10 Issues for the 2020 General Assembly Session

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

When the 441st session of the Maryland General Assembly gavels in on Wednesday, lawmakers will begin a 90-day marathon of lawmaking.

Thousands of bills will be taken up in chambers that are under new leadership and in a state of flux, with shifting seats in the wake of medical retirements and corruption allegations.

Here’s a quick look at 10 issues that are likely to dominate the agenda for the 2020 session:

Education reform and school construction

You could reliably call the 2020 the “Year of Education” in the General Assembly.

Legislative leaders have vowed to push forward recommendations of the Kirwan Commission and unleash a school construction funding blitz.

The Kirwan Commission recommendations would reform state education policies to expand pre-kindergarten, provide more services in schools with high concentrations of poverty, increase salaries for teachers and bolster career and technical education programs. The reworking of the education system would come at a cost, estimated at an additional $4 billion annually by 2030.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has questioned the costs of the reforms and vowed to oppose tax hikes to pay for them. He’s putting forward this session his own plan for education reform, including a bill that would allow “Innovation Plan committees” to take over governance at schools that receive a one-star rating in the state’s annual report card for two years in a row.

Hogan and Democrats do, however, agree on the need for a multibillion-dollar school construction blitz. Legislative leaders and Hogan are both proposing plans that would fund about $3.8 billion in school construction projects throughout the state during a five-year period. The Democratic measures are House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1, a nod to their importance in the two chambers.

Revenues and taxes

Incoming Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) have promised they won’t consider hikes to income, property or sales taxes this year to pay for the Kirwan Commission reforms.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options to bolster state revenues on the table.

2020 would be the year to pass a legalized sports betting bill ― just in time for a referendum to go to voters in November. Such measures have been debated in the Legislature since a 2018 Supreme Court decision that struck down a ban on sports betting outside of Nevada.

Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery), chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in November that she thinks lawmakers are likely to pass a bill sending sports betting to the ballot this year.

Legislative leaders have also said they support discussions about more nuanced changes to the state’s tax code, including taxing digital goods and rolling back business tax credits they view as ineffective.

Other revenue proposals likely to be discussed this year include changes pushed by advocacy groups that would impose a millionaire’s tax, alter the corporate tax structure and initiate combined reporting for multi-state corporations based on the amount of business they conduct in Maryland.

Pimlico

Lawmakers will review a plan to rejuvenate the state’s marquee horse racing facilities.

The proposal unveiled in October was negotiated by the city of Baltimore, the Maryland thoroughbred industry and The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico Race Course, the Preakness Stakes and the Laurel Park racetrack.

The proposal calls for a rehaul of the Pimlico facility at a price tag of just under $200 million and would also put about $173 million into a facelift at Laurel.

Most of the total cost would be covered by $348 million in bonds issued by the Maryland Stadium Authority. Those bonds could be guaranteed by casino revenues that are already dedicated to racetrack improvements – though lawmakers will have to change state law to require casinos to pay into the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account for several years longer than an initial 16-year agreement to coincide with 30-year bonds issued by the authority. State law currently requires that any money in the account after a casino had been in operation for 16 years should be paid to the Education Trust Fund.

A push to improve the racetracks failed during last year’s legislative session.

Health care

Maryland has a new prescription drug affordability board … however the board must come up with a way to fund its own operations. The bill crafting a funding mechanism was originally expected in 2021, but the head of the panel said Monday he wants it done this year.

Health care advocates in Maryland will work this session to enshrine as much of the federal Affordable Care Act into state law as possible, in case Obamacare is struck down by the Supreme Court. Bills are likely to be considered that would require insurance policies to cover pre-existing conditions and allow young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance until 26, popular provisions of the current federal law.

And advocates of “death with dignity” may try again this session, after last year’s unexpected tie vote in the Senate.

Crime

House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) said that lawmakers’ goal this year should be to do “whatever we need to do” to support Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s efforts to quell crime in the city. Clippinger hopes to hold a briefing early this legislative session to hear from city police officials and learn more about the city’s efforts to comply with a federal consent decree.

Hogan proposed a package of bills that would fund additional violent crime prosecutions in the city, expand gun violence laws and strengthen penalties.

Clippinger said he is also interested in legislation strengthening state laws related to straw purchasing of firearms.

“There’s no question that we have a sea of illegal guns that are in the city of Baltimore,” he said.

Flavored vaping

A year after raising the age to buy tobacco products in Maryland to 21, lawmakers will now seek to ban flavored tobacco products in the state.

House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) is introducing a bill in the House to prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products in the state and establish a criminal penalty. Across the hall, Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) and Senate Finance Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) have also introduced a bill to prohibit flavored tobacco products.

The push comes as the Trump administration announced new policies this month to ban most flavored e-cigarette cartridges except for menthol and nicotine, but would continue to allow flavored liquid nicotine cartridges sold in adult-only vape shops.

HBCUs

There’s a renewed push in Annapolis to set aside funding that would settle a 13-year lawsuit alleging disparities between Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities and other state schools.

This fall, The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, which first filed suit in 2006, proposed a $577 million settlement with the state. Hogan countered with a $200 million “final offer” a few weeks later.

In November, the house speaker addressed advocates who pressed for a $577 million settlement at a rally in Annapolis.

“I know what can and can’t be done,” Jones told the crowd, noting her experience on the House Appropriations Committee.” …I’m in support and I’m just as anxious as you are” for a settlement, she said.

Clean Energy

Environmental groups and Hogan often sound as if they are on the same page, but they often seem to be talking past each other.

Last year the legislature passed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would require Maryland utilities to get 50% of their energy from renewable sources by 2030. Hogan let the bill become law without signing it but was highly critical, asserting that he could do better.

The result is legislation he’s calling the Clean and Renewable Energy Standard, or “CARES.” The bill seeks to get Maryland to 100% clean energy by 2040, and would eliminate “black liquor” and trash burning to energy as sanctioned clean energy sources.

But environmentalists and their allies in the legislature have been lukewarm at best to Hogan’s proposal. They argue that it still enables the burning of fossil fuels, promotes nuclear power as a clean energy source, relies on certain unproven technologies, and doesn’t do enough to push solar and wind energy.

To counter, greens are promoting bills to phase out coal plants, strengthen regional climate alliances, and promote mass transit.

Transportation

The big transportation story is expected to be the Hogan administration’s push to use the state’s public-private partnership law to widen and renovate the American Legion bridge and add new lanes to the southern portion of Interstate 270.

State lawmakers who have concerns about the project have signaled they may seek to constrain MDOT’s powers or force greater disclosures before a project can move forward.

Eastern Shore and Anne Arundel lawmakers are also expected to push for more local input on Bay Bridge reconstruction projects and traffic issues, while Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) is introducing a bill to help the Maryland Transit Administration catch up on maintenance projects. The “Transit Safety and Investment Act” would avert MTA’s “funding cliff” by providing an average annual increase of $175 million for MTA capital needs for the next six years, Lierman said.

Parole and exoneree payments

Lawmakers again plan to bring up the issue of Maryland’s unique parole process, which leaves the final decision on whether to grant parole entirely to the state’s governor.

Hogan recently paroled two inmates sentenced to life in prison as youths and allowed a third man to be released without his signature, bringing renewed attention to a system that has resulted in few parolees in decades despite other legislative efforts to change state policy. Since the start of his term through October, Hogan has granted 36 commutations and paroles, compared to just 13 granted in the previous two decades, according to reporting by Capital News Service.

With key changes in Senate leadership, supporters of reform are hopeful that 2020 will be the year to take Maryland’s governor out of the parole process.

“If you’re granted parole, we think the governor should honor that,” Del. Pamela Queen (D-Montgomery), who has sponsored legislation to reform the parole process in the past, said in an interview. Kelley, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, another advocate for change, is working with lawmakers on legislation in that chamber.

Also likely to come up this session is legislation to address compensation for wrongfully convicted prisoners in the state. In October, the Board of Public Works approved about $9 million to compensate five men who collectively spent more than 120 years in prison and were later exonerated. The payment represents about $78,900 for every year they were incarcerated.

The General Assembly has considered legislation to create a compensation formula in recent years, but it did not pass.

Bruce DePuyt and Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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