The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland’s election-year session shaping up to be ‘pretty volatile’

The Maryland General Assembly opened its 2018 legislative session on Jan. 10. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Maryland's legislative session opens Wednesday with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democrats who control the General Assembly aiming to address federal policies that affect the state and lay the groundwork for what they hope will be big victories in November.

Key themes include tempering Baltimore City's crime wave, battling over paid time off for sick workers, responding to changes in the U.S. tax code, creating a dedicated revenue source for Metro and possibly addressing what many women feel is a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct in Annapolis.

Maryland lawmakers historically have tried to avoid major conflicts during election years. But experts say 2018 will be an exception, with a popular Republican governor seeking reelection and Democrats, who hold strong majorities in both chambers, eager to chip away at Hogan's approval ratings and resist the policies of President Trump.

"We have a divided state government and pretty unified opposition to Trump in the assembly," said Todd Eberly, a political-science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "I suspect it'll be a pretty volatile session."

The partisan bickering could start early, with the legislature's first major action expected to be a vote on whether to override Hogan's 2017 veto of a measure that would require employers with at least 15 workers to offer five paid sick days a year.

During the Maryland Democratic Party's pre-session luncheon Tuesday, House Economic Matters Committee Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's) said that lawmakers should override the veto and move on.

"There is nothing else to say," he said. "We've had all the conversations, all the debates . . . it's time to get it done."

Hogan and his fellow Republicans call the bill a job-killer and say that a verification provision requested by businesses could violate employee rights. The governor has proposed an alternate plan that would apply to businesses with at least 25 employees, be phased in over three years and drop the verification provision.

A second veto fight will involve the governor's rejection of a 2017 bill to prohibit the state's colleges and universities from asking about criminal history on applications. Overriding Hogan's veto of the measure is a top priority of Maryland's powerful Legislative Black Caucus; Republicans say the proposal is too restrictive and would jeopardize campus safety.

Democrats and Republicans may also find themselves at odds over how to address crime in Baltimore, a top priority for both parties. Hogan has pushed stricter sentencing guidelines for repeat violent offenders and those who commit felonies using firearms, while Democrats in the Baltimore delegation have focused on closing loopholes that allow legally purchased guns to flow into the hands of criminals, as well as on providing additional services for high-risk youths and ex-offenders, and boosting police resources.

"Using law enforcement alone will never solve the problem of violence," said Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City). "It's a necessary, but not sufficient, part of a plan. We're trying to take a comprehensive look."

Taxes will loom large over the legislature this year, with many Maryland residents expected to see higher state and federal bills because Congress recently scaled back personal exemptions and deductions — including for state, local and property taxes. State fiscal analysts are still calculating how much additional revenue the changes will provide for Maryland's government.

Hogan, estimating that the amount will be "hundreds of millions of dollars" a year, has promised legislation to return all of the money to taxpayers, but Democrats say the state may need the revenue if Congress and Trump trim support for health care and other programs.

"Before you start returning money to taxpayers, you have to make sure your fiscal house is in order," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and the only lawmaker running for governor in a crowded Democratic primary, expressed similar concerns. He said Hogan is "trying to make it look as though he's doing something to help average Marylanders" but is actually taking part in "a Republican game to give more money to corporations and the wealthiest people."

Democratic leaders are talking about setting aside an extra $100 million in the state budget in case Congress does not extend funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers low-income youth and is due to run out of money in April.

"We're not going to leave here without funding for the CHIP program," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

Madaleno and the six other Democrats seeking to run against Hogan will seek every opportunity during the 90-day session to tie him to Trump and paint his positions as extreme.

"Democrats look to Virginia and see what happens when their base is motivated, and they'll want to make sure their base is motivated in Maryland," Eberly said, referring to the party's sweeping victories in November.

In Annapolis, both parties are looking for ways to stabilize the state's individual health insurance market, which has seen premiums increase by double-digit percentages in recent years and could be severely undermined by Congress's decision to halt enforcement of the federal penalty for not obtaining coverage.

Advocates will push legislation to create a state mandate for purchasing insurance, but Hogan said that he would be reluctant to embrace such a plan unless the legislature agrees to shield Marylanders from higher taxes under the recent federal changes.

"What it basically means is a tax increase — it means penalizing hard-working people," he said. "We're going to have to take a look at the whole picture."

Health advocates and the Black Caucus also want to pass legislation to rein in the cost of brand-name drugs, which would build on a 2017 law that authorized the state to sue drug companies that dramatically increase the price of off-patent and generic drugs.

"It's a huge economic issue," said Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the Black Caucus. "We have to move the ball down the field."

Also on the legislative agenda is a bill to address a lack of racial diversity in Maryland's new medical-marijuana industry, another top priority of the Black Caucus. Lawmakers are anticipating the results of a study on racial disparities in the business and have scheduled a hearing on a bill next week. An effort to set aside new cultivation licenses for minority-owned businesses fell apart during the final moments of the 2017 session.

With every seat in the legislature on the ballot in November, lawmakers — especially in swing districts — will be wary of taking unpopular stances on bills.

Miller said Tuesday that he and Busch plan to set up a commission to examine the issue of sexual harassment in the Maryland State House. The women's caucus has also created a panel with the goal of preventing sexual misconduct, encouraging victims to report alleged misbehavior and developing appropriate responses to allegations.

A consensus may be emerging on funding the Washington area's Metro system, with Busch, Miller and Hogan signaling support for dedicated funding for Metro if Virginia and the District agree to do the same. Hogan says the federal government must contribute, too.

The legislature will consider a plan from Democratic lawmakers to increase Maryland's contribution to Metro by $125 million a year, with the money coming from the state's transportation trust fund.

Democrats and Republicans may also find common ground on the issue of allowing women who have been raped to terminate the parental rights of their attackers. Similar bills failed nine times in recent years — including during the final hours of the 2017 legislative session, when the measure stalled in part because of concerns about due process for the accused. Women's groups reacted with outrage, noting that the panel of senators who failed to resolve differences over the bill did not include any female lawmakers.

This year, Miller and Busch are sponsoring bills to terminate rapists' parental rights, a clear sign that passage is a top priority. Hogan said Friday that he would sign that legislation as soon as it reaches his desk.

Ovetta Wiggins and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.