Maryland lawmakers' 2019 agenda: Protect abortion rights, raise minimum wage, and find more money for schools

During the coming General Assembly session, the Democrats who control Maryland’s legislature are expected to push for a range of progressive proposals — to bolster Obamacare, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and guarantee in the state constitution a woman's right to abortion.

And lawmakers will take up proposals to help Baltimore train more police officers, open the Catholic Church to more lawsuits over child abuse cases, and change supervision of the University of Maryland’s athletics program after the death of Terrapins football player Jordan McNair.

But as state senators and delegates gather Wednesday to begin their work, a nearly $4 billion question hangs over their heads.

A blue-ribbon commission wants Maryland to elevate its schools to “world-class” level by providing full-day preschool for all 3-year-olds from poor families, as well as prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds regardless of income. The panel also wants the state to provide more money for schools where many students live in poverty, and to pay for raises and more training for teachers statewide.

All that would cost roughly $3.8 billion annually. While the commission is expected to take another year to recommend how much the state — versus local jurisdictions — should have to pay, discussion about the recommendations is nonetheless expected to permeate the 90-day session.

“It’s on the front of everyone’s mind,” said state Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat and majority whip. “If we really want to see improvements in the school system, we’ve got to figure out some realistic solutions without putting an undue [tax] burden on the working people of this state.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, beginning his second and final term, has said spending so much more on schools won’t necessarily make them better, and has suggested the commission’s price-tag is too high.

The Assembly’s Democratic leaders — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, 76, and House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch, 71 — suggest a massive boost to education funding is part of the legacy they hope to leave.

The governor and legislative leaders have already set aside $200 million for additional aid to school systems in the coming budget year. The commission is recommending that money be used, in part, to start an expansion of prekindergarten and pay for half of a 3 percent raise for teachers, with the other half coming from local governments.

Leading lawmakers have thus far been reluctant to put forth proposals to raise taxes to pay for billions more in spending for schools.

“It’s going to be a heavy lift,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and member of the commission, which is nicknamed for its chairman, former university system chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan.

“There’s no consensus now to raise revenue in this coming session,” Pinsky said. “Not yet. I would like there to be. … I’m one of the first in line to put my hand up and vote green for a new tax.”

In the void, two proposals could gain steam as a way to provide some funding: Legalizing, regulating and taxing sports gambling and doing the same for legalized marijuana sold to adults for recreation. But the projected tax revenue from those activities amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars, far less than Kirwan’s multi-billion price tag.

Busch says the onus is on Hogan to come up with a revenue stream, arguing that the Republican governor often touts his funding of education, and so should be glad to do more of it.

“I think it’s his responsibility to come up with a funding source to fund Kirwan for at least the next four years or farther,” Busch said. “If not, the legislature will step up and do the best they can.”

Busch is suggesting Maryland legalize sports betting as a way to raise money for schools.

“Hopefully, we can expand sports betting and dedicate that money to the education fund,” he said. “It’s not going to bring us a whole lot of money for the state. But it makes the existing casinos more competitive with surrounding states.”

Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia already have legalized sports betting.

For his part, Hogan called the Kirwan Commission’s delay in reaching agreement on funding formulas “frustrating.” He said he’s waiting to see the commission’s findings before deciding what to do next.

“They have some good ideas in Kirwan, but we have never seen the proposed formulas or the proposed funding mechanisms for any of it,” the governor told The Sun. “It was more of a broad-brush, aspiration, ‘We’d love to do this major thing or we’d love to do that.’ But how we’re going to pay for it — it never came out."

As for Busch’s suggestion to use revenue from legalized sports betting, Hogan said he’s open to the idea. “There probably will be a way to work out a solution on sports gambling,” Hogan said. But he said he’s not so eager to legalize marijuana, calling such a proposal “premature.”

“We haven’t really worked the kinks out of medical marijuana,” Hogan said. “It was really screwed up before we got here. It was a mess digging out of it. We’re finally getting it on track.”

In the meantime, the governor has put forth his proposals, including pushing for a $1.9 billion boost to school construction funding, an inspector general to investigate wrongdoing in school systems, and a package of proposals aimed at relieving student debt and making college more affordable.

Busch has put forward an agenda that includes passing legislation to enshrine a woman’s right to abortion in the Maryland constitution, amid concerns about a rightward move on the U.S. Supreme Court. He also wants to shore up Obamacare by finding a way to cover the 6 percent of Marylanders who are currently uninsured.

One proposal under consideration is charging a fee to Marylanders who elect not to buy health coverage. The idea is to encourage them to instead put the fee toward buying insurance, thus expanding market in Maryland and helping to keep rates down. But revenue from those who opt to pay the state fee would support the state’s health exchange.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he doesn’t expect any constitutional amendments — such as abortion rights, sports betting or legalized marijuana — to pass this year because they can’t go before the voters until the next statewide election in 2020.

“We take up constitutional amendments the year they go on the ballot,” Miller said in an interview.

But Miller pledged the Senate would pass an increase in the minimum wage, perhaps setting different amounts in different geographic areas.

“It’s going to happen,” Miller said of a minimum wage hike, declining to provide additional details. “We’re going to pass something this year.”

Miller said he’s also pushing for a range of proposals to bolster law enforcement in Baltimore, including state support to open a police training academy at Coppin State University. Like Busch, he wants to see an expansion of health insurance coverage.

He said he is determined to find a way to fund the Kirwan recommendations. “We don’t have the formulas from the commission, but we’re going to pass what we can,” Miller said. “We’re going to pass an initial funding proposal as well. Once you put the peg in the ground, they’ll never make you pull it back up again.”

Miller said the commission’s recommendations likely will have to be scaled back.

“It’s going to be very challenging,” Miller said of coming up with money for the proposals. “Baltimore City is going to say, ‘We don’t have any opportunities to come up with new money.’ And yet Baltimore city is going to have to come up with its fair share, just as Montgomery County and Prince George’s County and elsewhere.”

State Delegate Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican who is minority leader, said the main goal of House Republicans is to push for a state income tax cut. Kipke said some Marylanders will see higher income tax bills this spring after changes to federal and state law in 2018.

“During the session, people will be paying their taxes and will begin to realize they’re paying more,” Kipke said. “A large number of taxpayers will be unhappy about that.”

Kipke also said Republicans will work to try to stop Democrats’ more liberal proposals.

“Even though the Democratic Party did have a successful year in Maryland this election, it’s important for them to remember that Maryland is a moderate state and govern with that in mind,” Kipke said. “We’ll be working in the legislature to bring policy to the center.”

Maryland is headed into the new year with nearly $1 billion in unspent revenue, according to Comptroller Peter Franchot. Franchot, a Democrat, is warning of a looming recession and urging lawmakers to set the surplus aside in a “rainy day” fund rather than commit to new spending.

Baltimore lawmakers are likely to push for several major economic development proposals, possibly including plans to redevelop Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Track, the State Center office complex and the city’s Convention Center, though each deal faces hurdles.

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