Gov. Larry Hogan announced plans on Tuesday to combat heroin addiction and change the congressional and legislative redistricting process, two issues he identified as legislative priorities this year.
Three bills, all modeled on task force recommendations, are expected to be formally introduced to the General Assembly on Wednesday.
To target drug dealers, Hogan wants to change the state's gang laws to mirror federal racketeering laws, which could lead to more jail time for drug traffickers. The governor's office said 33 states have made similar changes.
Prosecutors have been trying for several years to make such a change to the state gang statute, which is complicated and therefore rarely used, said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger.
The governor's bill would model state law after the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, better known as RICO.
"We see that RICO is a very powerful tool for police and prosecutors because it does have a wide reach," said Shellenberger, who is head of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association. "We certainly think that with some of these drug dealers who maybe are gang-related or who are loosely affiliated, the ability to bring more of them into a major prosecution would be a great advantage for us."
Hogan will also introduce a bill that would eventually require doctors and pharmacists to use the Maryland Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. They would have to enter information about prescriptions into a database that doctors, pharmacists and other health care workers can use for free to ensure they are not overprescribing narcotics. The bill would also make improvements to the database.
"These two bills will give medical professionals and law enforcement the tools they need to attack this crisis from every direction, with everything we've got," Hogan said in a statement. "This problem is real and it demands our full and immediate attention."
Hogan said he would propose a nonpartisan "Apportionment Commission" that would divide the state into congressional districts and legislative districts for the General Assembly. The commission would be required to base its decisions on "population, compactness and natural boundaries," the governor's office said, "as opposed to politics and partisanship."
During the last round of redistricting following the 2010 Census, Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed a five-member committee dominated by Democrats to work on the new maps.
The state legislative map that O'Malley proposed became law after the General Assembly took no action to change it. The congressional map, approved by the General Assembly during a special session, has survived multiple legal challenges. The governor is not required to submit a proposed congressional map to state lawmakers, but that has been the practice in Maryland.
The governor's office did not immediately indicate how many people would be on the new commission or how they would be chosen. A task force appointed by the governor recommended a commission with nine members — three from the state's largest political party, three from the second-largest political party and three who are with neither of those parties.
Maryland has been criticized for having some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the nation. A federal judge once compared the 3rd District, represented by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, to "a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said she was thrilled to hear of the governor's redistricting proposal. On Tuesday, she dressed her young daughters in pterodactyl costumes, and they joined her in rounds to lawmakers' offices to drop off information on redistricting.
"I feel like we subconsciously moved it along," she said.
Bevan-Dangel said having the governor's support might finally help sway lawmakers toward changing the state's redistricting process. Bills to change the process have died "year after year," Bevan-Dangel said.
"The governor's really raised the bar on this issue," she said.
Hogan is expected to unveil more bills later this week. The Democratic leaders of the state Senate and the House of Delegates also plan to announce their priorities this week.