By Zach Sparks
Between January 9 and April 8, many Americans will focus on playoff football, Valentine’s Day, the Oscars and Grammy Awards, and closer to home, preparing for the Polar Bear Plunge or securing tickets to Severna Park High School’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival.
During that 90-day timespan, the 188-member Maryland General Assembly will engage in policy debates, with Democrats and Republicans drafting legislation that will have a long-term impact on Marylanders.
Created in 2016, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence has spent two years analyzing ways Maryland can meet the challenges of a changing global economy. Often called the Kirwan Commission because of its chair, William “Brit” Kirwan, the group was asked by lawmakers to devise specific recommendations on how to improve student performance at all levels and how to fund the necessary investments.
When the Kirwan Commission announced in December 2018 that Maryland would need $4.4 billion annually to meet those goals, Governor Larry Hogan balked at the price tag. The panel later lowered that figure to $3.8 billion, but legislators still need to determine how state and local governments will divide the cost.
With Marylanders voting “yes” on a ballot referendum in November to ensure casino revenues are spent on Maryland schools, the state is expecting to receive an additional $4.4 billion in school funding.
Democrats want to spend the money on the commission’s recommendations: investments in prekindergarten and special education while also increasing teacher pay. Hogan wants to earmark $1.9 billion for new construction funding over five years.
Why is Hogan proposing to use a chunk of the funds on school construction instead of meeting the commission’s suggestions?
“Capital budget investments are one-time budget expenditures whereas the operating budget is reoccurring,” said Senator Ed Reilly, who represents District 33. “For the operating budget, you have to have a reoccurring source of revenue, and gaming revenue fluctuates.”
Delegate Heather Bagnall, newly elected to a seat in District 33, wants her fellow lawmakers to look beyond the cost.
“The question keeps recurring, ‘How much is this going to cost?’” Bagnall said. “That’s kind of the wrong question, because it’s an investment. The recommendation has a 10-year rollout and the investment is going to pay off massively in the long run with a more educated, prepared workforce, which is also going to help attract employers to our area.”
The state may not determine the funding formulas until 2020, but look for the conversation to get started in 2019.
A debate about recreational marijuana will likely flow along party lines. Medicinal cannabis was made legal in 2013 but licenses were not issued until 2016.
“I supported medicinal marijuana and we need to make sure that’s up and running,” said Delegate Sid Saab. “We just now have the dispensaries, so I think it’s premature to talk about recreational use.”
Delegate Michael Malone expects to oppose the bill because he believes marijuana is a gateway drug. Bagnall wants to address any concerns so the state can draft policy that creates a “safe and equitable path.”
“I think we have seen, nationally, very successful rollouts of recreational marijuana and very unsuccessful ones,” Bagnall said. “But I also know that it would be another revenue stream for the state of Maryland, so I think you are going to see a lot of argument back and forth.”
Now that a four-year rollout has brought Maryland’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, Democrats in the General Assembly want to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
District 33 representatives have strong feelings on the subject. Because he sees the minimum wage as a training wage, Reilly is against bumping it again.
“You give me a 16-year-old or an 18-year-old high school dropout and the proposed law would say we pay him almost $30,000 a year,” Reilly said. “He has no incentive to work harder or go back to school.”
Malone said the minimum wage should be viewed under an apprenticeship philosophy instead of a supporting wage philosophy. Asked about Republicans compromising on a bill, he said, “I try to make bad bills less painful. I see myself voted against it, but I will put in a sloped enactment, a delayed enactment.”
Bagnall anticipates the General Assembly raising the minimum wage while finding a compromise for small businesses. Saab admitted that people cannot support themselves by making $10.10 an hour, but he argued that the wage is meant to be a starting point.
“Wages should be based on experience and work ethic,” Saab said. “It should not be a one-size-fits-all approach.”
GUN LAWS AND MENTAL HEALTH
The gun debate has renewed life after five Capital Gazette newspaper employees were shot in their Annapolis office in June 2018.
Bagnall wants her fellow delegates and senators to champion the issue. “I think there has previously been a fear of political retribution and ‘How is this going to play to my base?’ and ‘Am I going to lose voters?’” Bagnall said. “That shouldn’t be our concern. Our concern should be the well-being of our constituents and not whether it is politically savvy to have an opinion.”
Saab sees the issue differently.
“When people talk about gun control, it’s violence in general, not just guns,” Saab said. “I think violence in general is caused by mental health.”
One bill in 2018 addressed the issue of mental health. The “red flag” law allows judges to order that someone’s guns are temporarily seized if that person is a danger to themselves or others. The current law allows officers, health professionals, spouses and family members, legal guardians, and dating or intimate partners to file a petition.
Some of those details need to be clarified this session, Malone said.
“A romantic partner is currently eligible to [file a petition], and there is nowhere where that term is defined,” he said. “Is a Facebook partner a romantic partner? Does going on one date with someone make them a romantic partner?”
Both Democrats and Republicans have also pushed for banning “ghost guns,” which are homemade guns without serial numbers, and firearms made with 3D printers. Those bills would mirror laws that have been passed at the federal level.
If Maryland legalizes sports betting, more money would be available for schools, roads and other needs. Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, West Virginia and several other states have already approved sports betting.
Reilly has no problem with the idea but he and Malone both want to see the details. “I’m hesitant to take advantage of people’s weaknesses,” Malone said. “I want to see the bill and see the upside.”
The General Assembly has already committed to reaching 25 percent renewable energy by 2020, and lawmakers are now looking to enact the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, which sets the bar at 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.
According to a report published by the Maryland Energy Administration in January 2018, the state uses nuclear for 45.5 percent of its energy, coal for 25.4 percent and natural gas for 16.3 percent. Much of its electricity is imported from surrounding states.
“If we’re going to get to 50 percent, where is it going to come from?” Reilly said. “We’re not increasing production in the state of Maryland. It’s not homegrown renewable energy. When the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing, we have no energy.”
Bagnall is encouraged that a higher standard is being discussed.
“I think we’re going to see legislation to get us to 100 percent renewable energy,” she said. “I don’t know that we’ll get there, but we’ll get further.”
A federal court ruled the drawing of lines in the 6th district to be unconstitutional, but Attorney General Brian Frosh appealed the ruling. While the legislature awaits a final decision from the Supreme Court regarding gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina, Hogan has tasked a commission with redrawing the maps so they better represent the public instead of manipulating the lines for political gain.
Malone supports Hogan’s efforts and he introduced his own constitutional amendment, House Bill 1022, using guidance from the Court of Appeals. The amendment calls for each district to “consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form and be of substantially equal population.”
TRANSPORTATION, HEALTH CARE AND CHILD SUPPORT
Bagnall called transportation the “dark horse” topic of session, with politicians divided over Hogan’s desire to expand Interstates 495 and 270 with toll lanes. She has observed a need for more public transportation.
“Public transportation serves a wealth of accessibility issues,” Bagnall said. “It helps seniors who no longer feel safe driving and don’t have reliable transportation, it serves the 13- to 16-year-olds who otherwise are absolutely relying on their parents for transportation. It serves [residents of] the low-income community who don’t have reliable transportation and maybe need it to get to work.”
Many motorists who rely on the Bay Bridge for transportation may want to follow progress of discussions to add another bridge crossing somewhere in Maryland. Last year, Reilly talked about combatting the “parochial” attitude of some Eastern Shore residents who don’t want the bridge built in their “backyard” and who favor their own interests above the good of all Marylanders. He wants Anne Arundel County to have the same veto power extended to other counties.
“This bill will prevent 400,000 Eastern Shore residents from holding 5.5 million Western Shore residents hostage,” Reilly said.
To keep people from feeling like they are held hostage by the health care system, legislators have floated the possibility of fining people without health insurance but allowing them to use that fine as a downpayment on the insurance. Lawmakers are also expected to tackle the issue of drug prices.
Reilly wants to keep Marylanders healthy and safe by passing several small measures. “Matthew’s Law” would require the Department of Natural Resources to have boaters take a safety education course that includes information relating to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Another bill would improve Lyme disease testing. Reilly said, “About 50 percent of blood tests for Lyme disease come back as false negatives. That means half the time the lab results come back and say someone does not have Lyme disease, they do have it. The bill is for a double-negative blood test.”
Malone wants to fix a wide gap in child support payment requirements – a problem he labeled the “cliff effect.” Currently, the difference in seeing a child 127 days or 128 days can mean an extra $400 in child support.
“I support the payment of child support,” Malone said. “I don’t support when people are more motivated by money than what is best for the child.”
For the best interest of future adults, Malone is asking colleagues to double the tax deduction for 529 college savings plans, which allow parents or grandparents to deduct up to $2,500 of payments each year. The plans were created in 2001, and tuition has become more expensive, Malone explained.
“We see taxes increased with inflation, but we don’t see tax credits increased with inflation,” Malone said.
Saab wants to revisit a bill to eliminate abuse of the elderly. “We still don’t have a mechanism for people to petition visitation outside of guardianship,” he said. “Last year, we got 20 percent of what we wanted.”
Touting weddings as one motivating factor, Reilly wants to add Anne Arundel County to the list of Maryland jurisdictions that can host 200 people in a barn for special events. Currently, only 50 people can occupy a barn in Anne Arundel County.
UNIFIED OR DIVIDED?
With 60 legislators being elected for the first time or moving to the Senate from the House, and with a record 72 women serving in the state legislature, the General Assembly has a new look. Uncertainty looms over Annapolis. Will lawmakers hold firm in their requests or will they cross the aisle to find compromise?
“From what I see, a lot of new guys who challenged Democrat incumbents are pretty progressive for the state, on the far left. I hope they realize Maryland is not a progressive state,” Saab said. “But I’m willing to work with anybody. There’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.”
One of the new delegates is Bagnall, who notices an energy and enthusiasm brewing among the “problem-solvers” who were elected in part because of their diverse backgrounds and skillsets.
“We’re approaching old problems – or as my father likes to say, don’t call it a problem, call it an opportunity – but we’re approaching old opportunities with fresh perspectives,” Bagnall said. “And I think that can be really healthy and that can be really good for some new innovation. I also think we are going to have a lot more community advocacy than we have had in the past, because our communities are fired up.”