'A learning experience': 60 new Maryland lawmakers head to Annapolis, ready to tackle big issues

A few years back, at the urging of a colleague, Republican House of Delegates Minority Leader Nic Kipke signed on to co-sponsor a bill named the “Fourth Amendment Protection Act” — without reading the details.

Soon after, Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, was stunned to open a newspaper and learn he was supporting a bill that could cut off water and electricity to the National Security Agency, the intelligence agency at Fort Meade.

“It was quite a surprise, considering half of NSA lives in my district,” Kipke said Wednesday, standing in front of dozens of new state lawmakers gathered in Annapolis. “Be very careful about that.”

The lesson: Don’t commit to anything without doing your research.

Kipke was among a group of veteran lawmakers helping train a large freshman class of legislators taking office for the General Assembly session, which starts in January.

Other advice: Treat lobbyists skeptically. Build relationships. Vote your conscience.

It was the first day of a two-day orientation for 60 legislators — 43 in the House of Delegates and 17 in the state Senate.

In a session in which lawmakers are expected to wrestle with major issues — including considering spending billions more on public schools, expanding health care coverage, raising the minimum wage of $10.10 an hour and legalizing recreational marijuana — nearly one-third of the members will be new to their offices.

Before they can decide the future of the state, they first have to find their desks, figure out their committees and (in some cases) learn where to park.

“It’s a learning experience for a lot of us,” said Delegate-elect Tony Bridges of Baltimore, who previously served in the governor’s office of community initiatives in the administration of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley. “We all came in thinking we know everything about legislation and how we’re going to change Maryland and, for me, the city of Baltimore. But I’m pretty sure there’s a lot I don’t know.”

Even so, Bridges said, he hopes to push the state to improve transportation in Baltimore.

“I hope to accomplish a lot,” he said. “I have a million ideas about bills I want to put forward, but I want to be strategic.”

House Majority Leader Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the newcomers should watch and listen, but they shouldn’t take too long before jumping in with ideas.

Dumais said when she was a freshman some 15 years ago, a colleague told her not to introduce legislation in her first year — a recommendation with which she disagrees. Dumais urged lawmakers to introduce one bill in their first session, but probably no more than five.

“Introducing a bill, to be able to walk it through the process, I think is important,” she said.

The House will have 99 Democrats and 42 Republicans. The Senate will have 32 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

Both the House and Senate maintained their Democratic supermajorities over Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the November election — a fact not lost on Kipke.

“For the Democrats in the room, you’ll be very happy to know you have a very strong majority in this chamber,” Kipke told the incoming House lawmakers. “For the Republicans in the room, you’ll be comforted to know — I don’t know — we try hard?”

Many of the newcomers boast a wealth of local and state experience: Incoming Howard County Delegate Courtney Watson is the former chairwoman of both the Howard County Council and the county school board. Baltimore County Delegate-elect Jon Cardin is back after serving 12 years in the House from 2003 to 2015. Delegate-elect Michele Guyton of Baltimore County served on the state school board. It’s the first term in the Senate chamber for Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore, but she spent 14 years as a state delegate and is the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Civil Rights in Baltimore.

Among the freshmen delegates is Dalya Attar, who is a prosecutor in the state’s attorney’s office in Baltimore.

Attar said she hopes to work on spurring development around Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, enhancing school funding and improving juvenile justice issues in her first term.

“I do not have an agenda,” Attar said. “I’m planning to observe and learn from my colleagues.”

She thinks her experience as a prosecutor will be helpful when it comes time to consider criminal justice issues.

“We have to focus a lot of the juvenile system,” Attar said. “We have to make sure it’s providing rehabilitative services to our children. I do believe we can do a lot better. I see the same children coming in and out every single day.”

This November, Republicans picked up one seat in the state Senate, while Democrats gained eight in the House of Delegates.

Five new senators have come from outside the General Assembly: Senator-elect Jack Bailey beat Sen. Stephen Waugh in the Republican primary in southern Maryland with the help of Hogan; Jason Gallion won the seat held by Sen. Wayne Norman Jr. before his death last year and will represent parts of Cecil and Harford counties; Democrat Sarah Elfreth defeated Republican Ron George for a seat in Anne Arundel; Arthur Ellis unseated former Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton in Charles County; and Democrat Katie Fry Hester defeated Gail Bates in a district that spans Carroll and Howard counties — becoming the first Democrat in decades to represent Carroll.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he believed implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education will be among the top challenges for the General Assembly. The so-called Kirwan commission (nicknamed for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan) is considering recommending increasing education funding for public schools by billions.

“The one thing we’re charged to do is fund education,” he said.

Miller also told the new lawmakers to reach across the aisle and learn to work with their colleagues from the other party.

“We’ll have contentious bills,” Miller said. “Compromise is not a dirty word.”

The General Assembly convenes Jan. 9.

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