Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch struck the gavels in their respective lawmaking chambers Wednesday, Jan. 9, signifying the start the 2019 Maryland General Assembly session.
“We’re going to fight for education, health care, the environment, prescription drugs, insurance reforms,” Miller said, after being sworn in as Senate president for the 33rd time. “We got a lot of positive things happening.”
Though the session opened at about noon, lawmakers representing Carroll County had been coming up with legislative agendas and crafting bills for months in preparation. Many have refined bills they introduced in the past that failed to make it and plan to reintroduce the legislation, with hopes of better outcomes.
The Times caught up with some of Carroll’s state lawmakers to go over their top legislative priorities.
Sen. Justin Ready (R-District 5)
Ready said he always starts the session looking for ways to make Maryland “more friendly for families, job creators, businesses and retirees,” and fighting bills that run counter to those priorities.
The third-term lawmaker — second as a senator — also thinks addressing violent crime in Baltimore and other areas of the state will be a top focus. From his post on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Ready will have a chance to put his fingerprints on bills relating to crime, courts and more.
Maryland's Republican lawmakers will arrive in Annapolis Wednesday for the start of the 2019 legislative session to find a bigger Democrat majority in the General Assembly. Carroll County's lawmakers see speaking out on the floor, picking apart bills and finding common ground as keys for success.
In the context of cracking down on violent crime, Ready said the General Assembly needs to focus on ensuring that people convicted of committing violent crimes — including those involving firearms obtained legally or illegally — see out the majority of their punishment.
Police are making arrests and those charged are taking plea agreements to less harsh offenses, he said. “We’re not seeing people who commit crimes, particularly crimes with guns, serve any real time until the crimes get very, very serious.”
He credited lawmakers in the past for giving people convicted of nonviolent or drug crimes second chances, but Ready added that, especially if it’s a second time violent or gun offense, people need to be serving “real, hard time.”
“Right now the fetus has to be a certain number of weeks,” Ready told the Times. “But we believe that if someone knowingly targets a pregnant woman to kill both her and the unborn child that it should really be treated as two homicides. We’re talking about premeditated murder.”
Ready said that he wants to separate the politics of abortion from deliberations regarding his legislation. “This is really focusing specifically on murder and, actually, it happens more often than people would like to believe.”
Del. Susan Krebs (R-District 5)
Krebs said she’s been working for years to allow retirees to keep more of their pension by allowing them to exempt up to a certain amount of the money from state taxes. Last year, the bill did not make it out of the House Ways and Means Committee. The veteran lawmaker plans to reintroduce the bill this year.
She also intends to reintroduce legislation that mandates local school boards to establish individual reading improvement plans for every kindergarten through third grade public school student who has a reading deficiency, according to the fiscal and policy note for the 2018 edition.
“Reading is a human right to me,” Krebs told the Times. “The kids need to know how to read.”
The reading plan outlined by Krebs’ 2018 bill aims to have those students reading at or above their grade level by the third grade.
Additionally Krebs has been part of the Commission to Advance Next-Generation 911 Across Maryland, which was tasked with returning recommendations for updating the state’s emergency call centers to the General Assembly. The commission released a 65-page report with 23 recommendations, and Krebs and company incorporated most recommendations into legislation for this session.
“Right now if you call from a cell phone and don’t know where you are,” Krebs said, the 911 center might not be able to locate you. A new system must also accommodate people text messaging 911 about emergencies, she added.
“It’ll be my job as chairman, once we as a delegation vote on whether to support these initiatives, to follow these bills through the Maryland House of Delegates and testify in committee hearings on them and kind of shepherd them through the process,” Shoemaker told the Times.
That’s not to say that the second-term lawmaker won’t be championing and fighting against other legislation. He’ll again push for an agriculture education bill, again, at the request of the Maryland Farm Bureau.
With spouses and children by their sides, Maryland's 188 lawmakers were sworn into office. While lawmakers are expected to hash out tricky issues over the next 90 days, the first day was largely reserved for celebration and optimism.
The bill was crafted to push local school boards to create an agriculture education program that would prepare students for agriculture-related jobs and higher education through “integrated classroom and laboratory instruction, supervised agricultural experiences,” and more, according the 2018 fiscal and policy note.
The bill last year made it out of the House Ways and Means Committee — which Shoemaker sits on — with amendments, and was passed by the House 137-0. The bill died with an unfavorable report from the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Shoemaker said that he hopes the bill will receive similar support on the House side and achieve success in the other chamber with a change in leadership on the Senate committee that voted down this legislation in 2018.
“It’s an industry that’s obviously important, because we all consume food,” he said. “We need to perpetuate the agriculture industry in the state.”
As Maryland lawmakers got back to work, Gov. Larry Hogan expressed doubts about the wisdom of increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. Hogan questioned whether raising it would put Maryland at a disadvantage for attracting businesses. He noted that Virginia’s minimum wage is $7.25.
“I’m not doing this as a [deterrent] to learning world languages, because I find value in that as well, but having four children myself, kids are different and everybody doesn’t fit into the same box,” she told the Times. “Information technology is a part of all of our lives, from the phones we hold in our hands. Having those basic programming skills can be an asset no matter what you do.”
Rose said she will also work on a bill she introduced in past sessions that would exempt many Carroll County residents who operate on well and septic systems from a penalty created by previous legislation.
The second-term delegate also said she plans to spearhead discussions related to the Kirwan Commission — a panel created by the General Assembly dedicated to changing how Maryland funds its public schools — and push back on legislation she expects will be introduced, such as a $15 minimum wage.
“I fundamentally don’t really agree with that,” Rose said. “I think that compensation packages and benefits packages should be between an employer and the employee, and not dictated by the state. I just don’t agree with it.”
She said she expects a higher minimum wage, if passed, would reduce jobs and replace people with machines — like kiosks at fast food joints.
Sen. Michael Hough (R-District 4)
Hough’s district primarily covers Frederick County, along with a sliver of Carroll. A strong proponent of the Second Amendment, Hough said, he plans to introduce multiple bills that would expand gun rights for Marylanders. One of his bills, if passed, will allow those with a medical cannabis card to purchase firearms.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Hough told the Times. “The state has dubbed marijuana as medicine, but says that if you use [medical] marijuana, you can’t purchase a firearm. I don’t think that’s consistent.”
Another piece of legislation Hough plans to introduce would make Maryland a “Right to Carry” state. That would mean that Marylanders who passed a background check and did the requisite training could obtain a concealed carry permit.
The Maryland General Assembly session: 188 members, more than 2,500 pieces of legislation, 90 days of government and politics in the nation's oldest statehouse still in active use as a seat of government.
Maryland, Hough said, is one of the few states that don’t allow concealed carry permits. State law, he added, says you have to have a “good and substantial reason,” and his bill would acknowledge self-defense as one of the valid reasons.
Also on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Hough said he too will put a great focus on reducing violent crime in Maryland. He will reintroduce a bill that increases the penalty for first-degree murder, the charge associated with a premeditated killing.
The state increased the penalty for second-degree murder, which has resulted in those convicted of the premeditated offense being eligible for parole earlier than those convicted of murder in the second degree, Hough said. His bill would change that so that a person convicted of first-degree murder would not be eligible for parole before they served 25 years.
Finally, Hough said he plans to reintroduce a bill that would require live video stream and video archives of the floor sessions of the Maryland House and Senate. The floor sessions are currently available via an audio-only live stream. All committee hearings are available on live video stream and archived sessions.
Maryland and Wyoming are the only two states that don’t provide live video of their floor sessions, Hough said.
Del. Jesse Pippy (R-District 4)
Pippy highlighted the opioid crisis, transportation and redistricting as his primary focuses.
“[The drug] epidemic is out of control,” he told the Times.
The freshman legislator said a greater focus needs to be on prescription opioids — more accountability for doctors, hospitals and other prescribers.
“We have to do more,” he said, “plain and simple.”
Pippy said also said redistricting was a key issue for him. He looks forward to aiding the nonpartisan Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission in making sure there’s fair representation for his Carroll and Frederick County constituents.
New to Annapolis, Pippy said he needs to get up to speed quickly to impact the policy his constituents elected him to push for — or against.
Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-District 9)
Fry Hester sees opioid treatment and prevention, flood mitigation and recovery, agriculture and health care as her top priorities, her chief of staff wrote in an email to the Times. Fry Hester attended the first day of session, but was suffering from laryngitis and deferred questions to her Chief of Staff Fred Curtis.
“Opioid programs need more funding and infrastructure not only in Howard and Carroll counties, but throughout the state,” Curtis wrote. Fry Hester intends to spearhead such efforts throughout her term, he added.
Devastating floods in Ellicott City and recent flooding events in Sykesville and Catonsville prompted the first-year senator to prioritize flood mitigation and recovery experts, Curtis wrote.
As for agriculture and health care, Fry Hester intends to sponsor legislation “that will help promote sustainable farming while providing quality access to healthy foods in food deserts,” Curtis wrote.
She’ll also work hard across the aisle to lower the cost of prescription drugs, Curtis wrote, especially for seniors.
Del. Warren E. Miller (R-District 9A)
Miller, like some other lawmakers, plans to push hard for past legislation he introduced that fell short before Sine Die — the end of the legislative session.
In 2018 and years before he’s introduced a “Right to Work” bill, which prohibits employers from requiring employees or prospective employee to join a union as a condition of their employment, according to the fiscal and policy note for the 2018 bill.
Miller said there are 31 states that do not allow employers to require union membership.
“You shouldn’t be compelled to join a union to have a job,” Miller told the Times. “It’s un-American.”
Those “Right to Work” states don’t destroy unions because participating in a union is still allowed, he added. “You just voluntarily join the union of your choice that offers you the best benefits, but otherwise you just have a job.”
Beyond specific legislation, Miller plans to join his Republican colleagues in fighting to return tax dollars to Marylanders after the General Assembly last session did not adjust its income tax code following federal tax cuts.
“I think we owe it to the residents of Carroll County to work harder to try and give them the tax break they deserve that the president gave everybody,” he said. “Tax time, March-April time frame, people are going to see what happened to them last year. They’re going to be really upset.”
He also firmly opposes an expected $15 minimum wage bill.
Miller added: “In my opinion that destroys jobs. It just means there are fewer jobs available that previously students got for the summer or that people got working part time.”