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Md. General Assembly session launches with guns, marijuana on the agenda

Maryland state lawmakers launch a new term with a huge surplus to spend, an incoming Democratic governor and a long list of ambitions

Maryland Del. Aaron Kaufman (D-Montgomery), seated, is joined by his mother Nan Kaufman, right, after being sworn in during the opening of the General Assembly at the Maryland State House on Tuesday. (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)
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The Maryland General Assembly session launched Wednesday with gleeful Democrats maintaining control but holding larger supermajorities in both chambers and eager to work with an incoming Democratic governor who agrees with them on major policy issues.

The state government has a multibillion-dollar budget surplus as Democrats start to prioritize a laundry list of policy ideas they hope to notch in the new term.

“In this moment, we’re setting down a path that impacts not just this year, but a decade,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) told the chamber, adding that “we are turning the page” from being consumed by the pandemic.

Surrounded by political dignitaries and their own family members, state lawmakers convened at noon for a 90-day marathon of lawmaking. The Republican minority is poised to fight a swing to the left while Democrats seek to put abortion rights into Maryland’s constitution, curtail gun access and set up the state’s newly approved recreational marijuana industry. By Wednesday afternoon, 253 bills had been formally introduced and sent to committees.

The day began with a clear changing of the guard: Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) joined Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) in an annual public interview where they spoke about the state’s next chapter, including their plans for the budget surplus, efforts to address child poverty and plans to create a framework for legalized cannabis.

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Each said a top priority this year will be to shore up the state’s workforce. Vacancies are at the highest the state has ever seen, with Jones and Ferguson estimating that the number stands near 6,500, while Moore said he believes it is closer to 10,000.

In his first year in office, Moore said, he wants to cut the number in half.

Without offering specifics, he again reiterated his plan to address child poverty on Day One, saying that he will work with the legislature to offer “the most aggressive package to address the issue of child poverty that this state has seen … .”

“We have enough data to show what works, and we don’t always do it,” Moore said, referring to housing as the No. 1 driver of poverty and saying that access to transportation and jobs also play a role.I don’t think we actually have; I think we’ve given lip service to it.”

Term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will remain in the job until Moore is inaugurated next week. Hogan gave what he called a farewell address on Maryland Public Television on Tuesday, saying it was the final time he would address the public as Maryland’s governor. He emphasized the peaceful transfer of power and encouraged residents to root for the success of Moore’s administration.

He thanked the public for eight years and detailed what he viewed as his tenure of accomplishments. “The honor of serving as your governor is second only to the honor of being your fellow Marylander,” Hogan said. “I can tell you that there has not been a single day⁠ — good or bad⁠ — when I was not grateful for the privilege.”

He added: “I can honestly say that I finish my second term with no regrets.”

Yet he also encouraged the next wave of leaders to do more to address violent crime in Baltimore City, where there have been more than 300 homicides each year since 2015. Democrats have largely dismissed Hogan’s efforts to levy harsher penalties on violent offenders, saying a tough-on-crime approach is outdated and ineffective. They instead have called for a holistic approach that also addresses the root causes of crime.

The General Assembly has newly expanded budgeting power to rearrange a governor’s spending preferences, thanks to a constitutional amendment approved in 2020.

The state has a $2.5 billion surplus and another $3 billion in its “rainy day” savings account, a pile of cash accumulated through federal aid and better-than-expected economic conditions after the coronavirus pandemic began.

Already, Moore has cautioned that the state cannot afford the more than $2 billion in requests already made to the state government, writing in a Baltimore Sun op-ed: “Maryland’s treasury cannot responsibly accommodate all these funding requests if we are to fulfill the primary obligations of state government.”

Moore has not revealed which campaign promises he will try to enact in his first year, but he proposed an ambitious eight-year agenda that includes ending child poverty, reducing the racial wealth gap, expanding education, workforce development and more, as well as quickly transitioning the state’s electricity off carbon-rich sources such as natural gas.

Environmental advocates encouraged by Moore’s campaign pledge to use 100 percent “clean” electricity by 2035 gathered in front of the State House with 8-foot-tall copies of wind turbines to tout a bill that would dramatically enhance the offshore wind industry. It would help build transmission lines to get electricity from the Atlantic Ocean turbines to Maryland’s population centers, plus lay the groundwork to effectively triple how much energy offshore windmills generate.

Legislators passed a law last year with ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent beneath 2006 levels by 2031, but they stopped short of laying out steps to get there.

“When you see how much renewable energy we need to meet those goals, all roads lead to offshore wind,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund.

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) said he anxiously awaits the unveiling of the governor-elect’s agenda, which will offer the first glimpse of the direction in which Moore, a political newcomer, plans to take the state.

“He’s not an open book, and I don’t mean that as a pun since he’s an author,” said Buckel, who said he looks forward to developing a relationship with Moore.

Buckel said he doesn’t see much changing for Republicans in the legislature with Hogan’s departure, given the supermajority Democrats hold. He said his worry is that Democrats will view their November victories as a “wholehearted endorsement” to move further left on policies on the environment, education and the economy.

Buckel said his GOP colleagues plan to play defense this session, pushing back against liberal policies on crime, education and taxes.

“Maryland has got to get tougher on crime,” he said. “It’s not just in Baltimore. It’s affecting other parts of the state, even in my community.”