Maryland General Assembly gathers amid politics and scandal

Maryland's General Assembly will convene Wednesday while juggling more plot lines than a soap opera.

As the legislature prepares to begin its annual 90-day session at noon, it is grappling with emerging scandals, partisan bickering, internal shuffling and vacant seats.


All this accompanies more standard fare, including a yawning revenue gap and expected votes to override a gubernatorial veto regarding energy policy. Lawmakers also will consider an array of issues, including prescription drug costs, limits on student testing and paid sick leave for workers.

The state's Democrats, a commanding majority in the legislature but facing a popular Republican governor, flocked into town Tuesday in an ornery mood after a soul-crushing national defeat in November.


Republicans, meanwhile, returned ready to fend off attempts to weaken Gov. Larry Hogan in his third year and prevent him from earning a second term in office.

Democrats gathered in Annapolis for their traditional day-before-session lunch and pep rally. They vowed to resist the agenda of incoming Republican President Donald J. Trump and to lay the groundwork to take back the governor's mansion in 2018.

"You are the tip of the spear, my friends," outgoing U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez told his fellow Democrats. Perez is a candidate to run the Democratic National Committee and has also been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial challenger to Hogan.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman D. Bruce Poole said about 800,000 Democrats voted in the 2014 gubernatorial election, when Hogan won. But more than 1.6 million voted in 2016, when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the state by a wide margin.

"If '16 happens again in '18, it is lights out for the Republicans," Poole said.

As Democrats strategized, Republicans gathered in the House of Delegates office building for a luncheon with Hogan.

The governor did not use the occasion to rally the Republican troops, said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings.

"Ours was not a pep rally, it was a 'Welcome back to town,'" Jennings said. "We try to be congenial around here and work together."


Both Jennings and his counterpart in the House of Delegates, Del. Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County, said they are wary that Democrats will try to bash the governor at every turn.

"Unfortunately, it feels like we're already worried about a campaign — this session being focused on the next election and staking out claims and bringing the governor's popularity down," said Jennings, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties.

Just up the street, Democrats were taking aim at the Republican governor.

At the luncheon, House Speaker Michael E. Busch cast doubt on Hogan's calls for bipartisanship. He recalled Hogan disinviting Charles County Democratic Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton from an announcement about replacing the Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River — a project Middleton has sought for more than a decade.

"That doesn't make any sense if you want to be bipartisan," Busch said.

The usually laid-back speaker delivered a fiery, partisan speech urging Democrats to stick to their guns.


"You can't be wearing a jersey with both colors on it," he said. "You're either on one team or the other."

The rally came as House Democrats were absorbing the news Tuesday that one of their former colleagues, Will Campos of Prince George's County, had pleaded guilty to taking bribes while a member of the Prince George's County Council. He had left the House in 2015, after one session.

Earlier in the week, a Democrat who was poised to take a Baltimore House seat, Gary Brown, was indicted by the state prosecutor on charges of making illegal campaign contributions. Brown's planned swearing-in ceremony was called off and Hogan rescinded his appointment.

On a more festive note, the House welcomed its newest member, Democrat Robbyn Lewis of Baltimore. She was sworn in Tuesday to replace former 46th District Del. Pete Hammen, who joined the administration of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Baltimore still enters the session with less than a full team. Besides the 40th District seat Brown was going to take, Democratic former Del. Jill Carter's 41st District seat has to be filled. Carter also resigned to join the Pugh administration. Meanwhile, the status of ailing Democratic Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, of the 41st, remains unresolved.

The new session begins with significant changes to House and Senate committee lineups.


After two decades of representing Howard County, Del. Shane Pendergrass will wield a chairman's gavel. The veteran Democrat was named this week to head the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

At the same time, Del. Dan Morhaim, the longest-serving physician in the legislature, lost his membership and subcommittee chairmanship on the same panel. The Baltimore County Democrat was exiled to the Judiciary Committee after becoming embroiled in an ethics controversy over his ties with the medical marijuana industry, which was overseen by his old committee.

Lawmakers will be grappling with the state's challenges while looking over their shoulder at what's coming at them from Washington.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, predicted "a tough one."

"We have a budget gap to close," she said. "We have concerns about what might happen in Congress with huge [programs] like Medicaid."

With revenues falling short of expectations by more than $500 million, McIntosh said Marylanders shouldn't expect more than tinkering with the tax code.


"I don't see tax cuts coming down the road," she said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, meanwhile, was still reeling from the November election.

"It's a bad feeling," he told Democrats. "I can't stand to watch the news."

Nevertheless, Miller was girding for a veto override fight with Hogan. He predicted that one of the legislature's first actions will be to reinstate a law passed last year increasing the percentage of the state's energy supply customers receive from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

Kipke said he thinks there's some room for compromise with Democrats on at least a few issues. He said cited redistricting reform, transportation funding and fighting heroin and opioid abuse as topics where the two parties might find common ground.

Jennings said he'll watch competing proposals to require companies to allow their workers to earn paid sick leave. Democrats came close to passing a bill last year, and Hogan has announced his own version.


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Jennings said he likes the governor's plan, but wants to see what the Democrats' proposal looks like. Busch described Hogan's plan Tuesday as being "from a different planet."

Despite the GOP's small numbers in the Senate — 14 out of 47 — the party can have an influence on bills that are passed, Jennings said.

"We truly do work as a team on the majority of issues, as long as we can get politics out of the debate on most of this stuff," he said.