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As General Assembly session begins, it's Hogan vs. Democrats

Del. Dereck Davis on the coming session: "The challenge is we each remain professional."

Before the annual season of lawmaking even begins in Annapolis on Wednesday, rising partisan tensions are threatening the chances that very much will get done.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, riding a wave a popularity, has warned the General Assembly's Democrats that their maneuvering cannot force him to spend money he doesn't want to.

The Democrats, who profess not to be intimidated by Hogan's poll numbers, promise to open the 90-day session by overriding most of the vetoes the governor issued last year. And they vow not only to promote their own initiatives, but to block the governor's attempt to seize more control over the budget.

The partisan power struggle is likely to color a session that will cover broad ground, from Hogan's push for modest tax cuts to some Democrats' proposals to mandate sick leave and pay equity for women.

"The challenge is we each remain professional, and we evaluate the ideas on the merits, not with an eye to 2018," said Del. Dereck Davis, a veteran Prince George's Democrat, referring to the next election.

Hogan settled for relatively modest achievements during his inaugural session last year but is planning a more aggressive approach this time. His allies expect it to draw heightened attacks from Democrats.

"I see his popularity as an encouragement for the other side to do their best to block him and bring down his popularity," said Sen. J. B. Jennings of Baltimore County, the Senate Republican leader. "I hope it backfires."

For the first time in more than a decade, a governor enters the session with a hefty surplus in projected revenue — roughly $500 million by the end of current year's budget — largely as a result of an improving economy. The surplus provides fuel for fights over how best to spend the money, or whether to return it to taxpayers.

It will be a session with far more proposed legislation than last year, when more than a third of the House and a quarter of the Senate were new to the job. Already, bill drafters are working on 1,200 separate bills, a pace that would make 2016 busier than any of the previous four years.

Among the issues expected to pack hearing rooms is the right of terminally ill patients to enlist physicians to help them die. Proponents think this could be the year "right-to-die" legislation succeeds; others doubt the votes are there.

Groups on the left plan a big push to require businesses to offer paid sick leave to workers. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has made defeating the measure its top mission.

Hogan is expected to propose changes in the once-every-decade redistricting process that could benefit Republicans, though Democrats say that's a nonstarter. Democratic leaders want automatic registration of eligible voters, a measure many believe would favor Democrats and which Republicans oppose. Both sides are expected to claim the moral high ground.

Where last year's session opened with effusive promises of bipartisanship, the hopes for harmony are muted this year. Already lines are being drawn on budget issues, and confrontation seems inevitable.

At a news conference last week, Hogan expressed hope that "we can all get along." But moments before, he took aim at minimum spending levels that by law he must provide for priorities largely supported by Democrats.

"Reducing these spending mandates should be the top priority for this legislative session," Hogan declared. He called the existing requirements "unsustainable," saying they account for 83 cents of every dollar the state spends. He said he would fully fund the mandates this year but wants the legislature to suspend them if the state hits tough financial times.

But for House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, preserving the mandates to spend money on education, health and other programs is a priority. In separate interviews with The Baltimore Sun, both Democratic leaders put full funding for K-12 education — the costliest mandate of all — at the top of their lists.

"Our No. 1 priority always starts with quality education," Busch said.

"I'm not opposed to cutting mandates, but I am opposed to cutting any mandate for public education," Miller said.

While the debate over taxes and spending is expected to be a dogfight, there are other issues on which consensus may be within reach.

Members of both parties are awaiting the governor's legislative and budget proposals for dealing with the state's heroin crisis, one of Hogan's top priorities. The issue cuts across urban and rural lines, and affects Republicans as well as Democrats.

Lawmakers expect criminal justice issues to be front and center as Maryland grapples with an expensive prison system and questions about how to oversee police conduct. Both Hogan and Busch have proposed plans to help blighted Baltimore neighborhoods after the rioting that followed the death in April of Freddie Gray.

Hogan's sure-handed response to the unrest — and the grace he displayed during his subsequent battle with cancer — helped elevate his popularity among Marylanders regardless of political party. A November poll for The Sun and the University of Baltimore put his approval rating at 63 percent, making him the most popular elected official in Maryland.

Democrats see that approval as a mile wide and inch deep. They are confident that once the public understands the implications of Hogan's priorities, the luster will fade.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, Hogan's most outspoken critic in the legislature, compared the governor to his onetime boss, former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was defeated for re-election in 2006.

"Just like Bob Ehrlich, people after a few years are going to see through the smoke and mirrors, and see the change that Governor Hogan promised was not the change that Marylanders wanted," said Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat. He said that when Republicans talk about cutting mandates, "what they really mean is education, health care and public safety."

Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department of Washington College, said Hogan's approval levels could propel him to legislative victories on certain issues.

"I think he needs to pick areas that have broad approval," she said.

Deckman said she expects Hogan to chart a pragmatic course, secure that he isn't facing a re-election challenge from the right.

"He's smart politically," she said. "He's a Republican in a Democratic state. He can't be someone who's a rabble-rouser."

Hogan appears to enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers — reflecting his better than 90 percent approval among voters in his party.

Jennings said he'd like to see significant tax cuts, but cautions Republicans they should give Hogan time to deliver them.

"I think they need to be patient. He's doing his best to get state spending under control," Jennings said.

In fact, the 2016 tax cuts Hogan outlined in broad terms last week — amounting to $80 million a year over five years for retirees, small businesses and working families — couldn't go too deep. While he didn't reveal details, the governor said the relief would be spread among 1 million Marylanders and 300,000 businesses.

Hogan's legislative director, Joseph M. Getty, conceded that the proposed cuts are "very modest." He said more significant tax relief could come in Hogan's third year, depending on the outcome of the debate over mandates. Keeping the budget in balance over the long term will take precedence over tax cuts, Getty said.

Some Republicans are less patient.

Frederick County Sen. Michael J. Hough, who was elected with tea party support, said the party's base is expecting to see progress on cutting taxes.

"Taxes were the No. 1 issue in the debate. It's the No. 1 issue by far for my constituents," he said. "It's a very important priority that we cut taxes because it'll improve Maryland's economy."

Democrats say they will consider targeted tax cuts, especially any that may be recommended by a business-oriented commission headed by Norman Augustine, the former chairman of Northrop Grumman. Its report is expected this month.

But even then, Democrats may insist any cuts be offset by other revenues.

"Whatever you do has to strive to make things revenue neutral," Busch said.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said she's not sure the state can afford tax cuts. She said she's heard from people concerned about programs that have absorbed cuts during the recession and its aftermath.

"People are looking for stability in their budget again," she said. "Mental health folks, education folks, corrections folks, they're looking for stability."

McIntosh also said this year is not the time to be considering cuts in Maryland's mandated education spending. She noted that a commission studying possible revisions to the 2002 Thornton education formula isn't expected to report its findings until late this year.

"At this point, I would see absolutely no reason to alter formulas," she said. "Why would we change formulas before we get the research, the data, the information we need?"

While lawmakers may reach a stalemate on tax and spending issues, agreement on criminal justice issues may give Hogan and the legislature the opportunity to enact significant change.

Since last session, the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council brought Republicans and Democrats together to explore ways of reducing the prison population. The goal is to use the savings on drug treatment, mental health care and a more robust parole and probation system — which some say would improve public safety.

While the panel reached an impasse on such matters as lowering sentences for drug dealers, it achieved consensus on some important proposals. Notably, it would create the presumption that a first-time drug-possession offender would go into treatment rather than to jail. The panel also made broad recommendations for new approaches to the release of nonviolent offenders and to parole and probation.

Hough said the prospects for action are good.

"It may be the only thing where the speaker, the Senate president and the governor did a joint press release," he said. "It's a real exciting topic to be working on because there's so much broad support from the right and the left."

mdresser@baltsun.com

ecox@baltsun.com

Top issues

For the first time since 2005, the General Assembly will convene with a budget surplus — about $500 million at of the end of the current fiscal year. Much of the debate will center on whether to use that for new spending or tax reductions. Here are some of the fiscal and other issues on the table for the 90-day session that begins Wednesday.

Budget

Gov. Larry Hogan said he wants "modest and reasonable" tax cuts for retirees, small businesses and working families. Though there is currently a surplus that could pay for them, Democrats counter that the cushion may not last. Hogan said his top priority is "mandate reform" that would restructure state funding formulas during recessions, giving the governor more power over state spending. Strong Democratic resistance is expected from the legislature.

Education

Hogan said he would fully fund K-12 and community college education mandates this year, as state law requires. He has been silent on plans for higher education spending, which isn't protected by mandates. A battle could be waged over tax credits for private and religious schools. Hogan is a staunch advocate, while House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, sees such proposals as a diversion of money from public education.

Health

Hogan is expected to address the epidemic of heroin deaths, proposing funding for treatment programs, helping inmates beat addiction, tougher penalties for drug dealers and tighter monitoring of prescription drugs. Nonprofits want to increase funding for mental health providers and protect pay rates for those who help the disabled, the elderly and other vulnerable groups. Health advocates, meanwhile, will seek a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax.

Environment

Environmentalists want the state to more quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase how much electricity comes from renewable energy sources. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's priority is to make big poultry companies, instead of small contract growers, pay for safely disposing of chicken manure.

Criminal justice

Leading lawmakers have indicated they want legislation to reduce the prison population, using the savings on programs to help keep others out of jail. A bipartisan panel has proposed an overhaul of the parole and probation system, as well as putting first-time drug-possession offenders in treatment instead of prison. There's support for some proposals to make it easier to discipline police officers by changing the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. Lawmakers are expected to override Hogan's veto of a bill that decriminalized possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

Baltimore

Hogan and Busch each have proposed speeding the demolition of vacant houses in the city, among other assistance to Baltimore. City Hall wants permission to give police officers and firefighters a $2,500 annual property tax credit to encourage them to live in the city.

Other issues

Lawmakers are expected to debate a bill that would give terminally ill patients the right to seek physicians' help in ending their lives. Democrats and advocates plan a strong push to require employers to provide up to seven paid days sick days a year to full-time workers. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller are expected to seek legislation making voter registration automatic for eligible citizens. Hogan is expected to propose reforms in the way Maryland draws congressional district lines. Top Democrats plan to push a bill aimed at assuring equal pay for women.

Michael Dresser and Erin Cox

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