The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland legislature opens with ceremony. Contentiousness to follow.

The Maryland General Assembly opened its 2018 legislative session on Jan. 10. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)
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Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) didn't mince words Wednesday about what to expect during the 2018 legislative session.

With battles brewing over how to respond to federal action on healthcare and taxes, Miller told his colleagues: "This is going to be one of the most contentious sessions you'll have to ever deal with. . . This tax plan is going to cause us a fit. We're going to have to find a Maryland solution. . . I ask for all of your help; I ask for God's help."

But on the opening day, legislative work took a back seat to traditional ceremonies, with lawmakers' children and grandchildren by their sides, spouses in seats along the chamber walls and elected officials from across the state watching from the audience. The session formally opened with short speeches from Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel), Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D).

The House of Delegates delayed action for a day on overriding Hogan's 2017 veto of a bill that requires businesses to provide paid sick leave, and the Senate postponed a vote on overturning another bill that prohibits the state's colleges and universities from asking about criminal history on applications.

"This is going to be a rockin', rollin' session," Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) told members of the House. "Stay tuned, and get plenty of rest."

Hogan is pushing hard for lawmakers to let his sick-leave veto stand and embrace a different paid leave bill he is offering. He is also expected to tangle with the Democratic-controlled legislature over his proposal to give money back to Maryland taxpayers adversely affected by the federal tax changes and the best way to provide health insurance to 146,000 low-income children in jeopardy of losing coverage under the federal Children's Health Insurance Program.

On Wednesday, during his minute-long greeting in the House and Senate chambers, Hogan suggested "pushing the pause button" on politics during the session, even though it is an election-year.

"We have plenty of time to campaign," he told members of the House. "Let's try to spend the next 90 days talking to each other and coming up with compromises."

Democrats are hoping to ride a wave of opposition to President Trump in Maryland to oust Hogan, who has strong approval ratings and is vying to become the state's first two-term Republican governor in nearly 60 years.

Early Wednesday on Annapolis Summit, a first-day -of-session podcast hosted by Mark Steiner, Miller said that Hoganhas been working to "pick off" some of the 29 votes needed to override his veto of the sick-leave bill.

Hogan says the bill is too tough on employers and could violate workers' privacy by allowing employers to ask why they need to take leave.

In addition to the override attempts and tax reform, the agenda for lawmakers includes strengthening the legislature's policy against sexual harassment , stemming crime in Baltimore City and dedicating a permanent revenue source for Metro.

On the podcast, Hogan said any revenue that lands in state coffers as a result of Congress shrinking the amount of state, local and property taxes that can be deducted from federal income taxes should be used to shield taxpayers who will have to spend more in state income taxes.

Miller said the legislature plans to convene a panel of tax experts to figure out how best to address the new federal tax law.

In his address to state lawmakers, Cardin, a member of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, promised to "make sure our delegation gives you the support you need to understand what's in that tax bill and what you can do."

"Your session here has been made more complicated because of legislation that has been passed in Washington," he said.

Miller said during the podcast that he plans to create a "powerful" commission that will offer recommendations to the General Assembly on ways to root out what women have described as pervasive sexual misconduct in Annapolis.

He expects to hold about five public hearings during the legislative session in which people will be encouraged to testify about the culture at the state capitol, offer ways to prevent sexual harassment and suggest ways to improve the process for handling complaints.

"We're going to pick the very best and the very brightest women around the state that we can bring together to investigate the situation and make recommendations to us," Miller said. "This is something that is extremely serious, and the public needs to know that we take this very seriously."

The commission would offer recommendations that then would be considered by the General Assembly's legislative policy committee, which is co-chaired by Miller and Busch.

"It needs to be addressed, it's a respect issue," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), of the decision to create a commission.

Busch said Maryland's legislature should ultimately be "the most comfortable workplace and safest workplace in the country."

Both Miller and Busch were unanimously reelected Wednesday to their leadership posts, which they have held for 31 and 15 years, respectively. Miller is the longest-serving state Senate president in the country.

Busch, who ended the 2017 session looking gaunt from a deteriorating liver that eventually required a transplant, thanked lawmakers for their support during the ordeal and acknowledged his sister Kathleen "Laurie" Bernhardt, who was in attendance, for donating most of her liver for the operation.

"She reminds me that I owe her big time all the time, and I do," he quipped. "I stand here before you today, in some respects, as a miracle of modern medicine."