Harford legislators get down to business as 2018 General Assembly session begins

Harford County’s eight state delegates and three state senators joined their 136 fellow legislators for the traditional start of a new legislative session in Annapolis Wednesday.

The session falls during an election year, as incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is seeking a second term and many legislators — including Harford’s — are kicking their campaigns into gear.

“It’s going to be a tumultuous session,” Republican Sen. Wayne Norman, who is seeking re-election to his district serving Cecil and Harford counties, said Thursday. “It’s an election year — there’s a lot of people posturing in different areas and different ways.”

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, the lone Democrat among Harford’s majority-Republican delegation, said Tuesday she does not expect the election to affect her and her colleagues’ work in Annapolis.

“I think, as a delegation, we’ve been very successful over the last several years so I don’t see an impending election changing that,” she said.

While election year sessions often proceed with controversy muted as much as possible – the late Harford Senate President William S. James dubbed them “silly sessions” – the legislators are facing a number of thorny issues in 2018.

Not the least of them is Hogan’s intention, announced earlier in the week, to seek term limits on the legislature – two consecutive terms in each house.

Norman, who spent seven years in the House of Delegates before joining the Senate in 2015, said he had not seen the term limits bill, as “there’s hundreds of bills that were pre-filed.” He, like his colleagues, are more focused on bills they are sponsoring.

The annual 90-day marathon of lawmaking began with talk of revamping the tax code in the wake of the new federal tax law, banning offshore drilling for oil, finding more money to pay for beds to treat opioid addiction, stemming violent crime in Baltimore and strengthening policies against sexual harassment in the General Assembly itself.

It also began with a plea to minimize the election-year politicking expected to permeate debate.

“We have plenty of time for campaigning,” said Hogan, who is running for re-election in a state dominated by Democrats. “Let’s spend the next 90 days talking to each other.”

Locally, the Harford contingent is working on legislation related to give utility companies’ eminent domain powers for projects sanctioned by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

An eminent domain law passed in the 2017 session, which some Harford legislators voted for and Hogan neither signed nor vetoed, has since come under the spotlight from the vocal community opposition in northern Harford County to the Transource Energy/PJM Independence Energy Connection project that would string about three miles of new high voltage power lines through mostly protected farmland and woodland.

“I am working with Del. [Kathy] Szeliga,” Republican Sen. J.B. Jennings said Thursday. “We’re crafting legislation that deals with the eminent domain process used when constructing high voltage power lines.”

He and Szeliga, also a Republican, represent District 7, which covers eastern Baltimore County and western Harford, including the section of Norrisville where Transource plans to build the power lines.

In his annual State of the County Address Tuesday night, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said he would seek revisions to the state’s education funding formula and continue to push for Harford to get its fair share of state gas tax revenue for road projects, something he and local school officials say is not happening.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler is pushing for legislation to toughen penalties against anyone convicted of selling synthetic opioids fentanyl or carfentanil that contribute to a fatal overdose. Norman and Szeliga have agreed to sponsor the bills in each house.

On the local legislative front, there will be another flotilla of county liquor regulation bills floating across the Harford delegates and senators desks, as typically happens annually.

In addition, leaders of the local deputy sheriff’s and correctional deputies unions are pushing for legislation granting them collective bargaining rights with “non-binding” arbitration in salary and benefits negotiations with the Sheriff’s Office and, by extension, the county government administration. Bills have been pre-filed in both houses of the General Assembly.

Similar legislation failed in the waning days of the 2017 session because parties involved had not agreed on the arbitration provisions until it was too late, and the bill did not make it out of the Senate before the session adjourned in April. In September, Glassman signed an memorandum of understanding with the two unions supporting collective bargaining, and Gahler has given his backing to the legislation.

“I’ve taken the Senate version and pre-filed that, so I am very confident we are going to get that done this year,” Lisanti said.

Lisanti said she is working on a number of bills related to public safety, tax credits and health care, especially as University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health seeks state approval to build a new medical center in Have de Grace, part of her district.

She said she has also been hearing concerns from constituents about changes to health care policy at the federal level.

“Everybody gets sick, and it’s one of the basic needs that people have, is health care, and people are very, very worried,” Lisanti said.

By law, the session must adjourn by April 9, unless lawmakers have not agreed on a budget by the deadline. Most bills that legislators and Hogan approve will become law either July 1 or Oct. 1.

Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox, Michael Dresser and Scott Dance contributed to this report.

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