Longtime Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. — a towering figure in state politics — appeared ill on Wednesday during the opening of the General Assembly’s legislative session, and two veteran Maryland political figures said he had told them he is being treated for prostate cancer.
Miller (D-Calvert), 76, declined to answer questions about whether he is ill but said he plans to make a health-related announcement on Thursday.
“As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to be here,” said the lawmaker, who raised the issue of his health without being asked. “I’m going to stay here until the band stops playing.”
Moments earlier, Miller was unanimously elected to a 33rd term as Senate president, an office he has held longer than any other legislative leader in the country.
A state lawmaker for nearly 50 years and a skilled political strategist, Miller has given multiple interviews in recent weeks about a legislative session that is expected to focus on education funding, whether to boost the minimum wage and how to ensure health coverage for Marylanders in the face of changes to the federal Affordable Care Act.
On Wednesday, however, Miller appeared physically weakened. For the first time since he recovered from hip surgery more than a year ago, he used a cane to walk into the Senate chamber in the Maryland State House in Annapolis. On Tuesday, he uncharacteristically missed the annual pre-session lunch hosted by the state Democratic Party. His aides said he had a stomach bug.
“I have a bad knee and I’ve got a cane that I will be using,” Miller told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Asked whether there was anything else going on with his health, he said: “I’m going to have an announcement tomorrow. Everybody can read about it, and I’m going to let the crazy aunt out of the closet and let her dance.”
He had spoken emotionally at the close of the Senate’s ceremonial first-day session, which was filled with picture-taking, cheering family members and the swearing-in of 44 lawmakers. Miller instructed the 17 freshmen senators about the workings of the Senate and said the State House was different from Congress because “everybody gets their say.”
“That’s the way we roll here and that’s the way we will continue to work, and we’re going to move forward,” Miller said as his voice began to tremble.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) briefly addressed both the Senate and the House of Delegates, each of which has a Democratic supermajority, pledging to work with “anybody who wants to get things done for the people of Maryland.”
Hogan formally submitted a portion of his legislative agenda, including previously announced proposals on student debt and school accountability, and Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Kent) told lawmakers that the governor was looking for sponsors for those bills.
The Legislative Black Caucus, which has a record 56 members this year, also unveiled its legislative priorities, which include a push to raise the age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21. Similar legislation has failed four years in a row.
Wednesday morning, Hogan, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) participated in an opening-day tradition: live interviews with radio host Marc Steiner at the Calvert House.
Hogan, who was interviewed first, reiterated his goal of spending casino money targeted for education on school construction, rather than dedicating all the money to classroom programs.
When their turns came, Busch and Miller said that their main focus is to take the initial steps needed to use that money to fund programming recommendations made by the Kirwan Commission, a landmark education panel.
Busch said that some money should be reserved for construction but that the majority of casino revenue — which has been earmarked for education through a “lockbox” initiative — should fund classroom changes.
When Steiner asked Hogan whether he would support an increase in the sales tax to help pay for a greater investment in education, the governor rejected the idea that not enough money is being spent on schools.
“People have to decide: Do you want to have drastic increases in taxes to pay more than everybody else in the country?” he said. “Or do we want to figure out how to make our school systems more accountable?”
Hogan also questioned Democratic efforts to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, noting that Virginia’s minimum wage is $7.25 and citing concerns about competitiveness.
Miller and Busch differed over how Maryland should handle the issue of marijuana legalization, which both said seems increasingly inevitable.
Busch said he is establishing a task force headed by Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), the House majority leader, to study recreational marijuana use, which he believes should be decided by Maryland voters in a state referendum.
Miller, who described himself as a legal historian, prefers leaving legalization up to the General Assembly rather than “cluttering the Constitution with these issues.”
Lawmakers can address issues such as marijuana use by minors and adjust the criminal code, he said, while explaining the benefits of legalization to the public. “The revenues will be substantial. We need to manage this right.”
When asked whether all revenue generated from regulating marijuana should go to state education needs, the two leaders also diverged.
“Yes,” Busch said emphatically.
Miller hedged: “It’s a possibility.”
The Senate president raised questions about the governor’s $13 million crime plan for Baltimore, which Hogan announced Tuesday. Miller told Steiner that the governor had not spoken to either him or Busch in advance about the plan, which includes tougher penalties for repeat offenders and a new operations center housing 200 federal, state and local law enforcement officers.
Both Miller and Busch said Baltimore would benefit from broader legislative priorities to fairly compensate teachers, expand early-childhood education and raise the minimum wage.
“We are going to take care of Baltimore as fairly and equitably as we can,” Busch said. “When Baltimore hurts, we all hurt.”