘It’s dead on arrival.’ But I will say this: when you cut taxes, it’s like spending money. It won’t come back,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) said.

Lawmakers expect prolonged debate over how to best use an enormous pool of cash at policymakers’ disposal. The sum is so large it could accommodate massive infrastructure spending, some targeted tax relief and still pad the state’s savings account for years to come, lawmakers said. In addition, analysts expect Maryland to bank a roughly $1.9 billion surplus every year for the next five years, a stream that could finance ongoing programs or some tax cuts.

“It’s hard to understate the enormity of this,” House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said. “Every interest group, every trade group, every constituent group has an idea for what to do with that money. It probably adds up to roughly $30 billion.”

Luedtke said Democratic leaders will propose a sales tax cut designed to blunt the burden of pandemic-fueled inflation on working-class families. The proposal, which is not fully drafted, would expand Maryland’s sales tax exemption on groceries to include other necessities such as toothbrushes and diapers.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said he could support a sales tax expansion in a time-limited way, but “something that’s a more permanent, large tax cut, I don’t think that’s going to be on the table.”

“The top things Marylanders care about are health and our economic future,” Ferguson added. “We’re going to continue to have to be nimble and respond to the areas that are in the greatest, greatest threat. That includes our most vulnerable around us.”

Hogan on Monday pitched using some of the money for a $500 million, three-year plan to bolster law enforcement, including nearly half — $220 million — to raise salaries of police officers across the state. He’s also signaled he’d renew his push for tax relief for retirees, something Republican legislative leaders agreed is a top concern for the GOP caucus.

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) and Senate Minority Whip Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) said the state should not offer leniency to violent, habitual offenders.

“We all want to help someone who has made one mistake, got involved in drugs and didn’t hurt somebody. But we’re talking people who are in and out of prisons and they are hurting folks — it’s our job to stop that,” he said.

Democrats agree, but don’t see tougher sentences as the sole solution. Many want to stronger oversight of the state’s parole and probation system. “We are seeing levels of violence across the state of Maryland that are simply unacceptable and untenable,” Ferguson said, adding that responsibility for implementing a comprehensive crime strategy lays at the feet of local and state governments. “The legislature only has so much leeway for what are inherently executive functions,” he said.

At least two lawmakers will miss opening day because they are isolated with coronavirus infections. The public will be barred from the building for now, as lawmakers wait out the current case surge.

Interest groups, including CASA of Maryland, Common Cause and the NAACP, are calling on the Senate to readjust its protocols to allow for virtual testimony after February, as the House plans to do, for both transparency and practical reasons.

“Those who can’t come to Annapolis will be excluded from the legislative process,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland in a statement. “We must do better than this.”

Also up for debate is Hogan’s controversial use of communicating with state workers via electronic chat rooms that destroy messages in 24 hours, raising questions about whether the governor is skirting public records laws.

Two lawmakers, Del. Vaughn M. Stewart III (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), plan to introduce legislation intended to expressly prohibit Hogan and future governors from using disappearing message apps to erase communications about public matters. The legislation follows a recent report in The Washington Post that detailed Hogan’s long history of using Wickr to complain about media reports, direct pandemic response and coordinate with top staffers.

Hogan has downplayed his use of the app, saying “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.” Under Maryland law, every unit of state government must have a records retention schedule, which dictates how long each type of record must be kept. The governor’s office argues that it is not subject to this law because it is not a “unit of the state government” but rather its head.

Stewart said he is sponsoring legislation because “that argument on its face is laughable.”

“This issue is bigger than Larry Hogan,” Stewart said. “This issue is about what access to information the citizens of Maryland and history will have to governors’ communications about state business. Governors might be leaders of the state, but they ain’t royalty and our public records policies should not treat them like kings and queens.”

Leaders in both chambers vowed to enact more aggressive goals to combat climate change — promises that follow an eleventh-hour failure of an omnibus climate bill during last year’s legislative session.

Legislative negotiators say the new goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent from 2006 levels within the next decade or so, compared with the current goal of a 40 percent reduction. The legislation would set a date for the state to become carbon neutral and proscribe steps to get there. Although those details are still under negotiation, options include retrofitting schools, mandating an electric fleet of state vehicles and barring gas lines in new construction.

“It’s just not bold enough,” Senate Education Health and Environment Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said of the state’s current policy. “Each day, each week there’s a report [climate change is] worse than we thought.”

Both Pinksy and House Environment and Transportation Chair Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who gridlocked on the climate bill last year, say they are certain it will pass this year, and they intend to do it early enough to allow the legislature time to override an anticipated veto from Hogan before they adjourn. Because it is an election year, the legislature cannot override the governor when it convenes in 2023.

“We’re very aware that we can’t wait until the end,” Barve said.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) as House majority leader and misspelled the name of Allegany County. The article has been corrected.