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General Assembly 2019: What needs to happen this year and what can wait

The General Assembly reconvened today at noon with lots of fresh faces in both the Senate and House of Delegates. That means lots of energy, enthusiasm and ambition but not necessarily much experience in getting things done in Annapolis. The first year of a new term is rarely the most productive, but the 188 men and women who will be sworn in today will face pressure to act on a host of major issues in education, health care, the environment, public safety and much more. Some are unresolved business from the last four years, and others are new territory even for veteran lawmakers. Realistically, legislators won't be able to get everything done this year that they and advocates would like.

Some triage is in order. Here's our take on the issues the General Assembly can and should address this year and the ones that can wait.

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Must do

Education: We and many others were disappointed that the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education didn't complete its work before the General Assembly session (or, for that matter, before the election), but there's still a lot the governor and legislature can and must do this year to set the stage for the aggressive set of reforms the commission recommends. The so-called Kirwan Commission has identified a series of steps to expand early childhood education and provide more supports to schools serving large numbers of poor students that can be acted on this year, at a price tag of about $300 million. The commission has also provided some detail on the second-year phase-in of its increased support for schools, which would amount to about $750 million. The General Assembly should codify it for the fiscal 2021 budget.

Meanwhile, though, the legislature's leaders should create a mechanism for members of the assembly to become expert in the details of the Kirwan proposals, which are about far more than sending more money to Maryland's public schools. They entail a substantial reconception of what and how our kids should learn, particularly in early childhood and high school; increasing the professionalism of the teaching corps; and establishing new standards for students to meet. Kirwan's success will ultimately rest on developing a groundswell of support among the public and lawmakers, and that process should begin now, even if the commission's final report won't come until the fall.

A big piece of that will be to convince the public that the money will be well spent, so it makes sense to heed Gov. Larry Hogan's call for new education accountability measures. He has advocated for the creation of a state inspector general for education with responsibility for investigating allegations of waste, fraud and abuse and the power to issue subpoenas and hold hearings. We await the details of this year's proposal, but it could be an important ingredient in building political support for more school funding. Twenty years ago, the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings saw increased accountability and oversight as the key to unlocking more state funds for Baltimore schools. It could be again.

Crime: We weren't fans of Governor Hogan's remarks this week about Baltimore's consent decree with the federal government to reform its police practices. We do not consider it a distraction from the issue of fighting violent crime but rather see it as essential to fostering the public trust with police that leads to good cases, solid prosecutions and convictions for violent offenders. But much of the substance of what he proposed is promising.

We've had our best success in reducing violence in Baltimore when local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are working in close coordination, and Mr. Hogan's plan for a new joint operations center that will house 200 officers, prosecutors and others from a variety of departments is welcome. We also laud his proposal for more transparency around the sentences judges hand down for violent crimes. The judiciary is the most opaque branch of government, and while we acknowledge the complexity of judges' work, we believe the public deserves some means to evaluate it. The governor is also proposing tougher minimum sentences for repeat offenders who use guns to commit violent crimes. We support the concept, but a lot of strange things happened to similar legislation last year, so we'll wait to see how the legislative process works out before rendering an opinion on that one.

Meanwhile, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is backing Mayor Catherine Pugh's call for funding for a new police training facility at Coppin State University — a good idea that would help the city increase the pace of bringing new officers onto the force and accommodate the additional training of existing officers that will be required under the consent decree.

Johns Hopkins University's proposal for authorization to create its own sworn police force will be a tougher sell, but we believe it can and should be approved this year. The university tried to advance police legislation last year without first doing the necessary work of consulting with the surrounding communities, and since then, it has worked to correct that error. There's still more to be done in that regard, particularly in assuring city residents that Hopkins police would be subject to oversight and accountability as strict (if not stricter) than municipal or public university police forces. But the concept — which is commonplace at private universities in other states — is a good one. It would help one of Baltimore's most important institutions and employers to better protect its students, faculty and staff, and it would free up Baltimore Police Department resources to fight crime in other parts of the city.

Health care: Maryland had great success last year in shoring up its Affordable Care Act insurance exchange, which saw substantial decreases in premiums for 2019 and, consequently, an increase in enrollment at a time when other states experienced sharp drops. But the work isn't done. The top priority is enacting a state-level requirement for most individuals to have health insurance, which will help ensure that more young, healthy people stay in the risk pool, thus constraining premium costs for everyone. Health advocates' proposal to structure the mandate in such a way that the uninsured could use their tax penalties as a down payment on a qualifying insurance plan is a substantial improvement over the ACA's initial concept.

This year's decrease in premiums was the result of a new state reinsurance fund, which effectively covers the cost of the most expensive patients and thus improves the composition of the risk pool. It was funded by enacting a one-year health insurance premium tax, which replaced a federal one that Congress suspended for a year. The money will cover the reinsurance program at some level for three years, but after that, its fate is uncertain. At a minimum, the General Assembly should make the state-level premium tax automatic in any year in which Congress suspends it, which has happened on several occasions.

Finally, a major driver of health care costs is the rising expense of prescription drugs. Health care advocates have worked for years to lay the groundwork for a proposed prescription drug price review panel that could serve as a check on egregious and unjustified price increases. It's a more comprehensive approach than a generic drug price gouging bill that passed during the last term (and whose fate is now in the hands of the courts), and we believe this is the year it should pass.

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The environment: The top issue on the environmental agenda this year is increasing Maryland's renewable energy goals so that at least half of the state's power comes from renewable sources by 2030. It would also require the development of a plan to get to 100 percent renewable by 2040. The most recent United Nations climate assessment makes clear that this kind of action will be necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change, and the sooner Maryland gets started transforming its power system, the easier it will be and the more economic benefits the state will reap in the burgeoning clean power industry.

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A loophole threatens to allow large, out-of-state firms to dominate Maryland's medical marijuana industry.
A loophole threatens to allow large, out-of-state firms to dominate Maryland's medical marijuana industry. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Economic issues: Maryland needs to close a loophole in its law that threatens to allow large, national corporations to dominate the state's medical marijuana industry. The state also needs to make permanent a one-year moratorium on tax sales of Baltimore homes over unpaid water bills. Such sales have always been unconscionable, and with recent increases in water rates, the problem is acute.

Election reform: We love, love, love Del. Brooke Lierman's idea to allow the Baltimore City Council to adopt ranked-choice voting for city elections. Given the Democratic dominance in the city, it would allow voters to make their preferences known in a much more meaningful way. But there's a steep learning curve on such a system (and an entrenched interest in the status quo among politicians who won under the old system), so it will be a difficult lift. But if the system is going to be in place for the next city election in 2020, it has to happen this year. Enabling legislation to allow the council to establish non-partisan primaries, another great idea, is a little more likely since the council has already requested it.

What can wait

Education: Governor Hogan has proposed to use a substantial portion of the money that will be set aside for education because of last fall's casino lockbox amendment to support a public schools building spree. We have some questions about the details related to oversight and the fiscal structure of the plan. But more substantively, we do not believe a conversation about school construction funding can occur in isolation from one about operating support for schools. Until we have our plans for Kirwan straightened out, we should put this idea on hold.

A rally is held at City Hall in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15 across Maryland. (Kennth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Economic issues: Many newly elected members of the General Assembly have voiced support for increasing the minimum wage, perhaps to $15 an hour. Last summer, Maryland completed the phase-in of its last minimum wage hike (to $10.10 an hour), and we agree that increases should not be so rare an occurrence that the hourly minimum falls far behind inflation, and the concerns we expressed about cross-border competitive effects when Baltimore City attempted to raise its minimum wage are less acute if the matter is handled on a state-wide level. But the complexities of such a proposal — how it should be phased in, whether it should apply at different levels to different parts of the state, etc. — almost certainly mean it would benefit from more than one session's worth of debate.

Likewise, we see no rush to legalize recreational marijuana or sports betting. We're still working to fix the medical marijuana program first enacted during former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, so we don't have much confidence in Maryland's ability to leap to full-on legalization. The recreational marijuana experiment is still young in other states, and we would do well to watch and learn. (Not that it helped us with medicinal pot.) As for sports betting, we would need a voter referendum to enact it, so it can't happen before 2020, and it's not likely to generate much state revenue anyway. We might as well wait.

We fully support Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed redistricting reforms, but realistically, they have little chance until a Supreme Court case on the issue is resolved.
We fully support Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed redistricting reforms, but realistically, they have little chance until a Supreme Court case on the issue is resolved.

Election reform: In our fantasy world, the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly would wake up tomorrow, realize the error of their ways and join Governor Hogan to support a new, non-partisan redistricting process for congressional and legislative districts. In the real world, this issue isn't going to move until after the Supreme Court hears and decides a case about Maryland's gerrymandered 6th Congressional District. In any case, we don't need the reforms to take effect until after the 2020 census results are released.

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