The Maryland State House, built in 1772, is the oldest U.S. state capitol in continuous legislative use. The new General Assembly session opens there Wednesday.
The Maryland State House, built in 1772, is the oldest U.S. state capitol in continuous legislative use. The new General Assembly session opens there Wednesday. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Harford County’s 11-person legislative delegation — including three new members — will join their colleagues in Annapolis on Wednesday for the opening of the 2019 Maryland General Assembly session.

The three senators and eight delegates plan to take on a host of local and statewide issues, including public school funding, access to health care, economic development, land use, even the potential legalization of marijuana and the expanded growth and use of legal hemp.

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“Going back as an experienced legislator, it’s an exciting time to return to the legislature,” said Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat who was elected in November to a second four-year term representing District 34A.

Lisanti, of Havre de Grace, represents the district with fellow Democrat, Del.-elect Steve Johnson, of Aberdeen. Johnson unseated former Republican Del. Glen Glass in the general election last November.

Republican Del.-elect Lauren Arikan, of Jarrettsville, was elected to her first term representing eastern Baltimore County and western Harford in District 7. She serves District 7 with fellow Republican Dels. Rick Impallaria and Kathy Szeliga — the latter is the House minority whip — and she succeeds Republican Del. Pat McDonough, who did not seek re-election and made an unsuccessful run for Baltimore County executive last year.

The third new member of the delegation is Republican Sen.-elect Jason Gallion, of Level. Gallion serves District 35, which includes northern and central Harford County and northern Cecil County. He was placed on the ballot in March by the Maryland Republican Party after the sudden death of incumbent Republican Sen. Wayne Norman, who was seeking re-election. His widow, Linda Norman, was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to serve the remainder of his term.

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“It’s always good to have new ideas and energy and new sets of eyes,” Lisanti said. “I welcome not only Steve [Johnson] but Lauren [Arikan] and Jason [Gallion]; I’m really thrilled to have all three of them.”

There are 60 new senators and delegates this year, comprising about a third of the General Assembly. The Democrats have dominated the legislature for many years, and the party maintained its super majority in the House and Senate after the 2018 elections, according to The Baltimore Sun.

“There’s going to be a big learning curve in the House of Delegates,” Lisanti said. “I’m really excited to spend the time to build relationships with many of the new legislators from throughout the state.”

All legislators will be sworn in when the session begins at noon Wednesday, according to Republican Sen. J.B. Jennings, of Joppa. The Harford Senate and House delegations will then meet this week and next week to select their respective leaders for this year, according to Jennings and Lisanti.

Jennings, who represents District 7, is the GOP minority leader in the Senate. He also noted the many new members of the General Assembly, describing them as “much, much further left leaning on their views and their agenda.”

He cited legislative goals such as a $15 minimum wage, increased regulation and taxes on agriculture and legalizing marijuana as issues of concern for Republicans.

“I think we’re going to see lot of anti-business bills, things that are going to hurt the business community, and that’s where I need to focus and protect,” Jennings said.

Jennings, who is also a farmer, expressed concerns about a legislative push to allow solar panel farms to be built on agricultural land, as well as greater regulations on farming.

Economic development

Lisanti said there is a consensus among her House colleagues that “we need to work very hard on economic development” in Harford, as well as on job creation.

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“There is a real sense in the county that we are falling behind as far as employment opportunities, particularly along the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor,” she said.

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Lisanti and Johnson’s district, which follows Route 40, includes Aberdeen Proving Ground, Abingdon, Edgewood, Aberdeen, Perryman and Havre de Grace.

The area is commonly known as the Route 40 corridor, but Lisanti referred to it as the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor — a cooperative effort of communities in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Cecil and Harford counties, as well as strategic partners in Delaware and Pennsylvania also impacted by Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The delegated noted southern Harford, which has been home to APG since it was established in 1917, “has a lot more character than a federal highway [Route 40].”

“Most of the southern part of the county is waterfront,” she added. “It’s time that we started marketing it in that regard.”

Lisanti said she has been working with various entities at Aberdeen Proving Ground on job development in the surrounding areas, and she plans to build upon legislation she put forth two years ago to obtain state bond funding to support the development of a hub for research and development of 3-D printing.

Lisanti secured $100,000 in the 2017 session, and she was among the Harford County leaders on hand last October to celebrate the opening of the Advanced Manufacturing, Materials and Processes, or AMMP, center in Aberdeen.

School funding priorities

Local education funding is also a concern for Lisanti and her colleagues, especially as Sean Bulson, the new superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, has reported a $35 million gap in the school system’s proposed fiscal 2020 operating budget.

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Bulson, who is scheduled to present his budget to the Board of Education on Jan. 22, has proposed a series of difficult measures to close that gap, including eliminating 179 positions, 153 of which are tied to the classroom.

Lisanti, who spent eight years on the Harford County Council before being elected to the state legislature in 2014, said providing more money is “the easiest answer, but it’s not usually the best answer.”

The council has the final say on Harford County’s annual budget, as proposed by the county executive, and public school funding takes up a significant chunk of that budget.

School officials have put forth budget proposals for many years that call for much more money than is ultimately appropriated by the local and state governments. The County Council can add more money to the school budget, on top of what the county executive appropriates, but it would need to either take funds from other departments or raise taxes.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is a former council member, state delegate and senator elected to a second term as executive in November. He said the county has, under his leadership, increased school funding by $20 million, compared to a $4 million increase in state funding.

“We’ve asked for the delegation to continue to push for a new formula that will provide more local aid to Harford County, particularly in those operating funds,” Glassman said.

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The state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission, has recommended increasing state funding of public schools by $4.4 billion over 10 years. Any changes to funding formulas to implement the commission’s recommendations must be approved by the General Assembly.

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Lisanti, who said the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations come with “a large price tag,” noted no one from Harford’s delegation sits on the House Appropriations Committee or the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which would first review school funding formulas. She said that “puts us at a disadvantage” on obtaining more state funds for Harford schools.

Republican Del. Andrew Cassilly, who also works for the county schools as their resource conservation manager, said school funding “is a major issue.”

“I’m sure it will be a priority for the entire delegation as our schools are struggling right now to make ends meet,” he said.

Cassilly, who lives in the Havre de Grace area, represents northern Harford in District 35B with fellow Republican Del. Teresa Reilly, of Whiteford. Both were re-elected in 2018.

“I think we have a strong balanced delegation,” Cassilly said. “I have a strong confidence we will work together to maximize our effectiveness serving all the residents of Harford County.”

Harford House members will choose their chair and vice chair in their first meeting after the opening of the session Wednesday.

The new industrial hemp industry

Cassilly was a co-sponsor of legislation last year in the House to create a pilot program regarding the cultivation and sale of industrial hemp. He plans to support legislation this year to bring the state’s regulations in line with federal provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill allowing industrial hemp pilot programs.

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“It is a crop that is acclimated well for Maryland, and the uses are expanding dramatically,” Cassilly said.

He said hemp has multiple uses, including building materials and auto parts, and he plans to work with all parties, including farmers, processors and manufacturers, after the session, to further educate them on the hemp industry.

“It’s a brand new industry,” he said.

County executive’s priorities

Glassman was sworn in last week as the president of the Maryland Association of Counties for 2019.

“I’ll be representing all the Maryland counties in Annapolis, and I’ve got to do some traveling around the state,” he said.

Glassman said education funding is a top priority for MACO, as well as the development of a next-generation 911 system statewide, ensuring that all of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions receive equal funding for it.

Other issues for the association, which have come up in conversations with House Speaker Michael Busch, include the development of solar power plans and the impact on land use, and future ballot initiatives legalizing sports betting and recreational marijuana use.

Glassman also outlined his priorities for Harford County, such as funding for school capital projects, funding for road improvements at the intersections of the Bel Air Bypass and Route 24 north of Bel Air, Route 24 and Singer Road south of town and at the Route 543 and I-95 interchange near the James Run development.

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