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Annapolis agenda

Annapolis, MD-- January 5, 2016--This is a view of the State House dome. Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun
Annapolis, MD-- January 5, 2016--This is a view of the State House dome. Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

In Annapolis, conventional wisdom is that the second legislative session of any four-year term is usually the most consequential (the first year being too early for lofty ambitions to be mounted by the newly-elected, particularly when there's a new governor, while later sessions tend to produce diminishing returns). Given the recent declarations from both Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who seeks to make fundamental changes in the way Maryland is governed, and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate who tout an ambitious agenda of their own, the General Assembly session that begins this Wednesday at noon could prove to be no exception.

Governor Hogan has made it clear that he seeks to translate into action more of the themes of the political campaign that won him the governorship in 2014 — and continue to make him a highly popular figure in the eyes of the Maryland electorate. That means making Maryland a more "business friendly" state and, where possible, reducing the tax burden on individuals and businesses. Meanwhile, Democrats are clearly uninterested in rubber stamping the governor's agenda, touting their own vision, most notably for reviving Baltimore in the wake of the unrest that stemmed from the death of Freddie Gray as well as for tax reform and business competitiveness.

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Needless to say, the conflicting goals are likely to put the two sides at loggerheads with some frequency. How lawmakers deal with Mr. Hogan's vetoes from 2015, a traditional early-session chore, may set the tone for the 90 days ahead. A few are likely to be overridden, beginning with how Maryland applies the state's 6 percent sales tax to hotel stays. Last year, lawmakers approved legislation that clarifies the law so that online travel companies would have to pay the full tax in the same manner as bricks-and-mortar businesses located in Maryland do. Mr. Hogan unwisely vetoed the bill on the grounds the matter was being litigated (that opponents cast the move as a tax increase may have had something to do with it as well). The override will merely correct the governor's mistake and it should not require any end zone celebratory dance by Democrats — although given that traditional GOP allies in the business community support them on this matter, the temptation may prove great.

Still, there is much on which House Speaker Michael Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Governor Hogan can agree. That taxpayers will see some form of tax relief — assuming it can be done without adverse impact on the state budget — would seem likely, for instance, as would various forms of assistance (whether direct or indirect) to Maryland's largest city, efforts to combat heroin overdoses and provide job opportunities for individuals released from prison. Here then are some of the major areas where the governor and lawmakers should find agreement and could produce significant progress in the three months ahead:

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Aid to Baltimore

Legislators and the governor have pitched so many ideas for helping Baltimore in the wake of April's riots that it may prove hard to weed through them all. But legislators should certainly support Governor Hogan's increased appropriations for clearing blight in Baltimore. Some of the ideas Speaker Busch has proposed, such as more flexibility for state institutions to give local hiring or contracting preferences and incentives for anchor institutions to open satellite facilities in impoverished neighborhoods, are also promising.

Transportation

Now that Mr. Hogan appears to have abandoned attempts to roll back Maryland's most recent gas tax increase, the focus can return to replacing Baltimore's long-awaited Red Line light rail plan so unceremoniously abandoned by the governor last year. What Mr. Hogan has offered so far, mostly a reorganizing of the city's existing MTA bus system, may be inadequate, but at least it's a step in the right direction, with greater resources needed. Meanwhile, the death of a 24-year-old Montgomery County police officer last month at a sobriety checkpoint has fueled calls for tougher drunk driving laws. Requiring all convicted drunk drivers to have installed in their vehicles an ignition interlock device that tests the driver's breath for signs of alcohol — a measure proven to reduce DUI-related deaths in other states — should be high on the agenda. And given that the chief obstacle is one recalcitrant committee chairman (the House Judiciary's Joseph F. Vallario Jr.), the impetus is on Speaker Busch to clear the way.

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Environment

While Governor Hogan's first session was regarded as an unexpected triumph for environmentalists, particularly for the Chesapeake Bay, advocates once again find themselves mostly in a defensive posture. High on the list is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly by increasing the amount of renewable energy used in Maryland, while ending the practice of classifying waste-to-energy incinerators or the burning of "black liquor" as forms of renewable energy. There will also be a push to protect threatened honeybees through limiting the application of certain pesticides and protecting the state's historic land preservation efforts including Program Open Space. Financed by a tax on land transfers, the preservation programs have been used as something of a budgetary slush fund by Maryland's elected leaders, a practice that has become too easy and has shortchanged preservation efforts.

Budget and taxes

The fight over next year's budget may actually be relatively easy, given that Governor Hogan has promised to fully fund all mandated spending — like the education formulas he sought to shortchange last year. The big questions will be what tax cuts will be on the table, and whether the legislature has any interest in Mr. Hogan's proposal to provide a circuit breaker to those mandated spending formulas in years when state revenues are down. On the former, both the governor and legislature have been looking for ways to change the tax code to make the state more business friendly, and there is a real opportunity for a comprehensive modernization of the system. Maryland could seek more revenues in ways that would not hurt our overall competitiveness — for example, by broadening the base of the sales tax to cover services or increasing the tobacco tax — and cut taxes that hurt us, chiefly the individual income tax. Unfortunately, we may be in for more tinkering around the edges, with proposals for tax cuts targeted to favored constituencies by the governor and perhaps a corporate tax cut proposal from the legislature.

On the question of mandate reform, the legislature should consider the idea — future Democratic governors will thank them for it — but proceed with caution. Governors and the legislature routinely give themselves exemptions from the mandates when economic circumstances require. The question is who holds the balance of power, and Mr. Hogan's proposal might tip it too far toward the executive.

Good government

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This should be the year for Mr. Hogan to make a major push for redistricting reform. He's got the right idea, with a plan for an independent commission balanced between Democrats, Republicans and independents, and he has the people on his side.

Police reforms

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The vast majority of police officers in Maryland perform their duties with honor and integrity, but chiefs need more power to weed out the few "bad apples" who abuse their authority and give the force a bad name. Lawmakers this year should act on bills that would shorten the 10-day waiting period officers suspected of misconduct are given before they can be questioned by investigators and allow chiefs to suspend without pay officers accused of serious misdemeanors as well as felonies. Lawmakers also need to lift restrictions on investigating allegations of brutality more than 90 days old and extend that deadline to one year. Lawmakers should also examine mandating use of police body cameras statewide; with appropriate safeguards, the potential benefits of the devices clearly outweigh the difficulties.

Criminal justice reform

Lawmakers should adopt the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Council, a bi-partisan group that has suggested ways to reduce the prison population through shorter mandatory sentences and other policies and to invest the savings in re-entry services, drug treatment and other proven crime-prevention strategies. Maryland should also expand its efforts to allow expungement of criminal records, for example by adding simple drug possession to the list of charges eligible for full expungement, as well as a measure that would make charges against addicts who sell small amounts of drugs to each other eligible for shielding or expungement if they're willing to get treatment. We also support abolishing a rule that prevents ex-offenders from expunging or shielding records that are grouped together in a single case if any of the charges fall outside the list of offenses eligible for expungement.

Heroin

Lawmakers should support Governor Hogan's efforts to increase the availability of drug treatment. They should also approve legislation to make naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, available to first responders as well as to addicts' friends and families statewide without a prescription as long as they can show they have been trained to use it, as is now the case in Baltimore.

Debt relief for unpaid child support owed by Maryland inmates

Lawmakers need to take a hard look at the problem of inmates who fall behind on court-ordered child-support payments that continue to accumulate while they're behind bars and leave them with crushing debts they cannot possibly pay off. The Department of Human Resources should be allowed to modify court-ordered child-support payments to make them more accurately reflect the earning power of recently released inmates.

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