Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the Democratic leaders of Maryland’s General Assembly signed legislation Tuesday that will keep health insurance premiums from soaring this year — a bill they said was just one example of the bipartisanship that characterized the 90-day legislative session.
The new law creates a “reinsurance fund” using about $380 million the state will charge insurance companies, which are paying about that much less in federal taxes because of a one-time exemption in the recent federal tax code overhaul.
If the government did not act, Hogan said, all residents would have faced a “crisis,” including anticipated increases in premiums of between 30 percent and 50 percent and the possible departure of CareFirst, Maryland’s only statewide insurer.
“Washington has consistently failed to fix the problems with health care,” Hogan said before signing the bill along with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). “They haven’t taken action, so here, together, we have taken action.”
A separate measure, intended to provide a long-term fix to increased premiums, did not advance out of committee. It would have charged residents who fail to purchase health insurance and put the funds toward their coverage.
When the governor walked into the bill-signing room Tuesday morning after an unusually drama-free final day of session, Miller gave him a wink and shook his hand. Busch smiled, and all three men — at Hogan’s prompting — flashed a thumbs-up when they finished signing. Soon after, Hogan’s office sent out a “bipartisan alert” email with flashing purple fireworks and balloons.
Hogan said “a lot of smart people in Annapolis” warned before the session began about the difficulty of getting things done during an election year in which every seat in the General Assembly is up for grabs and eight candidates are competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But Hogan said those fears have not come to fruition in a session he declared the most productive of his first term.
Almost every item on the “aggressive agenda” discussed by leaders at the beginning of session — including tax relief for many residents, addressing crime in Baltimore and improving funding for education — has been addressed, Hogan said. The federal tax overhaul was expected to leave nearly 3 in 10 Marylanders owing more in state and local taxes, officials said in January. But changes to the state tax code approved by the legislature reduced that figure to around 1 in 10.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said lawmakers were productive this session because Democratic leaders accepted Hogan’s strong favorability ratings and stopped trying to paint him as an ultraconservative Republican who is not right for Maryland.
“They realized that narrative had not worked in past sessions, so they said, ‘Forget Hogan — we need to show voters why they want to vote for Democrats,’ ” Eberly said.
One of the victories celebrated by both parties was to require that every public school has police coverage or school resource officers, lockable doors and age-appropriate active-threat drills.
The school safety measure, signed into law by Hogan on Tuesday, gained momentum after a fatal school shooting in Southern Maryland and the increased national dialogue about gun violence following the shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Hogan and Democratic leaders celebrated the bill as an example of lawmakers rising above election-year politics, which pundits had predicted would make the session about fighting and name-calling.
“There was almost none of that,” Hogan said during a news conference Monday.
But the session wasn’t entirely devoid of political spats, the largest of which came when the General Assembly voted to remove the state comptroller from the process of awarding funds for school construction. Leaders in the General Assembly, which overrode Hogan’s veto, said their intention was to remove politics from the awarding of construction funds. But Hogan said lawmakers were stripping power from Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), a close ally of the governor’s, for political purposes.
A key question in the coming elections will be whether Democrats’ anger at President Trump leads to a blue wave at the polls, as it has in Virginia and other races across the country, and to what extent that mobilizes progressives in Maryland, Eberly said.
Nine veteran senators — all Democrats — are retiring, along with several Democrats who hold leadership positions in the state House.
On Monday, a progressive group announced a campaign to oust Miller — the longest-serving state senate president in the country — because of its frustration with the way he wields his power. The Service Employees International Union Local 500, which has 15,000 members statewide, is creating a political action committee and plans to provide $100,000 in seed money to remove Miller and his “lieutenants.”
“It’s going to be an interesting election cycle, and we’ll see what happens,” Miller said.
But Eberly said it remains an open question whether progressives can unseat more-traditional Democrats, recalling the poor showing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential primary.
“Maryland has never really been a state where ‘establishment’ is a bad word,” he said.