Maryland General Assembly faces complex challenges, calls to set aside politics

Lawmakers opened the 2018 General Assembly session Wednesday asking each other to set aside politics as they tackle several weighty issues during an election year.

“This is going to be a rockin’, rollin’ session,” Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones warned the House of Delegates. “So stay tuned, and get plenty of rest.”

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 Republican Gov. Hogan, who is running for re-election in a state dominated by Democrats. “Let’s spend the next 90 days talking to each other.”

John T. Willis, a professor at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs, was skeptical.

“I don’t know how politics gets divorced from what goes through the Maryland General Assembly in an election year,” he said.

But any bipartisan sentiment Wednesday seemed certain to be tested Thursday, when the House is expected to override Hogan’s veto of a sick leave bill. The legislation would require employers with more than 15 workers to provide paid sick leave. Hogan has worked to defend his veto, but the chamber’s Democratic leaders say they are confident they have the votes to send the bill to the Senate.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch predicted a “difficult” session, and told delegates that with all the “turmoil" in national politics, Maryland’s lawmakers must find ways “to solve problems, not create them.”

Ahead lie thorny debates about revamping the state’s tax code, stripping parental rights from rapists and ensuring continued health insurance coverage for Marylanders affected by changes at the federal level.

Hogan has proposed new tax breaks for retired first responders and military veterans, as well as expanded tax credits for job creation. He has also pushed for term limits for state lawmakers.

Much of senators’ and delegates’ work is expected to be in reaction — if not opposition — to President Donald J. Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress.

Lawmakers will have to decide what to do with a state revenue windfall that federal tax changes are expected to create. Environmentalists are calling for the state to intervene where federal regulators have stepped back.

Election-year politicking is expected to color the debate. The state holds elections for governor and lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, General Assembly and Congress in November; primaries are set for June. During the session, state elected officials — with very limited exceptions — are banned from campaign fundraising.

For the second year in a row, the session opens with accusations of corruption hanging over a lawmaker. Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, is scheduled to stand trial on fraud and bribery charges after the session ends in April, and a host of Republicans and a few Democrats have called for him to resign.

Oaks showed up late to a news conference held by the Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday morning. He stood with his colleagues as they rolled out their agenda but didn’t speak.

He later took his seat in the back row of the Senate chamber and cast his first two votes of the year — to elect Sen. Nathaniel McFadden as president pro tem and Thomas V. Mike Miller as Senate president. Both votes were unanimous, as is the Senate custom.

Miller was later asked about Oaks’ presence in the Senate. Hogan has called on the Senate to refuse to seat Oaks or to oust him. Miller said he doesn’t have the power to do either.

“The people elected him. I can’t oust anybody,” Miller said. “I don’t defend Senator Oaks. I defend his right to a fair trial.”

Oaks was appointed to the Senate last January to succeed Lisa Gladden, who resigned for health reasons. He was recommended by a panel of city Democrats. Hogan was then required to appoint him.

Miller has said he would refer the Oaks matter to the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics Committee for a recommendation on how to proceed. Miller said Wednesday he would abide by whatever the committee recommends.

The Legislative Black Caucus unveiled an ambitious election-year agenda.

One of the top priorities is legislation to add additional licenses to grow cannabis for medical use so minority-owned companies can have a share of the market.

Del. Cheryl Glenn, the caucus chairman, predicted the legislature would send a bill to the governor’s desk by the end of January. That would be an unusually quick turnaround for significant legislation.

“That legislation will create the diversity that should have been part of the medical cannabis industry from the very beginning,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

The caucus identified other priorities, such as strengthening historically black colleges and universities, revamping the parole process, making it easier to expunge records of nonviolent felonies and a study of African-American infant mortality.

Legislative leaders continued to wrestle Wednesday with the revelations of prominent men in politics, media and the arts sexually harassing their female — and sometimes male — colleagues.

Miller said Wednesday that the General Assembly would create a “powerful” new commission to hold public hearings and recommend how the legislature should root out sexual harassment in its ranks.

Miller said the panel should be composed of only women, to study how other states and countries have handled allegations of sexual harassment successfully.

“This is something that is extremely serious,” Miller told reporters Wednesday. “The public needs to know we’re serious.”

One thing conspicuously missing from the opening of the session: the trees that have long lined the entrance to the State House.

Freshly cut stumps stood where a dozen trees used to adorn Lawyers Mall.

“My heart broke when I noticed,” Del. Eric Bromwell said. The Baltimore County Democrat started visiting the capital as a child when his father was a lawmaker. “I grew up with those trees.”

The Department of General Services cut them down in order to repair a leaking steam pipe that was directly beneath them. Without the crab apple trees, which flower later in the session as spring arrives, the landscape now features three black vertical pipes billowing steam.

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

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

sdance@baltsun.com

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