The Maryland General Assembly kicks off its 439th session on Wednesday with the great expectations that accompany every first year of a four-year legislative term.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) comes into the session following a smashing reelection victory and continuing to ride high in the polls [see related story]. But other than promising a second term that will look much like his first, he hasn’t offered a lot of specifics about his top priorities – and it isn’t clear whether he’s willing to expend a lot of political capital on messy fights when Democrats have emboldened supermajorities in the Senate and House.
Democrats are feeling bullish from their own electoral successes in November and seem determined to carry out a progressive agenda over the next 90 days as if Hogan barely existed. It will make for an interesting dynamic.
The 47-member Senate has 17 newcomers, the highest number in several election cycles. The 141-member House of Delegates has 44 freshmen – not an insignificant number, but lower than four years ago, when the number topped 50. The Democratic newbies are largely young and progressive. They may chafe at the institutional and generational restraints they’ll face.
Even so, first years of a four-year term are usually less productive than subsequent years, simply because so many members are so new.
“Traditionally we don’t pass as many of the heavy-hitting issues when people proverbially are looking to find where the bathrooms are,” observed House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s).
It was widely assumed for most of last year that a battle over school funding would dominate the 2019 General Assembly session. But the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission, did not finish its work in time – or suggest ways of funding the estimated $3.8 billion it says the state needs to spend to improve its public school system. Those decisions will come later in the year – almost certainly after the lawmakers go home.
Although education funding and policy will still be debated during the session, it won’t be the marquee issue it once promised to be. In fact, it’s now hard to tell if any one issue will dominate and become the hot political topic of the session. And yet, dozens of items will be on the agenda. They include:
The Kirwan Commission, Part 2
The General Assembly will deal again with interim recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education after the panel’s grandiose ideas for reforming education in the state of Maryland left no time for its chief task of rewriting state funding formulas.
For the 2019 session, the commission will ask lawmakers for $325 million in additional funding for the next fiscal year to begin implementation of eight recommendations. The panel’s full roster of recommendations at the moment is slated to cost $3.8 billion more annually after a decade.
The commission will finalize an interim report at a Jan. 18 meeting in Annapolis.
Meanwhile, Hogan has staked a claim in the school funding debate by suggesting that $1.9 billion the state is expecting to get from casino revenue over the next five years be used for school construction. Democrats agree that more school construction funding is necessary, but they’re reluctant to embrace Hogan’s idea, because they want to devote more of the education “lockbox,” which voters approved in November, for school policy initiatives.
Lawmakers will once again take up a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, and this time, it’s almost certain to pass both chambers, because unions and progressive groups, integral parts of the Democratic coalition, are pushing hard to pass it.
But it isn’t clear yet what the timetable for phasing in the $15 an hour wage might be. It is possible that there could be regional differences, with phase-in taking place faster in the Baltimore region and Washington, D.C., suburbs than it does in more rural areas.
Hogan, who has maintained his mantra that he does not want to do anything to hurt the state’s business climate, may be reluctant to embrace the measure. If he vetoes it, would Democrats have the votes to override the veto? Stay tuned.
Health care mandate
Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), the new vice chairman of the Finance Committee, and Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), the new vice chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee, are reintroducing their bill to establish a health care mandate, similar to the federal mandate that existed under the Affordable Care Act until Congress and President Trump eliminated it in the 2017 tax reform package.
The sponsors are calling their measure a health care “down-payment.” It would require healthy, employed individuals to purchase health insurance, and the proceeds would be used to pay for medical care for the poor and indigent. If the bill passes, Maryland would become one of the first states to have a mandate of its own; Massachusetts adopted its mandate more than a decade ago, and it became the model for the ACA.
Hogan has expressed his skepticism of the measure, saying he’d prefer a federal solution to ensure greater health care coverage than a state mandate.
Prescription drug prices
Lawmakers will reintroduce a bill that fell short on the final day of the 2018 session, to set up a state commission that would hold the line on prescription drug prices.
As drafted, the Prescription Drug Affordability Board would consist of five members, appointed by the governor, attorney general and legislative leaders. It would have the power to review price spikes in drugs already on the market and new medications that have an initial cost above $30,000 per year.
Abortion constitutional amendment
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) will pursue legislation this year that would enshrine abortion rights in the Maryland Constitution.
Busch announced in August that he would pursue the constitutional amendment in light of President Trump’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which may endanger the landmark 45-year-old Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion. While Maryland voters approved abortion rights in statute through a statewide vote in 1992, it would be more difficult for future legislatures to tinker with a constitutional amendment. If passed by lawmakers, the measure would go before voters in 2020.
Will Maryland join the ranks of states that have legalized sports betting since a Supreme Court ruling in May? The issue is likely to come up this session.
More than a half-dozen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized sports betting, including Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, and legislation is under consideration in Virginia. This gives Maryland lawmakers a sense of urgency, and Busch would like to use the revenues for education.
Changes to Maryland’s gambling laws require a constitutional amendment, so the earliest voters could approve legalized sports betting would be November 2020. A poll released Tuesday by Gonzales Media & Research found that 49.2 percent of Maryland voters approve of establishing sports betting in the state, while 36.1 oppose the idea. A whopping 83.2 percent of those surveyed said the matter should be put before the voters in a ballot initiative.
Environmental groups’ top issue for the session is another push to mandate the use of 50 percent renewable energy in the state by 2030; a similar measure fell short last year. While Hogan has touted his environmental record, he has been reluctant to embrace such mandates, and his allies point out that a 40 percent renewable goal just took effect at the beginning of 2017.
Some lawmakers will also be pushing for a path to 100 percent renewables, but that legislation seems less likely to pass.
The Legislative Black Caucus has made increasing the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 its top priority for the 2019 session. Six states and more than 380 U.S. cities and counties have already raised the age to 21 from the traditional 18.
The legislation has powerful sponsors in Davis, the chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, and incoming Senate Finance Chair Delores B. Kelley (D-Baltimore County). Both are members of the black caucus.
Johns Hopkins University officials will again seek approval to establish the first police force at a private university in the city. The proposal, derailed during the 2018 legislative session, has been sought by Hopkins officials concerned by increased severity and frequency of crime at the college’s Baltimore campuses and criticized by some students and community leaders who expressed a general distrust of police and raised concerns about Hopkins police becoming too closely affiliated with the Baltimore Police Department.
The proposal was recently endorsed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) but has been opposed by key members of the Baltimore city delegation.
With the U.S. Supreme Court set to re-hear a case challenging the constitutionality of Maryland’s 6th congressional district, Hogan has appointed a commission to redraw the district’s lines before the 2020 election – and that proposal will invariably impact several other districts. Miller and Busch have been notably silent on whether redistricting needs to be addressed in this session.
Hogan continues to promote the idea of putting congressional and legislative district mapmaking in the hands of a nonpartisan commission and taking the responsibility away from partisan politicians. But it hasn’t gained much traction in a legislature dominated by Democrats.