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Politics didn't stop progress

As the 2016 General Assembly session headed toward its conclusion Monday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and a passel of their fellow elected Democrats gathered to decry what they called the extreme partisanship Gov. Larry Hogan — a Republican — had fostered during the past three months. Some time later, Mr. Hogan said the Democrats were the petty and partisan ones and insisted they should be thankful for all the funding flowing to Baltimore City and Prince George's County this year.

It was an unsurprising end to a session that saw Democrats complaining that the governor wasn't working to pass any of his bills and the governor at one point comparing the Democrats to kids on spring break. But it was also a scene that belied what was, in terms of actual substance, a legislative session that both parties and the people of Maryland can be pretty happy with. The governor and the Democratic leadership both seem to have concluded that it is to their political advantage to convince the public that the other side is responsible for Annapolis' descent into Washington-style partisan gridlock. But the dirty little secret is that whatever friction may have cropped up along the way didn't stop substantial progress on a host of important issues from reforming the criminal justice system to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After 90 days, some good bills are going into law, some bad ones aren't, and others took incremental steps toward consensus. What more could we ask for?

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Budget and taxes

One of the biggest pieces of legislation to fail on the final day of the legislative session was an effort to cut income taxes for most Marylanders. Governor Hogan lamented its demise but took credit for it being on the agenda at all, the fact that it was mainly not his idea notwithstanding. We regret that legislators got tied up in debating whether to cut taxes for upper-income households and, as a consequence, failed to enact an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. That was an idea with support across the idelogical spectrum that would have made a real difference in the lives of many low-income Marylanders.

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But on the whole, it's not such a bad thing that stasis ruled when it came to taxes. The General Assembly didn't advance Mr. Hogan's hodgepodge of targeted tax credits for retirees and others, nor did the legislature's own effort to study the business competitiveness of Maryland's tax structure lead to much. That provides all sides with the opportunity to think holistically about the tax code in terms of equity and its effect on the business climate. Whether that will happen is far from certain, but in the meantime, sticking with the status quo while the economy gradually strengthens remains prudent.

Mr. Hogan made a lot of noise about reforming the spending mandates in the budget, but his actual legislation on the subject was a blunt and unwieldy instrument. The legislature was right to reject it. The governor should instead make a detailed review of the spending mandates in the budget and make a case for why any particular ones are excessive or failing to produce the desired results. Fortunately, he did not let his aversion for mandated spending lead him to veto a much needed aid package for Baltimore to help it address many of the structural problems exposed by the protests and riots of a year ago. Ms. Rawlings-Blake is right that the governor didn't lead the charge for these initiatives, but neither did he get in the way of them.

Democrats complained bitterly when Mr. Hogan unveiled his budget that he failed to include promised money for the demolition of vacant homes in Baltimore, that he did not include operating funds for Prince George's Hospital, and that he helped offset some rural school districts' losses due to enrollment declines but not those in Baltimore City. By the end of the session, he had funded all three. The result is that the governor's spending plan was passed 45-0 in the Senate and 130-7 in the House (with all seven no votes coming from the governor's fellow Republicans). Rarely has a budget been enacted so smoothly.

Criminal justice

During the last year, lawmakers from both parties, the Hogan administration, Attorney General Brian Frosh, members of the judiciary and others worked with researchers from the Pew Charitable Trusts to deeply analyze Maryland's criminal justice system to determine what policies and practices were effective in increasing public safety and which ones were wasteful. As was the case in the two dozen other states that have engaged in a similar process, the group found plenty of the latter and came up with a consensus list of recommendations that Pew estimated would save about $250 million over 10 years, funds that would be reinvested in proven strategies to prevent crime and reduce recidivism. Despite some tense moments, the legislation passed. The final form is weaker than the original proposal in some ways and arguably stronger in some others. It represents a solid first step. In the years ahead, we hope Maryland's experience with it will prove the value of the approach and give some skeptics more comfort with additional reforms.

A major victory for public safety was the passage this year of Noah's Law, a measure that substantially expands the use of ignition interlock for drunk divers — including those caught for the first time. Similar legislation has languished in the House Judiciary Committee for years, but the death in December of Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta, who was killed by an alleged drunk driver during a traffic stop, brought new attention to the issue. Other states that have mandated interlock use for first-time drunk drivers have seen substantial reductions in deaths and injuries as a result.

And as the anniversary of Freddie Gray's arrest and death approached, the legislature passed reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to help ensure that bad cops are held accountable. The most significant change was the inclusion of civilians on the trial boards that listen to evidence and recommend consequences for officers accused of misconduct, but others, including steps to make it easier for victims to file complaints, should help begin to restore the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Police unions oppose the measure, and Governor Hogan hasn't said whether he will sign it. We urge him to do so.

Help for Baltimore

Before the legislative session began, Governor Hogan announced a substantial new state commitment to removing blighted, vacant properties in Baltimore City. (A much larger package of incentives for redevelopment proved to be almost entirely a repackaging of existing funds.) The legislature went further, including new funding for parks, expanded library hours, grants for local community development organizations and other measures that represent an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years.

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Though advocates may be disappointed that the assembly did not pass legislation to authorize new lawsuits against lead paint manufacturers, reforms to protect those who have received lead paint settlements from possible exploitation by bad actors in the structured settlement industry were a substantial advance.

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Environment

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Governor Hogan has already signed legislation increasing Maryland's goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and lawmakers passed bills that will establish science-based standards for oyster harvests and limit the use of pesticides that are thought to play a role in the recent collapse of the bee population.

Incremental progress

It often takes years for major ideas to become law in Annapolis, but advocates can point to substantial progress this year for a proposal to require larger employers to provide paid sick leave and smaller employers to provide unpaid leave. Considered radical when it was first introduced a few years ago, the cause is clearly gaining momentum. The bill passed the House this year and nearly passed the Senate before adjournment. Recent cases like the outbreaks of illness among customers of Chipotle restaurants have brought attention to the dangers of employees showing up for work sick, particularly in the food service industry, and this bill looks like a good bet to pass next year.

Governor Hogan said the death of a proposed manufacturing tax credit was his biggest regret of this year, and given the importance of bringing good-paying, middle skill jobs to communities like Baltimore and some rural parts of the state, we can understand why. We hope this idea, too, will be refined and gain support in the years ahead.

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