Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Tuesday proposed creating a nonpartisan redistricting panel to draw Maryland’s legislative and congressional districts, a change that would strip that power from the legislature and the governor’s office.
Hogan also proposed legislation to help the state crack down on a growing epidemic of opiod addiction by changing the state’s gang laws to be more like federal racketeering statutes and by eventually requiring doctors and pharmacists to use the state’s prescription-monitoring database to ensure they are not over-prescribing narcotics.
The redistricting proposal — which will be formally introduced in the legislature Wednesday — would require an amendment to the state constitution. The change would have to be approved both by the Democratic-majority legislature and by voters.
Democratic legislative leaders have vowed to resist such redistricting changes, saying they prefer to wait for national redistricting reform that would also affect states where Republicans control the legislatures.
Hogan has criticized state lawmakers and his Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley, for creating what experts agree are some of the nation’s most gerrymandered districts. All but one of Maryland’s eight members of the House of Representatives are Democrats, in part because of the way the districts are drawn.
“For too long, fair elections and a healthy, strong, and competitive two-party system have been nearly impossible in our state,” Hogan said in a news release Tuesday.
Independent redistricting commissions are used in six Western states, including Arizona, whose system was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The option was recommended by a commission Hogan appointed to study the issue.
Similarly, the governor’s legislative proposals to combat opioid addiction follow recommendations from a task force led by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R).
Hogan’s office said his legislation would aid criminal prosecutions and the pursuit of civil penalties against drug traffickers by aligning Maryland’s gang law more closely with federal organized crime sanctions designed to crack down on mobsters.
The report on the task force recommendations said that “when parts of the organization are taken down piecemeal, as under the current statutory scheme, the leaders that are still in place can recruit replacements and keep the organization running and the drugs and violence flowing.”
The governor also proposed changing the state’s voluntary prescription monitoring program to phase in mandatory registration by doctors who prescribe painkillers and other addictive drugs.
Carin C. Miller, co-founder of Maryland Heroin Awareness Advocates, said she supports efforts to bolster the monitoring program. But she said legislation to crack down on drug rings shouldn’t treat drug traffickers the same as small-time dealers, many of whom are trying to support their own habits.
“One needs prison, and the other one needs treatment,” said Miller, whose husband and son have struggled with addiction.
Hogan spokesman Matt Clark said the proposed legislation — which also will be introduced Wednesday — should not lead to the prosecution of low-level drug dealers but would allow the state to move more strongly against drug dealers who belong to criminal gangs or organizations.
Clark said Hogan also is focusing on recommendations by the task force that addressed treatment or other preventative efforts but do not require legislation. For example, Clark said, the state has started a public-service announcement campaign and has trained workers at local health departments and detention centers to administer drugs such as naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an overdose.
Also on Tuesday, the legislature’s fiscal analysts briefed lawmakers on the $42.3 billion budget that Hogan proposed last week, highlighting several issues that could become flash points during the General Assembly’s 2016 session.
Warren G. Deschenaux, executive director of the Department of Legislative Services, said the biggest policy decisions facing the legislature will center around tax relief for businesses and how much money the state should set aside as reserve funds.
Hogan’s budget would provide modest reductions in taxes and fees for working families, seniors and selected small businesses, while increasing the state’s rainy day fund to more than $1.1 billion.
“I think we need to be cautious about some of the corporate income-tax proposals,” said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, referring to a recommendation from a panel appointed by Democratic leaders.
Discussing retirees who may be well-off, she questioned “giving tax credits to . . . Marylanders who have the highest amount of discretionary money already.”
McIntosh said she supports the governor’s plan to ramp up tax credits for the working poor and wants to expand the benefit even further. Hogan’s proposal would increase the credits by $79 a year, on average.
Among other potential sticking points, Deschenaux noted that Hogan’s plan calls for $5 million in tax credits for donations to public or private schools, an idea Democrats roundly rejected last year.
Deschenaux pointed out that the governor’s budget would reduce education aid for Baltimore by $24 million because of declining enrollment and increased wealth in the city, while boosting funding for rural counties such as Carroll, Garrett and Kent, which also have shrinking student populations.
He also noted that Hogan’s capital budget provides no room for initiatives that originate in the legislature. Traditionally, he said, governors have left about $15 million in capital funding to the General Assembly’s discretion.
He also noted that Hogan’s budget would provide $25 million more than required under Maryland law for the state employees’ pension fund, which saw its annual contributions slashed under the previous administration.
Additionally, Deschenaux said Hogan’s budget lacks operational funds for a regional hospital project in Prince George’s County. The governor’s fiscal plan also calls for outsourcing more than 100 jobs at state-run hospitals to the private sector, particularly in food service and housekeeping.
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.