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Government & Politics

Ferguson and Jones offer preview of issues General Assembly will tackle in 2023

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) spoke to the Greater Washington Board of Trade on Wednesday. Lobbyist Steve Proctor moderated the discussion. Screenshot.

No matter who wins in November, Maryland will find itself with an unprecedented simultaneous change in power in January, with a new governor, attorney general and comptroller.

Against that backdrop, the state’s top legislative officers — House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) — offered a preview of the issues lawmakers are likely to focus on when the General Assembly convenes four months from now.

During a Greater Washington Board of Trade forum, Ferguson identified mental health, transportation and workforce development as likely priorities for the legislature. He also said the new wave of state leaders need to pay careful attention to the learning and social deficits created by the pandemic.

“I see it in my own kids,” said Ferguson, a father of two and a former teacher. “It’s not just the academics. … I see it also in the social-emotional development of kids. [With] the virtual learning experience, it was young people that had the most negative impact of what we all experienced over the last two-and-a-half years.”

Obstacles children faced during the pandemic are part of a broader set of mental health challenges families encountered, the lawmaker said. He expressed optimism that “high-value tutoring” and other elements of the state’s new educational “Blueprint” initiative will help overcome them. And he called on employers to offer supports for workers who need them.

“We have a long way to go and there is going to be no quick fix,” he said.

Jones sidestepped a question about Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s I-495/I-270 toll lanes plan and whether Maryland and Virginia should build a new bridge over the Potomac River.

Asked about lessons learned from the pandemic, Jones said the crisis highlighted the need to expand access to care. She also called for more coordination between state and local governments. “Right at the beginning, sometimes, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” she said.

Ferguson called climate change “the question for our age” and “an existential threat for humanity.” He said lawmakers intend to build upon the landmark climate measure they passed this year, which sets ambitious energy and emissions goals for the state over the next decade.

He said the new administration must be “focused on outcomes.” As an example, he cited the expansion of telehealth, a pandemic-era reform intended to close gaps in medical and mental health care. Maryland must make sure that out-of-state providers are delivering quality care, the Senate leader said.

Ferguson also noted that efforts to close the digital divide have been slow to bear fruit. Most funds allocated to expand high-speed internet to underserved communities have not been spent, he noted. He said quality broadband must be both available and affordable if Maryland is to eliminate gaps in service.

With Hogan, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) all set to leave office in January, Ferguson said Maryland is at a “really important crossroads.” He, Jones and Treasurer Dereck Davis (D), who assumed his post earlier this year, will likely soon be the most senior statewide officials in Maryland. (The General Assembly has long been controlled by Democrats; they are expected to retain their hold on the two chambers.)

The state’s leaders will inherit “countervailing forces, both positive and negative,” he predicted. While Maryland has a historic budget surplus, the state also faces labor shortages, supply chain issues and inflation.

“We have got to provide that stability and vision for the future that allows individuals and entities like the Board of Trade to join and be a part of a more expansive granting of opportunity for all people,” Ferguson said. “I could not be more excited about what’s ahead.”