Democrats lead both chambers of both legislatures, and lawmakers say they aim to provide more than just short-term relief from the coronavirus and the recession it triggered. They also want to make structural changes in the economy, schools, criminal justice system and race relations to address inequities and other shortcomings exposed by the crises of 2020.
It’s not clear how far they can go. The recession has strained budgets. Business interests, police unions and conservative politicians in both states will push back against some measures that liberal lawmakers are busy drafting. In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to resist anything he views as too expensive or damaging to law enforcement.
But assuming that the newly approved coronavirus vaccines lead to economic recovery this year as expected, Democrats in Richmond and Annapolis see a historic opportunity to strengthen the safety net for workers living paycheck to paycheck, widen educational opportunity and rectify racial injustices.
They are energized because, for the first time in a decade, they will have like-minded partisans fully in charge of the executive and legislative branches in Washington.
“We have a chance to do things very differently … [by] building a green economy with good jobs and labor unions at the table,” said Maryland Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), a member of the Economic Matters Committee. “This is the moment to put that on the table, to have the major restructuring of our economy to be done in a way that’s grounded in equity.”
Here are highlights of what Democrats in both state capitals would like to achieve:
Narrow the economic gap. The legislators will devote much of their time to finding money for immediate aid for the jobless, renters facing eviction, people needing health insurance and small businesses shuttered by pandemic restrictions.
In addition, some Virginia Democrats hope to give workers permanent help by requiring employers to provide paid sick leave or family leave. Such programs failed to win approval last year, because opponents said a recession was no time to burden businesses with new costs.
“It’s essential that folks have access to paid leave,” Commonwealth Institute President Michael Cassidy said. “The pandemic has revealed how critical that is.”
The pandemic has aggravated the divide between professional employees, for whom it has been easier to telework, and blue-collar workers who have to be present at their jobs.
“The K-shaped recovery pattern is very real,” Cassidy said, referring to economic charts showing one group on the rise and the other trending downward. “Working people who have lost their jobs can’t pay the rent.”
Virginia Democrats will push to expand both tax credits and trust funds for low-income housing. Legislators said one goal that probably won’t pass this year is ending Virginia’s pro-business “right-to-work” law. It bars employees from being required to join a union, or pay union dues or fees, as a condition of employment.
In Maryland, House Democrats will aim to put more cash directly in the pockets of low-income families by expanding the earned income tax credit. They want to discourage evictions by raising filing fees that landlords must pay to oust tenants.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who is running for governor in 2022, is urging other Democrats to tap the state’s rainy-day fund to give $2,000 to any individual with income of less than $50,000. (He gave interviews proposing $1,000 checks but said later he misspoke.) Democratic critics said they preferred to apply the money to more targeted programs and to avoid depleting the reserves too much.
A high priority is overhauling the state’s unemployment insurance system, which has drawn widespread criticism for delays that have kept tens of thousands of residents from receiving money they were owed.
“People are making huge life decisions such as ‘How am I going to survive the next few weeks?’ and they have no idea when they’re going to get that check,” Charkoudian said.
Education. Maryland Democrats say they have the votes to overturn Hogan’s veto last year of the ambitious but expensive Kirwan Commission plan, which would add billions of dollars for K-12 schools.
They also expect to approve new legislation, over Hogan’s opposition, to inject more than $500 million into the state’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). That would satisfy twin desires to support education and redress racial disparities.
In Virginia, the legislature is expected to restore funding for early-childhood education and expand workforce retraining at community colleges.
Both states plan to invest in extending broadband service in rural communities, where some children have faced additional challenges doing remote learning because of lack of Internet access.
Criminal justice reform. Some Virginia Democrats think they have a good chance of abolishing the death penalty this year. (Maryland did so in 2013.)
“I’m very optimistic,” Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said. “There are only two people on death row now. It’s clearly an antiquated process.”
They also expect to approve expungement of certain criminal convictions, particularly misdemeanor marijuana-related crimes.
“The existence of old convictions can be a hindrance to getting employment so you can better support your family,” Surovell said.
Hogan is expected to push back on some bills.
“I would be shocked if at some point Hogan didn’t start accusing us of defunding the police,” said a senior Democratic legislative staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the topic is politically sensitive.
Race relations. Democrats view many of their proposed economic and police proposals as helping African Americans and other racial minorities, who are disproportionately less affluent and more vulnerable to police abuse.
In addition, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the first Black person (and woman) to hold the powerful position, is preparing a “racial and economic justice agenda.” It includes bills to aid Black people’s access to credit to build businesses and expand homeownership, increase corporate diversity and reduce health disparities.
Democrats also plan new steps to eliminate vestiges of the Confederacy. Maryland lawmakers say they will repeal the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” written in 1861 to urge the state to secede.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has asked lawmakers for $11 million to propose new public art to replace the statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate figures that lined Richmond’s Monument Avenue for decades.
This story has been updated.