A 2017 General Assembly preview

Budget issues, paid sick leave and an early veto fight over a renewable energy bill will dominate the 2017 Gen

Maryland's annual General Assembly session opens Wednesday. It will be the third year of Gov. Larry Hogan's term and that of Maryland's 188 legislators, and traditionally, that's a time when some heavy lifting gets done. The players have settled into their positions by now, yet the next election isn't so pressing that they shy away from anything controversial. Relations between the Republican governor and Democratic leaders of the legislature have been strained at times, but we haven't seen anything like the concerted effort Democrats put forth a dozen years ago to ensure that the state's last chief executive from the GOP, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., would serve only one term. Mr. Hogan's popularity remains astonishingly high, and he has shown at least an occasional willingness to cut deals with the other party. All that sets the stage for what could be a productive session. Here's our take on some of the big issues lawmakers will consider in the three months ahead.

Budget and taxes

Maryland's revenues have fallen substantially short of projections during the last year, and that forced Mr. Hogan to make mid-year cuts to his budget. The spending plan he is finalizing now will have to cover a projected gap of about $400 million between revenues and spending, and the situation rapidly gets worse in the following years, with analysts predicting a return to $1 billion-plus annual shortfalls within three years. Certainly for the moment, the problem can and should be solved without tax increases, but that means tough scrutiny of any new proposed spending (so far, Mr. Hogan's promises have been modest) and the likelihood of noticeable cuts. One area to watch closely is the budget for the university system. It's one of just a few big line items where governors have substantial discretion over spending. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, unlike chief executives in other states, made a priority of maintaining state funding for higher education through the recession, which improved Maryland public universities' relative affordability markedly. We hope not to see backsliding there.

Mr. Hogan said during the campaign that he would hold off on major tax cut proposals until the state's finances were in order. So far, he has stuck to that, and we hope and expect he will continue to do so this year. On the spending side, he has complained about the extent to which the state budget is locked up in mandated spending formulas that don't take into account the growth of tax revenues. We agree that's an issue that should be addressed, but it needs a far more nuanced approach than the one he attempted last year.

Business issues

The idea of requiring most businesses to offer paid sick leave for their employees has been gaining traction in Annapolis in recent years, and Mr. Hogan's decision to back a version of the legislation should put it front and center during this year's session. We are sympathetic to the argument for such a requirement, particularly on public health grounds. The norovirus outbreaks last year tied to sick workers at Chipotle restaurants are an indication of what a bad idea it is to have a system in which food service employees feel compelled to come to work when they're ill. However, we are also concerned about the potential impact on businesses and whether costs associated with the benefit could be absorbed without reducing wages or work hours. Mr. Hogan has added a new wrinkle to the debate by proposing that the requirement be limited to businesses with more than 50 employees but that smaller firms who choose to offer the benefit be eligible for state income tax breaks. It's an intriguing idea, and one that hasn't been tried elsewhere. Lawmakers will need to study it closely to determine how effective it would be in meeting the goal of expanding paid sick leave to workers who don't have it and how costly it would be for the state.

Mr. Hogan has also announced a package of proposals to boost employment and economic activity, the centerpiece of which is a renewal of his effort to provide a state tax exemption for new manufacturing facilities in impoverished areas, including Baltimore City. We have been supportive of this idea in the past, though it has gone nowhere in the General Assembly. However, the election of Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress should add some new urgency to the idea of diversifying Maryland's economy. We are heavily reliant on federal spending, and any cuts from Washington have an outsized effect here. The more we can expand in other sectors, the better.

The environment

One of the first orders of business will be a decision by the General Assembly on whether to override Mr. Hogan's veto of legislation raising Maryland's renewable energy requirements. Under current law, the state's electricity suppliers are supposed to get 20 percent of their energy from Tier 1 renewable sources (including 2 percent from solar) by 2020; the legislation Mr. Hogan vetoed would have increased that to 25 percent (including 2.5 percent from solar). He called it a tax because it could marginally increase utility bills — somewhere between 77 cents and $3.06 a month for the average electric ratepayer in 2020, with costs decreasing after that — but it is really a wise investment. Maryland is a major importer of electricity, and anything we can do to encourage environmentally friendly, local supply will pay off in terms of grid reliability and jobs. Mr. Hogan's own environment secretary is on record calling for a 40 percent goal by 2030; how are we going to get there without increasing our efforts now? Finally, electricity produced by natural gas is cheap now because of the fracking boom, but that may not always be the case.

Speaking of fracking, Maryland's legislature needs to make permanent the state's moratorium that expires this year on that method of energy extraction. Under the administrations of both Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Hogan, the state has sought to craft what members of both parties have vowed would be the strictest regulations of fracking in the country, yet they have failed erase doubts about the potentially devastating impact the activity could have on air and water pollution, public health and the tourism industry in Western Maryland. For now, the economics of the industry are such that gas companies might not even bother drilling in Maryland under the Hogan administration's proposed rules, so what's the rush? If other states demonstrate a way to remove natural gas from shale deposits that really doesn't come with all the harmful effects associated with fracking so far, Maryland can change its mind. The gas will still be there.

Criminal justice

This month, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh proposed state-wide standards for the handling of rape kits — including near universal testing, long-term storage and better notification requirements for victims. He noted in his report that most of those changes can be handled through departmental policies, but the wide variation in current practices around the state suggests that some jurisdictions are more likely to take the issue seriously than others. Statewide standards are needed. The legislature must also ensure robust oversight of how the new standards are implemented and how sexual assault investigations are handled generally. All this comes with a cost, though likely not an extraordinary one, particularly given the availability of grant funds for this purpose. The governor and legislature should find the money.

The legislature took some important steps last year to foster police reform in Maryland in the wake of the 2015 unrest in Baltimore, but it needs to take a few more. Baltimore's police department is, technically, a state agency, and has been since the wake of the Civil War. The mayor can hire and fire the police chief, but the City Council has no power to pass laws regulating the department. That's an unnecessary impediment to reform.

The Department of Justice's report into unconstitutional policing practices in Baltimore brought to light information that would otherwise have been shielded from public view. To hold police accountable, Maryland lawmakers need to reform public information laws to allow the release of police disciplinary records related to formal complaints of job misconduct and clarify the circumstances under which police body camera video can be released to the public.

Transportation

While the General Assembly is overriding vetoes, it should also overrule the governor and enact Del. Brooke Lierman's bill to create an oversight board for the Maryland Transit Administration. Mr. Hogan characterized it as an effort by the legislature to usurp executive authority, which is odd since most members would be appointed by the governor and the legislation reflects substantial input by his administration. Such boards are common in other regions, and this one could help provide a better voice for the communities served by the MTA.

Mr. Hogan has made it a top priority this legislative session to repeal what he has mis-named the "road kill bill." It requires the Department of Transportation to score potential road projects based on a broad set of criteria in a manner of its devising. If the governor wants to fund a project that scores lower than another, he can; he just has to provide some justification for it. We didn't understand why the legislature was so intent on passing the bill, which has at most a modest impact, and we are at a total loss as to why Mr. Hogan wants to pick a fight about it. Any time spent further debating this legislation is time that could be better spent doing just about anything else.

Good government

Governor Hogan is set to push again for Maryland to adopt an independent commission to redraw Maryland's legislative and congressional lines after the census. We wholeheartedly endorse that idea and urge Democrats to get on board.

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