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Legislative session 2021: Virus or not, there’s important work to be done in Maryland | COMMENTARY

View of the Maryland Senate Chamber from a senator's seat. Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson stands behind plexiglass at the dais in the Senate Chamber at the Maryland State House. Because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, 47 senators and state workers will work behind protective barriers during the 442nd session of Maryland General Assembly which opens January 13. January 8, 2021.
View of the Maryland Senate Chamber from a senator's seat. Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson stands behind plexiglass at the dais in the Senate Chamber at the Maryland State House. Because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, 47 senators and state workers will work behind protective barriers during the 442nd session of Maryland General Assembly which opens January 13. January 8, 2021. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

If there is one certainty facing Maryland’s 188 state lawmakers as they return to Annapolis, it’s the unconventional circumstances of the annual 90-day legislative session: acrylic screens around desks, social distancing, online hearings. Even student pages will be absent. Out are the public rallies and late dinners with lobbyists. In are regular coronavirus tests and abbreviated meetings. What the General Assembly got a taste of last March, when COVID-19 shortened the last session, will be in full flower this time around. And while that may prove to curb some less pressing legislative ambitions, Gov. Larry Hogan and top lawmakers have already pledged there is serious work to be done.

Front and center of that effort is how to help Marylanders struggling with the devastating economic impact of the pandemic. Governor Hogan’s plan released this week would feature individual payments to lower-income residents, aid to small businesses and tax cuts with the overall cost totaling $1 billion. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson have been talking about COVID-19 relief in slightly different terms with help for families facing eviction and students lacking proper access to virtual learning also part of the mix. Making it easier for Maryland workers who have lost their jobs to claim unemployment insurance benefits would be much appreciated as well, given the debacles of last year. Yet all of these plans hinge on dipping into the state’s reserve funds, money set aside for emergencies or so-called “rainy days.”

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Is this a rainy day? Clearly, it is. But scrambling to spend every dollar of tax revenue available to the state right now could prove counterproductive if it leaves the state in a severe structural deficit with long-term obligations overwhelming anticipated revenues. So right now, there are only questions: How will COVID relief fit the state budget? (Mr. Hogan’s proposed spending plan isn’t expected to be released until next week) What should be the highest priority? And how will lawmakers balance the state budget in future years and meet future emergencies if a billion or more dollars are removed from the ledger? Even the state’s credit rating — and the cost of long-term borrowing — could be jeopardized if poor choices are made.

If COVID relief is priority 1, there are some 1-A items on the agenda, too. First is to pass a budget that won’t bankrupt the state, but second might be to override Mr. Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the landmark K-12 school reform bill. If anything, the pandemic has demonstrated the need to address disparities and improve educational outcomes across the state. Politically, the override seems certain. Less clear is how lawmakers may choose to revise the blueprint. A one-year delay in its implementation is a strong possibility. Coming to a consensus over how to finance its future costs that will amount to about $4 billion annually by the end of 10 years is highly doubtful. And on the subject of education, the proposed $580 million in additional aid to Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities is expected to advance on an emergency basis to offset a possible second veto by Governor Hogan. Financing that much-needed legal settlement ought to be factored into the budget, too.

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Yet the state’s financial affairs are not the only daunting challenge ahead. Marylanders should also expect the General Assembly to take further action on police reform and accountability beginning with a rejection, or at least major rewrite, of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights that has consistently denied jurisdictions like Baltimore the ability to properly address misconduct. And continuing examples of disparities in the treatment of Black and brown individuals (and not just by police) deserve serious attention. Remedies are wide-ranging, as evidenced by the recent recommendations presented by a Senate work group. Here’s an easy one: Make sure that if Maryland moves forward with sport wagering, as many expect it to do, that minority-owned businesses receive a share of that potentially lucrative state-sanctioned enterprise.

That’s an abbreviated list, of course. There are any number of worthy measures involving health care, climate change and public infrastructure (reversing transit cutbacks, for example) that deserve attention. And lawmakers face a moving target, as President-elect Joe Biden and his slender Democratic majority in Congress may yet provide a level of COVID-19 relief that could make state-level action less necessary. And then there are the latest security concerns coming out of last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol that could impact the Maryland State House. Undoubtedly, history is going to be made these next three months. Now it’s up to legislators and the governor to rise to the occasion.

This piece is written by The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board. Editorials are the opinion of the Board, which is separate from the newsroom. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor, please send it to talkback@baltimoresun.com.

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