Maryland's Democratic lawmakers unveiled their to-do list for the 2019 General Assembly session on Tuesday, including a pledge to ban the use of plastic foam, raising the minimum wage and cutting prescription drug costs.
House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the teams of legislative leaders in their chambers have agreed in principle to pass about a half-dozen bills, including one outlawing polystyrene packaging.
The legislation would make Maryland the first state in the nation to ban the material, often known by the brand name Styrofoam, although efforts to pass a statewide ban have failed in previous years.
“We are seeing viable alternatives that are much safer, that are environmentally friendly,” said Del. Dereck Davis of Prince George’s County, who is the House Economic Matters Committee chairman.
A number of U.S. cities and counties have banned polystyrene, including the cities of Baltimore and Annapolis last year. Both of those bans go into effect this fall. The Anne Arundel County Council passed a ban last year, but it was vetoed by then-County Executive Steve Schuh.
Environmentalists say the containers find their way into waterways. Many restaurant owners have resisted polystyrene bans, saying they would drive up prices and that littering is the real problem.
Ashley Van Stone, director of Trash Free Maryland, said she noticed a “turning point” in recent months in her discussions with lawmakers about how trash is affecting America’s waterways. She argued foam is not biodegradable and therefore more harmful than other products.
“People are starting to wake up to this issue as a huge environmental challenge we need to tackle,” she said. “The Chesapeake Bay is so integral to our economy. People are seeing what watershed protection now means.”
Other Democratic priorities are:
- Creating a prescription drug price monitoring board and capping out-of-pocket costs of prescriptions for retired state government employees.
- Prohibiting health insurance companies from declining to offer insurance for pre-existing conditions, an element of the federal Affordable Care Act that Democrats fear could be stripped out as part of a court case.
- Raising the minimum age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21.
- Raising the state’s minimum wage from $10.10 per hour to $15 per hour.
- Banning 3D printed guns, also known as “ghost guns,” that people can build themselves.
- Expanding a child care tax credit so that more Marylanders could use it, at a cost of $20 million.
Because Democrats hold large majorities in both chambers, the bills are likely to pass. Democrats also can override any possible vetoes from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, if Miller and Busch keep their party members united.
Democratic leaders cast themselves as protectors of the middle class during a news conference in Annapolis, where a sign proclaimed the seven priorities, including “Make Maryland foam free.”
“We think these pieces of legislation build a stronger middle class here in the state of Maryland, and that’s what we’re all about,” said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.
Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said voters elected more Democrats to the General Assembly, and “we think we have a mandate to move forward for the middle class and working Marylanders.”
Miller said he’d be willing to work with Hogan on some of his priorities, such as crime legislation and tax credits for companies in federally-designated Opportunity Zones.
“But guess what?” Miller said. “He’s going to have to compromise in terms of working men and working women.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
In a statement, Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said: “As with any legislative proposals, the governor is always willing to work with the presiding officers on the important issues facing our citizens.”
Sen. James Rosapepe, chairman of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, compared Maryland Republicans to Republicans in Washington, saying they prioritize tax cuts that don’t help all taxpayers.
“Here in Maryland, Democrats in both houses are saying: Put working people first. Put middle-class people first,” Rosapepe said. “Let’s focus on the day-to-day needs of our people. That’s what this is about. Lots of details, lots of important initiatives. But the question is: Which side are you on? We’re on the side of ordinary Marylanders.”
Republicans disagree with that Democrats have the best proposals for Marylanders.
“Oftentimes, policies that sound good and are for the middle-class or working-class people actually hurt them,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House minority leader. “Republicans continue to advocate for more jobs, better jobs, lower taxes, limited government. We know those are proven philosophies and principles of government that work for everyone.”
Republicans in the House of Delegates announced their priorities last week, including a state income tax cut, a registry for violent repeat offenders and single-member districts in the General Assembly.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.