The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Democratic-controlled Maryland, liberal victories abound

The legislature expanded abortion access and took steps to create a paid-leave program. The GOP celebrated tax cuts.

The State House in Annapolis. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Ahead of a competitive election this fall, Maryland lawmakers notched a series of marquee, liberal victories in the General Assembly session that ended Monday night.

Abortion access was expanded. Voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana. Maryland adopted some of the nation’s most ambitious climate change goals, and launched a statewide paid family leave program.

Lawmakers also enhanced gun regulations by banning the sale and possession of untraceable firearms. They revamped parts of the juvenile justice system and passed a bill requiring that children being interrogated by police have access to counsel or a parent.

“It truly was a historic year,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), noting that election-year sessions are typically muted as candidates have already turned their attention to the campaign trail. Instead, he said, “we’ve just made some great progress.”

Lawmakers helped Gov. Larry Hogan (R) deliver on his signature campaign promise to cut taxes for most retirees. A roaring economy, coupled with several rounds of federal stimulus funding, bloated Maryland’s balance sheets and left the state with a historic $7.5 billion surplus that paid for the tax cuts — including the 30-day gas-tax holiday that is scheduled to end Saturday.

State leaders stashed billions in various savings accounts across Maryland’s $61 billion operating budget and paid for an array of grants, programs and sales tax cuts.

Hogan told reporters the tax cuts made this year the “best session yet” of his eight in office, and he warned that lawmakers will have to sell the package of liberal ideas on the campaign trail.

“I don’t know how they’re going to explain that to voters,” he said.

Republican lawmakers lamented the liberal wins and celebrated the tax cuts. The minority party unsuccessfully fought to add language that would curtail gender-related teaching in schools and restrict transgender athletes from certain competitions, among other efforts to control what happens in public schools.

“We’ll take those victories where we can get them,” House Minority Whip Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. (R-Carroll) said outside the chamber. “We seem to be very woke and very ultraprogressive down here. And every year, we seem to lurch further and further to the left.”

Senate Minority Leader Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) said members of the Republican caucus this session have attempted to highlight policy issues that show Democrats have “gone too far to the extremes.”

Among the Republican successes that Ready counts is keeping a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to an abortion from reaching the Senate floor. The bill, which was sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), passed the House but was never taken up for a vote in the Senate.

Ferguson said he made the decision not to ask voters about abortion because he wanted to focus on passing a bill to expand the number of providers who can perform abortions.

In addition to the failed effort to put abortion rights before Maryland voters, scores of other high-profile bills failed to get passed by Monday evening as the clock ticked down to midnight’s adjournment. A proposal to make daylight saving time permanent never made it out of a Senate committee. A law that would bar convicting minors involved in sex trafficking was tied up in a dispute over whether children simply should never be prosecuted, or if they can ask a judge at trial not to convict them because they’re children.

Tucked into the busy schedule, lawmakers also made large commitments to invest in the state’s professional sports teams, deciding that up to $1.2 billion can be borrowed over the next few decades to finance upgrades at the state-owned homes of the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens. An additional $400 million is at the disposal of Prince George’s County officials seeking to keep the Washington Commanders at their stadium in Landover.

More than 600 bills had been passed by Monday morning. A measure will make Maryland the second state in the country to prohibit veterinarians from removing cats’ claws. Advocates who have lobbied for seven years to raise the legal age for marriage in Maryland were also successful; the change sets it at 17.

Late Monday, the legislature was still trying to come to some resolution on an omnibus bill that revises last year’s police reform legislation and increases judicial and prosecutorial transparency.

Hogan has repeatedly criticized Democratic leaders for not advancing emergency legislation he proposed to address violent crime in Baltimore. In recent days, he continued to use social media to apply pressure, calling on lawmakers to increase penalties for offenders who use guns while committing violent crimes. Hogan also called for data on how judges sentence those convicted of violent crimes to be made public.

The Senate passed a bill requiring data to be collected on prosecutors’ records and on how sentences are handed down by circuit courts.

During committee, some members argued that they did not think the data would be useful.

“It’s a very slippery road when it comes to collecting data on cases,” Del. Wanika B. Fisher (D-Prince George’s) said. “I don’t know that it makes our communities safer. I think good schools make our communities safer, I think affordable housing makes our communities safer, better streets.”

The bill also calls for delaying the implementation of one of the key elements of last year’s police reform package: requiring counties to create Police Accountability Boards and Administrative Charging Committees, which give residents a role in reviewing and investigating allegations of police misconduct.

Also to be resolved as of Monday evening is whether to allow the state attorney general to prosecute police-involved fatalities. Under last year’s police reform package, the legislature created an independent investigation unit within the attorney general’s office to investigate those incidents. Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said it made sense to also give the office the option to prosecute. The unit also sought subpoena power in the cases. His office said it has to wait for grand juries to be formed in smaller jurisdictions, which can slow down investigations.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he wants to ensure that language is included in the bill to clarify that the attorney general’s office leads the investigations because one county sheriff has threatened to not cooperate with the state if there is an incident in his jurisdiction.

As the legislature sped toward its midnight deadline, many noted that the General Assembly will look significantly different — and possibly younger — when it convenes next year.

More than 10 percent of the senators have decided not to return.

Sen. Dolores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), 85, who serves as chair of the Senate Finance Committee and has been a member of the legislature for more than three decades, was one of four veteran senators who were celebrated over the final days of the session.

In the House, Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard), who serve as chairs of the Appropriations Committee and the Health and Governmental Operations Committee, respectively, are among the lawmakers with decade-long careers who are not seeking reelection.

But much about the upcoming election remains in limbo, including when it will occur. The state Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments this week on a lawsuit challenging the legislative district boundary lines, issued an order late Monday suggesting that there could be another delay in the state’s primary election. The original primary date was June 28; last month, it was moved to July 19. The order suggests that the election could be held no later than Aug. 16.

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