Guns, taxes, Obamacare fix: Maryland General Assembly has much to resolve in final week

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Maryland state lawmakers have just a week left to resolve some of the costliest and most controversial problems of the year: shoring up Obamacare, alleviating an expected rise in income taxes, expanding the medical marijuana industry and bolstering school safety.

If compromises aren’t reached by April 9, state residents could pay tens of millions more in taxes next year, the individual insurance market could collapse, minority-owned firms could remain shut out of the lucrative marijuana industry and Maryland would have missed the opportunity to respond to public outrage over school shootings.

Democratic leaders say they’re hopeful Maryland’s 188 lawmakers can agree on solutions, especially since the election year stakes are so high.

“There will be acquiescence,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat from Calvert County.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County, said Republican and Democrats alike are eager to demonstrate to voters that unlike gridlocked Congress, state lawmakers can accomplish tough policy deals.

“I’m cautiously optimistic we’re going to end on a smooth note here,” Busch said. “There’s been so much turmoil on the federal level that people on both sides of the aisle here have extended themselves to make policy-making bipartisan.”

Still, the busiest and final week of the General Assembly lies ahead, and with it a mad dash to reach final deals on these and more than 1,000 other bills still pending in Annapolis before lawmakers leave town for the last time this term. They still need to decide whether to create the largest economic development package in state history, setting aside more than $5 billion in incentives to lure the next Amazon headquarters to the state.

They must determine whether to pass an omnibus anti-crime bill that responds to Baltimore’s record homicide rate — even though a lot of city leaders object to the plan. The proposal includes tougher minimum sentences for some violent offenders.

Against the frenzied pace to enact laws before the 2018 election season begins in earnest, this week also holds potential for at least one veto override fight.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has promised to veto a bill that would curtail the power of the three-member Board of Public Works, on which he sits, in deciding which schools get built or repaired. General Assembly leaders are bracing to override him.

Hogan’s administration, meanwhile, plans to use this last week of the last session in his four-year term to push for legislation lawmakers have never agreed to pass before -- including ceding the General Assembly’s power to draw congressional districts and giving it to a bipartisan commission instead.

“We always like to think the best of our colleagues in the General Assembly and will continue to hold out hope on this important issue,” Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said.

Mayer acknowledged that lawmakers in one chamber already voted against this proposal on Wednesday, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that contends Maryland’s current congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered in a way that punishes the state’s Republicans.

While some of the weighty measures still pending have deals in principle that just need to be executed, others appear potentially headed for impasse.

Leaders of both parties have said the state should try to shield most residents from getting bigger state income tax bills as a result of the big federal tax bill approved in Washington. But the Maryland House and Senate differ on how to rewrite the state’s income tax breaks to do it. Legislators are hung up over exactly how much Maryland’s standard deduction should increase right now and whether future increases should be tied to inflation.

Negotiators have been working for more than a week to figure out a compromise, but as of Friday had yet to get there. They have agreed the state should keep $200 million in additional revenue expected from the federal changes to pay for state aid to schools, but are looking at ways to return another $100 million or more to taxpayers.

Busch, who has led the House since 2003, expressed optimism. Miller, who has presided over the Senate since 1987, said in an interview last week he couldn’t predict whether it would be resolved.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Everything else is going to pass.”

Hours after Miller made that comment, action by a Senate committee cast doubt on that assertion -- at least when it comes to a bill to expand the state’s medical marijuana growing industry.

The Senate Finance Committee on Friday approved amendments to a hard-fought medical marijuana bill, including a provision that would guarantee medical marijuana growing licenses to two companies currently suing the state. Those companies allege they were unfairly denied licenses in 2016 when state regulators awarded the licenses to firms that scored lower on a state application to grow the drug.

The debate over whether the General Assembly should give those companies licenses by law -- rather than let it be worked out in the courts - is the same unresolved dispute that collapsed a 2017 deal to expand the medical marijuana industry.

Busch said he would look at the bill next week before commenting on whether his chamber would be willing to pass it this year.

The Legislative Black Caucus had made the expansion a top priority for the second year in a row. None of the 15 companies chosen to grow medical marijuana are owned by African-Americans, despite a state law requiring regulators to seek diversity.

The caucus had set a Jan. 30 goal to get the expansion passed and sent to the governor, but the annual 90-day session is nearing its conclusion without an agreement.

Meanwhile, other large, unresolved issues appear likely to win final passage next week.

Each chamber has already given initial approval to a plan that will prevent the collapse of the individual health insurance market by imposing a $380 million tax on insurance companies. Insurers had paid a similar tax to the federal government, but Congress scrapped it for a year. The money will be used to help drive down the cost of policies sold on the Maryland’s health care exchange. A few details about implementing the plan must be resolved before the legislation is sent to Hogan for his promised signature.

A half dozen measures to increase school safety and address gun violence are still pending, but have taken on greater urgency after the school shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County two weeks ago. The laws were proposed amid a national conversation about gun violence in schools, and legislators are weighing whether to devise active shooter plans for all schools, requiring districts to hire security administrators and provide more training for school police officers.

Lawmakers appear poised to ban possession of bump stocks, an accessory that converts a semi-automatic gun into one that can fire almost as quickly as a machine gun. Hogan has expressed support for the measure.

Last week, lawmakers approved a $44.5 billion budget that includes $41 million to pay for school safety initiatives. Additional safety measures also have drawn bipartisan support and leaders say they appear likely to pass within the next week.

Among those is a so-called “red flag” law that would allow judges to order gun owners to temporarily surrender their firearms if they’re deemed a threat to themselves or others. More than 20 states have considered such laws after a former student killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school in February.

Lawmakers are also racing to resolve a record number of other bills before the deadline to adjourn next Monday, including legislation to relegate the state’s pro-Confederate state song to a “historical” and not “official” status.

ecox@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ErinatTheSun

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
79°