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9 key issues that Maryland lawmakers will address during the 2019 General Assembly session

Maryland’s 188 lawmakers go back to work Wednesday for their annual 90-day General Assembly session. From abortion to marijuana to sports betting, here’s a look at at some of the key issues they’ll be facing.

Sports betting

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Delaware Gov. John Carney displays a receipt for a bet he placed on a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Delaware Gov. John Carney displays a receipt for a bet he placed on a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

An increasing number of states are allowing sports betting, and many people in Maryland are eager to join in.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned sports betting outside of Nevada. Delaware soon became the first state outside Nevada to offer sports betting, and more than half a dozen other states quickly followed suit.

Legalizing sports betting — likely at racetracks and casinos — would bring another stream of revenue to Maryland, money some would like to earmark for education. The revenue would come from taxes on the bets.

How much the state could earn from sports betting depends on the tax rate, as well as whether bets could only be placed in person or whether mobile sports betting would be authorized. The most optimistic projection from the Department of Legislative Services is about $68 million in the first year. House Speaker Michael E. Busch has suggested the state eventually could make about $100 million a year from sports betting.

To allow sports betting in Maryland, the legislature would need to approve sending the issue to a referendum for voters to decide. If the General Assembly approves holding a referendum, it wouldn’t take place until the next election in 2020, so a legislative debate on the matter might not happen in earnest until next year.

Even so, legislation to put sports betting to a referendum is expected to be introduced and debated this year.

Minimum wage

Shawna Green, waitress at Granny Shaffer's, puts out menus for customers at the restaurant in Joplin, Missouri. In Missouri, minimum wages for low-income workers rose at the start of 2019 as a result of a voter-approved ballot initiative.
Shawna Green, waitress at Granny Shaffer's, puts out menus for customers at the restaurant in Joplin, Missouri. In Missouri, minimum wages for low-income workers rose at the start of 2019 as a result of a voter-approved ballot initiative. (Roger Nomer / AP)

Advocates will continue a years-long push to get the state to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and business groups are likely to push back again.

Maryland’s minimum wage was raised to $10.10 last summer, the final step in a four-year phase-in. Back in 2014, when state lawmakers approved the phase-in, the minimum wage was $7.25 per hour.

Lawmakers might explore gradually raising the minimum wage in phases, or setting different minimum wages for geographic areas of the state — for example, a higher wage in urban areas and a lower wage in rural areas. Those discussions are in the early stages and it’s unclear whether such a proposal would gain traction.

Marijuana

Maryland's medical marijuana industry was slow to get started but is on pace for $100 million in sales in 2018.
Maryland's medical marijuana industry was slow to get started but is on pace for $100 million in sales in 2018. (Baltimore Sun Photo)

Legislators will likely discuss marijuana on two fronts: medical use and recreational use.

There could be legislation to close a loophole through which some well-financed national corporations are moving to take over Maryland medical cannabis businesses.

Maryland’s regulations allow companies to hold no more than one license for each of the three types of medical cannabis businesses — growing, processing and retail sales. And a law took effect last May enacting a one-year moratorium on selling licenses, to avoid consolidation of licenses by a handful of companies, creating monopolies.

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Some companies appear to be skirting the rules by using management agreements, in which they plan to operate and profit from medical cannabis businesses without technically owning them. Proposals to strengthen the Maryland rules are expected.

And there will be a push again to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, which potentially could be decided at the ballot box in 2020.

Abortion access

An examination room at Whole Woman's Health of Peoria in Peoria, Ilinois.
An examination room at Whole Woman's Health of Peoria in Peoria, Ilinois. (Erin Hooley / TNS)

Lawmakers could give voters yet another option on the 2020 ballot: A state constitutional amendment declaring a woman’s right to choose abortion.

This move is inspired by conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, with some people fearing that the justices could upend the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees abortion rights nationally.

In 1992, Maryland voters approved a referendum that protected women’s freedoms gained under Roe v. Wade, but it did not put the protection into the state’s Constitution. Doing that, backers believe, would make it much more difficult for those gains to be undone.

The push began with House Speaker Michael Busch, but Gov. Larry Hogan, who has said he is personally opposed to abortion, also has said he’s comfortable with sending the question to voters.

Health care

A prescription is filled at a pharmacy in Sacramento, California.
A prescription is filled at a pharmacy in Sacramento, California. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

Lawmakers again will tackle the affordability and accessibility of health insurance and prescription drugs.

One option to bolster Obamacare in Maryland would be to fine people who don’t have health insurance, but allow them to use the fine as a “down payment” on a health insurance plan.

Another idea under consideration is to set up a state panel to review complaints about increased prices on prescription drugs.

Clean energy

Wind turbines are shown in 2016 at Grande Prairie Wind Project in O'Neill, Nebraska.
Wind turbines are shown in 2016 at Grande Prairie Wind Project in O'Neill, Nebraska. (Megan Farmer / AP)

Environmental and climate activists believe they’ve got momentum to require Maryland to get much more of its electricity from renewable energy sources.

Their bill would require that half of the state’s electricity come from sources such as wind power and solar power by 2030. The legislation — dubbed the “Clean Energy Jobs Act” — also would require the state to come up with a plan to get the state to 100 percent clean power by 2040.

The state’s current goal for renewable power is 25 percent by 2020. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill that set that standard, but his veto was overridden by state lawmakers.

Advocates say this year they have a veto-proof majority in the Senate and are close to a veto-proof majority in the House of Delegates.

Education funding

Construction on the new Crofton High School
Construction on the new Crofton High School (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

An advisory commission reviewing the state’s education programs — and the formulas that determine how much each county contributes toward teaching its students — is still plugging away. Because the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education won’t complete its work in time, a planned overhaul of education laws is delayed for at least a year.

But even as the panel, better known as the Kirwan Commission, keeps working, state lawmakers expect to spend about $200 million to $300 million more on public schools in the budget year that begins July 1. How they spend that money — Increasing teacher salaries? Making prekindergarten available to more students? — will likely set the stage for which initiatives get funded for years to come.

Also look for a debate over how to pay to build and renovate schools. Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed using tax revenue from the state’s casinos to pay for school construction; in November voters approved a constitutional amendment setting that money aside for education. But rather than construction, some legislators want to use the money to help schools pay for the higher operating costs that would come with implementing Kirwan Commission recommendations.

Redistricting

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Maryland’s congressional districts are considered to be among the most-gerrymandered in the nation, with several snaking in odd paths across the state. Once again, lawmakers are expected to debate the rules and process for drawing those districts.

Democratic leaders are awaiting the resolution of a court case over the boundaries of the 6th Congressional District, which includes Western Maryland and meanders into Frederick and Montgomery counties. Federal courts have ruled that the boundaries are unconstitutional and ordered it redrawn, but Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has appealed that ruling.

Gov. Larry Hogan, meanwhile, formed a commission to redraw the district as the legal maneuvers play out. Look for Hogan to once again introduce a bill that would establish a non-partisan commission that would handle redistricting moving forward. All of Maryland’s congressional and General Assembly districts will be redrawn following the 2020 Census.

Opportunity Zones

Rowhouses in an opportunity zone in the 1700 block of N. Chester Street in East Baltimore
Rowhouses in an opportunity zone in the 1700 block of N. Chester Street in East Baltimore (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Gov. Larry Hogan plans to propose legislation and put money in his budget to boost the 149 federally designated Opportunity Zones. The zones were created last year with the goal of using federal tax incentives to spur private investment in economically distressed communities.

Hogan will propose a “More Opportunities for Marylanders Act” that would extend a 10-year tax credit for each job created by a company that expands or locates in an Opportunity Zone. Those companies also could get up to to $6 million more in tax credits, pay no state property tax and have other fees waived.

Hogan also wants to put $3 million into an “Opportunity Works” job training program for companies in the zones, as well as $16 million into a new Maryland Technology Infrastructure Fund, which would be used to “leverage” up to $500 million in private investment.

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