General Assembly 2019: The pretty good, but... session

It’s difficult to get beyond the tragic loss of House Speaker Michael E. Busch when evaluating the 2019 General Assembly session. His death on Sunday and the gut-wrenching final day of lawmaking that followed before the assembly’s adjournment Monday night cast a shadow over everything else that happened. Still, the 188 legislators managed to cover a lot of ground, tackling major issues from the minimum wage to clean energy. Particularly given that it was the first year of a term, when large numbers of legislators are inexperienced, it was a productive 90 days — but far from a perfect one. On several major issues, lawmakers didn’t quite go as far as they should have to push the state forward.

Take the environment, for example. We were glad to see the legislature override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto on legislation to permanently protect large swaths of oyster sanctuaries from harvesting — a top priority of Speaker Busch. And despite concerns that the effort had died, the House on its final day resurrected the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which requires the state to get half its energy from renewable sources by 2030. That’s pretty good, but the final bill stripped out language that would have stopped the state from subsidizing renewable-but-dirty energy sources like trash incineration and black liquor from paper mills.

On health care, legislators established a prescription drug affordability board, created a mechanism for people to enroll in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act when they file their taxes and banned tobacco sales to those under 21. That’s pretty good, and certainly a better outcome than looked possible at some points during the session. But the affordability board will only have the authority to set upper price limits on what state and local governments pay for drugs — not what ordinary consumers do. The insurance enrollment bill lost its most important element, a requirement that most people have health insurance that would have replaced the gutted federal individual mandate under the ACA. And tobacco 21 doesn’t apply to people in the military, as if their lungs are somehow less worthy of protection.

The legislature stopped a proposal to pour state support into the Stronach Group’s plan to create a super-track for horse racing at Laurel Park (and, it became obvious, eventually move the Preakness there). That’s pretty good, but they didn’t secure a plan of any sort to revitalize Pimlico, and given the deterioration of that facility, time is on the Stronachs’ side unless the state intervenes.

Lawmakers abolished the Handgun Permit Review board, which had begun overturning Maryland State Police decisions to decline or limit individuals’ permits to carry handguns at a shocking rate. That’s pretty good, but despite testimony from those affected by the Capital-Gazette shootings, legislators did not create a system of background checks for long guns.

After The Sun reported on the lucrative contracts nearly a third of the University of Maryland Medical System’s board members had with the institution, the General Assembly passed a reform bill that requires audits, reconstitutes the board and prevents such no-bid deals in the future. That’s pretty good, but they did not make UMMS subject to open records laws, which are a powerful tool to make sure that kind of self-dealing doesn’t occur.

Public school policy took a major step forward with the legislature’s effort to begin implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, including a commitment of more than $800 million in extra funding during the next two years to support teacher raises, early childhood education, community schools and other initiatives. What’s more, the votes in the legislature were strongly bi-partisan — and nearly unanimous in the Senate — demonstrating a strong commitment to the policy framework the so-called Kirwan Commission laid out. That’s very good, but it may prove to have been the easy part. Full implementation of Kirwan would require nearly $4 billion a year in extra funding over current levels a decade from now, and Republicans have already begun signalling opposition to increasing taxes to pay for it. We hope that the inclusion of language calling for the creation of an education inspector general — a top priority of Governor Hogan’s — will help bring him on board with Kirwan, but that remains to be seen.

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