State lawmakers convene in Annapolis on Wednesday for a legislative session that will be dominated, and perhaps over-shadowed, by this year’s elections. With Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and legislative leaders engaging in rhetorical combat through the news media in the days leading up to the official start of the session, it’s clear that the opening gavel is a mere formality.
At their annual pre-session luncheon Tuesday, a chorus of top Democrats assailed President Trump and the governor for policies they view to be harmful to state residents, beginning with the recently passed federal tax overhaul.
“During this whole debate, where Maryland will be one of the big losers, I did not hear a peep from Gov. Hogan – not one peep,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D).
“When this year’s legislative session begins, we’re going to be on the attack,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
For his part, Hogan unveiled a set of legislative proposals Tuesday, including term limits for legislators, that he said would rein in “out-of-control partisanship, meaningless political spin, the stifling of honest debate and fresh ideas, the inability to get things done, gerrymandering, one-party monopolies and the increased potential for the kind of corruption that we have seen here.”
The term limit legislation, if passed, would set up a proposed constitutional amendment that would go before the voters in November. If approved, it would limit lawmakers elected in 2018 to two consecutive terms in their chambers – but would not apply to incumbents who have previously been elected, Hogan said.
Hogan repeated his call for state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat facing corruption charges, to resign. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) brushed aside the governor’s suggestion, telling reporters, “It should not be the decision of one person” whether Oaks serves until his federal trial, which is slated to begin right after the session ends in mid-April. “I’ve personally spoken to Senator Oaks. … He’s going to plead not guilty. He’s going to have a trial. And the trial is going to be his primary election.”
Miller did, however, recommend that Oaks’ case be taken up by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, which could mete out sanctions before the senator’s case goes to trial.
The rhetoric over ethics – and an array of other issues – offers a glimpse into how contentious this year’s 90-day session is likely to become.
“It’s going to be a combative year because it’s an election year,” said Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, who has served since 1991. “There’s not going to be a lot of joining of hands.”
Hogan is seeking to become the first Republican governor to win a second term since 1954. The Democrats who control the Assembly will be eager to get in his way wherever possible, without seeming obstructionist.
“Getting one of the governor’s bills out of committee is one of the toughest jobs in the legislature,” said Del. Kathy Afzali (R-Frederick). Democrats “kill the governor’s bills and rewrite them with their own name it.”
Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer promised a “very ambitious legislative agenda,” focused on education, job creation, protecting taxpayers and the environment, “and cleaning up the general mess” in Annapolis. And despite his harsh words, Hogan expressed a desire for a productive session.
“We’re going to do our best to work with the legislature to actually get things done,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We ought to be able to put politics on hold for at least 90 days.”
Democrats are expected to cast an early vote to override Hogan’s 2017 veto of a measure establishing paid sick leave for workers who don’t get it from their employers. Hogan supports the concept but felt the Assembly’s bill impacted too many small firms. Sponsors of the measure fault Hogan’s alternative, saying it only applied to companies already offering sick leave to their workers.
Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), a deputy majority whip, said, “That’s definitely a priority for us.”
Mayer said he expects agreement on the issue by session’s end. “It may not be exactly what we want, but we’re willing to compromise.”
Seven Democrats are running for their party’s gubernatorial nomination in the June primary, and some, like Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, former NAACP president Ben Jealous and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, have already tangled with Hogan publicly on issues like Baltimore schools funding and education oversight.
Primary contests loom large as well, including a number of races in which incumbent delegates are taking on sitting senators. “Every one of (the delegates’) bills is dead” in the Senate, Afzali observed. With politics seemingly lurking everywhere, Barnes said, the coming session will be “intense.”
Asked if there is likely to be a sexual harassment bombshell in the next 90 days, Afzali said, “Yes.”
“We don’t want it to be a witch hunt,” she said. “But now this [issue of workplace harassment of women] has a name, and that’s a good thing. Women are going to be more vocal. … I’m glad we are finally standing up.”
“Is there a (sexual harassment) culture in Annapolis?” Afzali added. “Oh my gosh…”
Said Barnes: “We need to look at every allegation or incident… on a case by case basis.”
If scandal hits the capital during the upcoming session, he predicted, “I truly believe it would [become a circus]. It would just suck all the oxygen out of the air.”
While the upcoming primary and general election battles will be a constant theme this session, Afzali and others offer hope for a good outcome.
“There are people [in Annapolis] that truly are public servants and want to get things done,” she said.