For the Maryland General Assembly, it’s a new dawn. It’s a new day.
Maryland’s longest-serving House of Delegates speaker, Mike Busch, died last April. Mike Miller spent more than three decades as Senate president before stepping down before this session.
When the 441st session got underway on January 7, the House had new leadership with Baltimore County Democrat Adrienne Jones, and the Senate welcomed Baltimore City Democrat Bill Ferguson as its new president.
Delegate Brian Chisholm — a Republican who represents Pasadena in District 31B — said it’s early, but he is pleased by Jones’ leadership so far.
“She seems to want to work in a bipartisan manner, but I think she is going to get a lot of pressure from her party,” Chisholm said. “How she handles it, I don’t know. The delegation for Prince George’s and Montgomery and some of those counties aren’t always in sync and sometimes want different things, so she’ll have to balance that. I think she’s been outstanding so far.”
While the impact of Jones and Ferguson remains to be seen, one thing is certain: Maryland is set to debate important issues with longstanding implications. Education reform, sports betting, e-cigarettes and Baltimore City crime are some of the thousands of issues that will be addressed during the 90-day session.
Maryland is long overdue to update its spending formulas. The Kirwan Commission was tasked with studying the best school systems in the world and recommending changes to put Maryland on a path to similar prestige. After roughly two years of research, the commission has recommended significant expansion of full-day preschool, teacher raises, an internationally benchmarked curriculum that enables most students to achieve “college- and career-ready” status, and several other initiatives.
Now that the findings are out, Maryland will have to foot the bill, which has been estimated at an additional $3.8 billion annually by 2030.
Aside from Kirwan, there are other education quandaries to settle. Democrats have put forth a plan called the Built to Learn Act. Funded in part by Maryland Stadium Authority bonds and state casino revenue, the $2.2 billion plan would escalate school construction. Hogan has countered with the Building Opportunity Act, a school construction plan that would cost $3.8 billion over five years.
TRAFFIC AND THE BAY BRIDGE
With a 14-mile backup in October, and several other delays throughout the summer and fall, frustrations boiled over when drivers were stalled by Bay Bridge traffic. A scheduled maintenance project on the bridge didn’t improve the situation.
Making matters worse for commuters, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) announced in August that all three potential sites for a new bridge span are located in Anne Arundel County.
That announcement did not come as pleasant news to Anne Arundel County’s delegation, many of whom have been thwarted in attempts to give Anne Arundel the same veto power that the Eastern Shore counties have in choosing the next bridge location.
“We’re still looking for Anne Arundel County to have a stronger say and for Anne Arundel County to not carry the full burden for proposals of getting over the bay,” said Michael Malone, a Republican from District 33.
“For a bridge span in Pasadena, the state would have to go in with eminent domain and take all of the property from the property owners, and that’s just not going to happen as long as Nic [Kipke] and I and some of the others are in office,” Chisholm said.
The House Minority Caucus, led by Republican Nic Kipke from Pasadena, has unveiled a robust legislative package to combat violent crime. The legislation focuses on increasing the amount of time violent and repeat violent criminals spend behind bars and making the theft of a gun a felony. Also included in the package is a bill requiring state and local correction facilities to cooperate with ICE detainers for those who have previously committed violent crimes.
“Maryland is in the midst of a violent crime crisis,” Kipke said. “While Baltimore City is ground zero for this plague of violent crime, this is not simply a city issue as we are seeing an alarming amount of violent crime throughout the region … Carmen Rodriguez was shot and killed in front of her four young children just days before Christmas. Destiny Harrison was shot and killed in her salon that same day, leaving behind her 1-year-old daughter. Maryland families are being torn apart.”
Chisholm echoed the sentiment that crime is not just Baltimore City’s problem.
“We also have small crimes in Anne Arundel because we are dealing with the opioid epidemic,” he said. “We have an epidemic in our area with cars being broken into. We have a gang problem in Anne Arundel County, and that [news] came directly from Police Chief Tim Altomare.”
If the General Assembly reaches a consensus, sports betting could be on the ballot next November. While some lawmakers are eager to catch up with Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Delaware — which have all legalized sports betting — Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has said that the state constitution requires commercial gambling to be approved by the voters.
Lawmakers need extra revenue to pay for the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations, and even though the projected income would go a short way toward meeting that goal, there is too much support on both sides of this issue to ignore legalized sports betting as a possibility.
Last year, lawmakers bumped the legal age to buy tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21. Now, they have their sights set on vaping. The conversations stem from a surge in deaths, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting 57 e-cigarette or vaping-related deaths nationwide as of January 7, 2020 (no start date is listed for the data).
The Trump administration has expressed its intent to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, but no formal decision has been made as of January 10.
“It is not sufficient necessarily to wait for the federal government to take action,” said Delegate Heather Bagnall, a Democrat who represents Severna Park, Arnold and other areas in District 33. “Sometimes we have to, as a body, do what’s best for the population in Maryland.”
As Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman works to bring more affordable housing to the area, Chisholm offered a word of caution about vilifying developers.
“When people think about development, they think of this large boogeyman – that’s not what I’m talking about,” he explained. “I’m talking about the mom-and-pop people who might do one or two developments a year and employ the HVAC people and other folks in our neighborhoods, the people who are the lifeblood of our community. It will destroy a lot of people in my district from being able to feed their families.”
OTHER NOTEWORTHY ISSUES
Maryland’s elected officials are also discussing these issues: