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Government & Politics

A Mixture of Hope and Solemnity as General Assembly Gets to Work

State House sunshine
The sun shines over Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The 444th General Assembly session gaveled in at high noon on Wednesday, as lawmakers expressed a mix of hope and solemnity as the legislature prepares to grapple with the continuing threat of COVID-19, once-in-a-decade redistricting, and other pressing legislative concerns.

Gone were the plastic-paneled pods that senators sat in during the highly unconventional 2021 session, and all 141 members of the House of Delegates convened together in their chamber, an annex that had been constructed across the street disassembled. And members of the public were allowed to make a socially distanced return to the balconies above the House and Senate floors.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and Senate President Pro-Tem Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) were unanimously re-elected to their leadership positions at the start of the 444th legislative session Wednesday. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

As expected, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) were easily re-elected to their leadership posts.

The 2022 legislative session marks the third straight that has been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many lawmakers yearned for a return to normal.

“It’s certainly not the way I would have chosen to spend my last couple of years as governor … it has consumed not only me, but our entire administration,” Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said at the “Eye on Annapolis” virtual forum hosted by The Daily Record. “We’ve got people working around the clock seven days a week for two years now.”

In the State House, lawmakers and a smattering of visitors and journalists were masked, though many lawmakers happily greeted one another with hugs on the chamber floors. Legislative hearings will remain virtual for the time being and Ferguson and Jones warned that some floor sessions will be “pro forma,” with only a few party leaders in attendance to shuffle paperwork and avoid crowds.

The majority of the House chamber is vaccinated and boosted, Jones offered during The Daily Record forum. All senators and their staff members — even those working remotely — must be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Del. Daniel Cox (R-Frederick) greets supporters on Lawyer’s Mall on Wednesday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

For several hours, about 120 people, including Republican lawmakers, attended a Lawyers Mall rally against vaccine mandates. Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick), a candidate for governor who has been endorsed by former President Trump, mingled with the crowd after the House adjourned.

The 2022 session will be the last for many of the lawmakers — some by choice of seeking other office, some who may involuntarily get the boot from voters. Ferguson underscored the fact that many public offices are set to change hands for the first time in several years: A year from today, he said, the state will have a new governor, comptroller and attorney general. Ferguson implored senators to put politics aside, be cordial and work collaboratively.

“The temptation for politics to play out as we’ve seen in other places may be there again,” he said. “I just ask that we grant the spirit of generosity just a bit during this session.”

Ferguson said public health and Maryland’s economy will come “first and foremost” during the 2022 legislative session.

“This session, we need to keep an important question in mind: Is this helping the families who have been left behind in post-pandemic recovery?” Jones said. “Our focus will be getting more people back to work, strengthening their own families, and ensuring everyone can put food on the table and afford basic necessities.”

Lawmakers must also decide how to best handle a multi-billion-dollar budget surplus.

Hogan is pressing for a package of tax cuts, including eliminating all state income taxes on retirees and making permanent the enhanced earned income tax credit that was included in the RELIEF Act of 2021, a bipartisan measure that provided an array of pandemic-related relief to struggling families and businesses.

The governor called the joint effort with legislative leaders in 2021 to expand Maryland’s earned income tax credit the “biggest tax relief in state history” and said lawmakers “should double-down” this year and adopt his policies.

Files for the organization of the House of Delegates line the speaker’s desk at the start of the 2022 General Assembly session. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

But legislative leaders are loathe to take on recurring costs or tax cuts when the influx of cash is temporary.

“I need to see all the details,” Jones said of Hogan’s tax proposal.

Hogan has said more financial details — on the proposed tax cuts and his proposal to increase police funding will be released with his fiscal year 2023 budget, due next week.

“Usually the legislature doesn’t say ‘We don’t agree with you, we don’t want to help retirees and small business owners and struggling Maryland families,’ they usually just say ‘We can’t afford it,” Hogan said. “I would say we can’t afford not to do it.”

Ferguson said he’s open to ways to make the state’s tax structure more competitive or to keep money in the hands of Marylanders who need it the most, “but with a very cautious eye” to long-term structural effects.

“What’s essential is that we cannot make decisions this year that put us in the jeopardy of facing a financial cliff three or four years down the road,” Ferguson said. “This is the final year of the governor’s term. He won’t be here four years from now and managing the budget … we will.”

Ferguson noted that the structural surplus currently projected is about $1.2 billion, a small portion of the overall largesse.

A hearse drives past the State House as part of a demonstration by state retired employees pushing for reinstatement of a prescription drug plan. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Before the legislative floor sessions started, a group of state retirees circled the House Office Building in their cars — one hearse led the pack — demanding that lawmakers take action to reinstate prescription drug benefits that are the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit; U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte ruled that state workers who retired before Dec. 31, 2018 should have continued access to the more robust prescription drug plan. Attorneys for the retirees and the state are working out a plan to settle the fracas and are due to file a joint report to the court later this month.

Hogan is also pushing again for bills that would toughen penalties for firearms offenses and increase transparency of judicial sentencing practices.

There may or may not be room for agreement with the legislature on judicial oversight. The House Judicial Transparency Workgroup, appointed by Jones, met Wednesday afternoon, where judges largely pushed back against Hogan’s proposals.

“The truth is: there are no pro-crime judges anywhere in this state. It just doesn’t exist,” said Andre M. Davis, former Baltimore City solicitor and senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “The idea that judges somehow, either intentionally or negligently, fall down on the job when it comes to doing their part in keeping the community safe — with all respect — is just absurd.”

Special delivery

Minutes before the chambers convened, Hogan formally delivered to the Senate clerk’s office the legislative district map proposed by the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, the panel he created to propose new election boundaries, though the plan stands little chance of passing.

Instead, lawmakers are likely to work from a proposal by the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission, which was established by Jones and Ferguson.

Governor Hogan delivers map

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) delivers his legislative redistricting proposal, crafted by the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, to the Senate clerk’s office on Wednesday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

Hogan criticized the transparency of the panel, while legislative leaders said the commission’s map could withstand legal scrutiny.

Jones said a recent tweak to create a House subdistrict around Black communities in Baltimore County was made after receiving advice from the attorney general’s office that a multi-member district in the area was in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

By law, if the General Assembly does not act on a replacement map before the 45th day of the legislative session, the governor’s plan becomes law. The first hearing on the proposed districts is next week.

On paid family leave, Ferguson said there will be a “robust discussion this year,” but didn’t promise more. “Timing will be everything. We’ll see where we get.”

Jones agreed. Both presiding officers underscored the importance of bring together employers and employees across different industry sectors during deliberations.

“It’s high on our list to get this done” Jones said of both chambers.

Both presiding officers also expressed optimism that comprehensive climate change legislation will pass this year.

“I feel very confident we will get it done,” Ferguson said. “Climate change is no doubt the slow-burning existential threat.”

Bruce DePuyt, Hannah Gaskill and Bennett Leckrone contributed to this report.


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A Mixture of Hope and Solemnity as General Assembly Gets to Work