Maryland lawmakers return to Annapolis this week hoping to give their parties an edge for the 2018 election cycle, with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reaching the midpoint of his term with sky-high approval ratings.
Hogan (R), who has undercut critics by governing from the center, will press the Democratic-majority legislature to adopt some of the same initiatives he failed to pass last year, including a plan to lure more manufacturers to the state with a decade-long tax exemption and legislation to rein in mandatory spending growth.
“We’ve made an unbelievable amount of progress in two years, and we hope to continue,” the governor said.
Democrats will start the session with a move that could appeal to their environmental base: attempting to override Hogan’s 2016 veto of a bill to expand the use of solar and wind power in the state. The governor opposed the legislation because it would have led to consumers paying more for electricity.
Additional battles are brewing over fracking and transportation planning, while members of both parties will tackle legislation requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave.
The 90-day session opens Wednesday, six days after federal authorities unveiled a long-
running bribery probe involving liquor sales in Prince George’s County, which they said could implicate at least one sitting lawmaker.
Democrats control both chambers with veto-proof margins. They say they will govern this year with a careful eye on what happens in Washington under Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Maryland.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the legislature’s work will be “defined by what happens on Capitol Hill and how we as a state respond to the new Cabinet and their desires,” particularly in the areas of health care, the environment, federal grants and education.
Analysts say the future president’s popularity — or lack thereof — could impact Republicans across the country, including Hogan, who disavowed Trump during the election but plans to attend his inauguration on Jan. 20.
Melissa Deckman, who chairs Washington College’s political science department, said the goal for Democrats will probably be to “think about the next gubernatorial election and try to make somewhat of a stand against Hogan, to make him seem more in line with the ‘party of Trump.’ . . . Maryland depends on federal jobs and procurement, so if you see cuts in federal spending, that could create an opening for Democrats.”
The governor says his top goal is to repeal a 2016 law that requires his administration to rate and rank transportation proposals for funding priority.
While supporters of the law say it adds transparency to the process by requiring the state to explain why one road should be built or improved rather than another, Hogan has dubbed the measure the “road kill bill” and says the scoring system would prevent work on major transportation projects for nearly every jurisdiction in the state.
Miller said he would be willing to amend the law to make it more “palatable” to the governor but added that Hogan has not offered changes. Hogan said in an interview that he wants to repeal the law, not amend it.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he doesn’t envision his chamber tweaking the bill.
Hogan will also introduce legislation to provide a 10-year tax exemption for new Maryland manufacturers in high-unemployment areas. He pitched a similar plan last year with an additional tax break for employees of new manufacturers. The measure failed amid concerns that it would cause workers to flee from existing manufacturers to take advantage of the tax break at competing companies.
Fracking, technically known as hydraulic fracturing, has emerged as a top issue for many Democratic lawmakers, with a two-year moratorium on the gas-extraction method set to expire in October. The state recently proposed regulations for the drilling practice, but opponents maintain that no safeguards can adequately protect the public and environment from impacts that they say include groundwater contamination, air pollution and earthquakes.
Several Democrats have promised legislation to ban fracking, while others have discussed extending the moratorium or requiring stricter regulations.
On paid sick leave, Democrats failed to pass a bill last year that would have required employers with at least 15 workers to provide the benefit. Hogan released his own plan last month, proposing five days of paid sick leave for Md. businesses with at least 50 workers while offering a tax incentive for companies with fewer workers to offer the benefit.
Democratic leaders say Hogan’s plan doesn’t go far enough, and Busch says the governor’s legislation is “100 miles apart from our bill.”
Hogan, who is required by law to introduce a budget by Jan. 18, has to close deficits estimated at a combined $750 million for the current and next fiscal years, based on a revenue forecast in December and spending projections by legislative analysts.
The governor will push for limits on mandatory spending increases. He failed to advance a bill last year that would have paused the automatic upticks during years when revenue is lower than projected, with exemptions for K-12 education, debt payments, the state pension system and reserves.
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said the state should be “funding things based on what we can afford and our priorities as a state.” Many Democrats say they prefer to deal with deficits by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, including by changing how the state taxes hedge-fund earnings and placing a stricter cap on exemptions to the estate tax.
“I think we have to be aggressive and show what we believe in,” said Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s), a progressive member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Lawmakers are also considering a long-sought overhaul to the state’s bail-bond system, which sets amounts many defendants cannot afford. State Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) recently issued an opinion saying the existing system might violate due-process protections. The state’s highest court is also weighing changes to the bail system.
On the education front, Hogan has proposed doubling the amount of funding for a voucher program that supports scholarships for poor students to attend private schools, calling for an increase to $10 million over the next three years. Miller said many Democrats would resist such a move, and Busch said the state needs to assess whether the program is working as intended before pumping more money into it.
Miller said he will put his weight behind an effort to freeze tuition at community colleges, adding that he prefers allowing students to attend the schools free, a plan lawmakers in New York and other states are considering.
Lawmakers from both parties have named drug treatment as a top priority during the session and say they expect strong bipartisan efforts to address the problem amid an opioid epidemic that has caused fatal-overdose levels to surge for several years.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said he expects a bill to help treatment centers stay open by requiring the state to boost its reimbursement rates for providers, specifically by tying the funding formulas to the rate of inflation for medical costs. But such a measure would come with a hefty price tag.
Kipke said he is working on legislation that would mandate addiction treatment for individuals who require injections of overdose-reversal drugs from emergency responders.
“We have to find new and creative ways to address this problem,” he said.
The Legislative Black Caucus, which is the largest coalition in the General Assembly, will focus on issues such as criminal justice reform, lowering the cost of prescription drugs and equity in licensing for the state’s new medical-marijuana industry.
Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), a member of the caucus, said the group is also likely to join with progressive lawmakers to focus on environmental issues, with the idea that African Americans are disproportionately affected by pollution.