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Lawmakers return to Annapolis with long to-do list | COMMENTARY

Maryland legislators return to the State House Wednesday for the opening day of a 90-day legislative session with some contentious issues including legalizing marijuana on the agenda. File. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).
Maryland legislators return to the State House Wednesday for the opening day of a 90-day legislative session with some contentious issues including legalizing marijuana on the agenda. File. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun). (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

If there is one thing that is certain as the 188 state senators and delegates return to Maryland’s capital for the 2022 legislative session beginning Wednesday, it’s that this will not be a year for business as usual. But then abnormal has become the new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic and, once again, lawmakers are making adjustments. Visitors will be allowed and in-person voting sessions will remain in both chambers (although likely with longer calendars of bills and less frequent voting sessions) while House and Senate hearings will be conducted online — at least for the first month in the case of the Senate, but all 90 days for the House. Even more striking, perhaps, is how challenging and potentially ambitious the agenda ahead. Rejecting the conventional wisdom that legislators sidestep the controversial (and costly) in an election year, leadership appears willing to butt heads not only with the lame duck Republican governor but with each other on a variety of issues including how best to allocate a multibillion-dollar budget surplus made possible by federal grants and state spending reductions made one year ago when a more severe COVID-related economic downturn was anticipated.

The best illustration of this? Not necessarily legislative redistricting, which has already set off howls from the second floor of the State House, but is a decennial event tied to the U.S. Census and thus baked into this year’s session. Here’s a prediction on that front: Democrats will be accused of gerrymandering by Republicans as they were with congressional redistricting last fall. The charge will be true and the majority party will rewrite maps to their advantage anyway as they have always done. Meanwhile, Baltimore will lose representation because of the city’s declining population (likely two seats in the House and one in the Senate).

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Far less certain is how those same Democratic leaders will resolve the thorny issue of legalizing marijuana for recreational use and not just through medical prescription. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones has promised the matter will be on the general election ballot this year as part of her ongoing efforts to address how Black men are disproportionately thrown into the criminal justice system — in the case of marijuana, frequently on charges of possession. At least 18 states have so far gone this route along with the District of Columbia. Yet there are signs that Senate Democrats have reservations. Will voters know how the law will guard against under-18 use or driving under the influence? Will minority business owners get a share of the licensed pot concession? How will tax revenues will be allocated? Senate President Bill Ferguson says he’s “open” to putting the matter on the ballot if voters are given the “full program.” House leaders are skeptical this is possible given the complexities and want the details resolved in 2023 post-referendum. We sense an interesting negotiation ahead — and will reserve judgment on the merits until we see a proposal on the table.

And that’s just one difficult subject on the agenda. There are others, if not as high profile, that deserve serious consideration. Our top five includes:

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1. Allocating the enormous budget surplus wisely. Given the one-time nature of the revenue, much of it from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, it ought to be used for one-time investments. That means not in either permanent tax cuts or enlarging state government (both of which carry a long-term price tag) but in capital investments like repairing failing sewer lines to reduce water pollution or buying electric-powered buses to help clean the air. Add schools, cybersecurity (especially in the wake of the crippling attack on the state Department of Health) and state parks to the list. Former Gov. Parris Glendening has said Maryland has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address its underfunded, overcrowded parks and we are inclined to agree.

2. COVID, COVID, COVID. Helping Marylanders adversely affected by the pandemic ought to remain a top priority even as the nation is poised to enter a third year of the public health crisis. In some cases, that may require shoring up the social safety net so people aren’t evicted from their homes; in others, providing a measure of sensible regulatory relief for hard hits industries like hospitals, nursing homes and child care facilities. Here’s one remedy that is overdue: paid family leave. With prospects for such a program at the federal level greatly diminished by the stalled Build Back Better bill, lawmakers should step up and create an insurance fund that would allow up to 12 weeks of paid leave for people facing a crisis such as a seriously ill family member.

3. Reproductive health care. This is not only the right moment for Maryland voters to enshrine a woman’s right to choose in the state constitution by way of the ballot box given the likelihood of a U.S. Supreme Court decision further weakening long-standing Roe v. Wade protections, it’s also the time for lawmakers to take a second look at how Maryland regulates abortion providers. Long-standing complaints about high copays by patients and unnecessary “scope of practice” restrictions on providers ought to be addressed.

4. Climate change. At the risk of sounding like a broken record on this critical topic, humanity is facing an existential threat and Maryland ought to be at the vanguard of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, key legislation died in committee. This year, prospects appear better toward mandating a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030. Given coastal Maryland’s vulnerability to rising tides and worsening storms, there should be no shortage of motivation here. Lives are at stake.

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5. Gun violence. It’s a shame that Gov. Larry Hogan has chosen to so politicize an issue (with a campaign to “re-fund” police as if local governments had “de-funded” in the first place) that has caused so much suffering in Baltimore. Yet there might actually be some areas of agreement here. On Monday, the governor spoke of spending some of the budget surplus on criminal justice initiatives such as underwriting Metro Crime Stoppers rewards, providing aid to victim service providers and buying more body cameras for police. Such ideas are likely to garner widespread support. Same for judicial accountability (as challenging as translating complex judicial sentencing decisions into simple numbers may be). Expect far less interest, however, in “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mandatory prison terms that has been tried (and failed) before. Oddly missing from Mr. Hogan’s list is hiring more state parole and probation officers. No doubt lawmakers will offer ways to address the current and embarrassing shortage of state employees who can actually help reduce recidivism.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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