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Minimum wage, health care and education expected to dominate the Maryland General Assembly

Gov. Larry Hogan gives the State of the State address in Annapolis on Feb. 3, 2016. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Raising the minimum wage, ensuring access to health care and shoring up money for education are among the topics that are expected to dominate the Maryland General Assembly when it convenes Wednesday for a 90-day session.

Lawmakers are primed to take up many of the progressive issues they championed during their 2018 campaigns, with some Democrats and advocates pushing for a $15 minimum wage, an expansion of prekindergarten and an individual mandate for health insurance.

Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose national profile has taken off since his decisive reelection, has pledged to continue to “reach across the aisle” to lower student debt, attract and retain jobs, increase development in urban areas, improve education and reduce crime.

With a large freshman class, including a record number of women, some uncertainty is on tap — particularly in the Senate, where the political landscape is shifting with the election of more left-leaning members.

“It’s a lot of unknown in the sense that there are 44 new members in the House and 17 new members in the Senate,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). “We are waiting to hear some of the ideas they will be bringing forward. Some of them campaigned from the left; some campaigned from the right.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said that despite Hogan’s victory, Democrats had big wins in November and he expects the new members in the Democratic-
controlled legislature to push for the minimum wage, criminal justice reform and improving the environment, including a mandate that half of Maryland’s energy come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2030.

Despite a delay in final recommendations from the Kirwan Commission, an education panel created to overhaul the state’s public schools and devise funding formulas to pay for it, Busch and Miller said education funding is at the top of the Democratic agenda.

The commission’s preliminary recommendations include expanding early-childhood education, increasing teacher pay and boosting spending on special education.

The panel estimates the cost of those programs at $3.8 billion annually for the next 10 years. The battle over how the state and local governments will pay that tab is not expected until next year.

Democratic lawmakers are preparing to clash with Hogan over budget priorities, particularly his plan to use $1.9 billion from casino money for school construction over the next five years, instead of devoting all those funds toward the initiatives outlined by the Kirwan Commission.

Busch said the policy initiatives are just as important, if not more so, than the school construction.

“It’s nice to have a shiny new car sitting in the driveway, but if it doesn’t have a motor in it, it’s not going to leave the driveway,” he said. “You have to have the ability to attract the best and the brightest teachers. You have to have early-childhood development programs.”

Miller, who along with Busch was invited to the governor’s mansion for breakfast last week to discuss bipartisanship, said the state is committed to help build and repair schools, “but we don’t need it to come from” the casino money.

Miller said Hogan, who announced the school construction funding last month during a news conference, has not discussed the proposal with him or Busch. Miller said during a recent interview that $400 million was mandated for school construction last year and that the General Assembly is prepared to agree to as much, if not more, this year.

“The money from MGM needs to go into the classrooms to elevate the status of teachers, to lower classroom size, to provide pre-K and to provide also for career readiness technology for those students who aren’t on the path to college and need careers,” he said.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the incoming chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee who also served on the Kirwan Commission, said the panel recommended that $125 million in casino money be spent on its recommendations.

Lawmakers could also clash with Hogan on proposals to increase the minimum wage from $10.10 an hour to $15 an hour, to penalize anyone who lacks health insurance, and to lower prescription drug prices. They may also be at odds on parole reform, and the question of whether to build a new stadium for the Washington Redskins.

There will also be a discussion about the University of Maryland Board of Regents and its role following the scandal surrounding the death of football player Jordan McNair.

Miller, who is marking his 44th year in the General Assembly, sounded optimistic about the prospects for a $15 minimum wage in the state, a proposal pushed for years by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and one that left-leaning groups blamed Miller for blocking.

“We’re going to pass that,” he said. “It’s just a question of how.”

Hogan would not say whether he supports another hike in the minimum wage but said he doesn’t want to do anything that could hurt the state’s economy.

“I’m for making sure people can make as much money as they can and they can lift themselves from poverty,” he said. “I don’t want to kill jobs or small businesses . . . I want to make sure we don’t do something rapidly that’s going to hurt the people it’s supposed to help. We’ve got to take a look at that.”

Hogan said during a recent interview that he does not support an individual mandate for health insurance, an issue that he says needs to be addressed at the federal level.

“It’s forcing people to do things against their will,” he said. “We’re open to any kind of solution, but . . . I’m not in favor of penalizing people.”

Busch and Miller said they knew nothing about Hogan’s plans to secure federal land for the Redskins to build a new stadium in Prince George’s County. Hogan has said no tax money would be used to build the stadium. But the presiding officers said the stadium would need infrastructure, including sidewalks, sewer and roads. Busch opposes it, and Miller has questions about using land that is rich in history.

The legislature and the Hogan administration are working together on continued efforts at criminal justice reform. Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), who will serve as the House majority leader, said the legislature will begin laying the groundwork for changes to the state’s juvenile justice system.

Hogan said recently that he also expects to find common ground with the Democratic-
controlled legislature on whether Maryland will join a host of other states that have legalized sports betting. Busch wants the taxes from sports betting to be used to support the education commission recommendations.

Another revenue generator that some lawmakers are eyeing: legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. But, similar to sports betting, Miller said legalizing marijuana would be a ballot initiative and would be taken up the year it would go on the ballot.

Several pieces of legislation are aimed at stemming violence in Baltimore. Miller has suggested adding 500 new police officers and creating a police academy at Coppin State University. He also supports Johns Hopkins University’s plan to create its own police department, an idea that sparked outrage from Sen.-elect Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City).

Washington, who ousted a veteran Democrat in the primary, applauded Miller for working with the city but said she is “strongly and unconditionally opposed to any proposal that would allow Johns Hopkins University to wholly own and operate a private police force.”

She said she worries about setting a precedent of allowing a “single, powerful, well-funded institution” to have policing powers. “Who is next — Under Armour, Amazon, a neighborhood association in my district?” she asked.