One thing's certain about the General Assembly session that opens Wednesday: It will feature a budget fight.
Otherwise, the 435th session of Maryland's legislature is unpredictable.
Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has been singularly focused on state spending, and he broke with custom by not telling General Assembly leaders what other issues he will pursue.
Democrats, who have dominated all branches of state government, will work with a Republican governor for the first time in eight years. Adding to the uncertainty: The legislature will have its the biggest freshman class in at least two decades.
The only issue sure to command attention is a clash over how to close an estimated $750 million shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1.
Funding for transportation projects, colleges, K-12 education, aid to local governments and health programs appear most vulnerable to cuts, legislative leaders said.
"The whole session is going to center around the budget," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat. "The train's coming down the tracks, regardless of the policies people want to talk about."
Predicting what Hogan might cut in his budget is a guessing game, especially since he has never held elected office before.
"He has no voting record," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat. "People don't know his prejudices, his partiality."
Hogan's campaign focused almost exclusively on curbing state spending, rolling back taxes and improving Maryland's business climate. Since his upset win in November, he has remained silent about legislative priorities except to tell reporters last week he will introduce an unspecified tax cut after he takes office Jan. 21.
Yet Hogan's warning that the state's budget needs "strong medicine" has put much of Annapolis on the defensive, as lobbyists, lawmakers and advocates prepare to protect causes and state spending they champion. Conversely, fiscal conservatives and business groups who have been pushing for tax cuts see a window of opportunity and plan to be more aggressive this year.
"We're going to have a better shot at a more bipartisan legislature because we have a Republican governor," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke. "We're going to have a budget that the state of Maryland can afford, instead of one that rose too quickly and ran up our debt."
Maryland's governor may propose the budget, but he needs the General Assembly to approve it. And despite several key losses in November, Democrats still hold a significant majority in both chambers.
"The budget is going to be a gigantic bone of contention. It's where all the action is going to be," said Del. Kumar Barve, a Democrat and incoming chair of the new House Environment & Transportation Committee.
"Everyone's going to be playing defense," Barve said.
Proponents of the taxes on cigarettes, mini-cigars and alcohol that pay for some health programs have largely abandoned plans to push for a further tobacco tax increase. Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Health Care for All, said, "The No. 1 goal for 2015 is to keep the progress we've made."
Advocates of progressive causes have begun reframing their arguments in budget terms. Environmental leaders plan a pitch that loosening regulations now would create larger cleanup costs later. The American Civil Liberties Union's push to legalize marijuana and increase police accountability will stress how those policies can save taxpayer money.
The state's teachers union will begin airing radio ads Monday promoting K-12 education as key to an improved business climate.
"If [Hogan's] talking about jobs and the economy, then we need to be crystal-clear about the connection between K-12 education and jobs and the economy," said Sean Johnson, government relations director for the Maryland State Education Association.
While the budget may suck up the air in the room, advocates and lawmakers have scores of other issues they will bring up for debate. Natural gas drilling known as fracking, repeal of the "rain tax" and regulations to control chicken manure will dominate the environmental committees. Body cameras and police accountability will be debated by the criminal justice committees. Advocates want to fix last year's marijuana decriminalization law, which effectively legalized small amounts of pot, but didn't extend the change to cover rolling papers and other paraphernalia.
Hogan has pledged to address Maryland's heroin epidemic, though he hasn't said how. Economic development groups will push an "angel investor" tax credit to help startup companies, while environmentalists will push to increase the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources. Hogan said he will push changes to encourage charter schools, but he has not elaborated.
It's not clear, though, whether anything will get accomplished that's not specifically related to state spending. Unlike many of his predecessors, Hogan during his campaign did not promise action on a wide range of issues. Maryland Democrats, meanwhile, passed many initiatives on their to-do lists during O'Malley's two terms. And the legislative process will be slowed this year as many new lawmakers will be learning how to do their jobs.
More than 40 percent of the House of Delegates will be serving a first term; a quarter will be new to the Senate.
"People are still figuring out where their offices and parking spaces are," said Johnson, of the teachers union.
Mathew Palmer, a senior vice president at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said his organization will push a cut in the corporate tax rate and other tax relief for businesses, although he sees the push as a multi-year lobbying effort.
"I don't believe that you're going to see big policy issues moving forward," Palmer said. "You're going to see bills introduced — you're just not going to see them pass."
Everyone wants to figure out the new governor.
"Is he a graphs guy? Is he a report type of person? We just don't know," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, president of the conservation group 1000 Friends of Maryland. "We're all in the same boat. … How do we have these types of conversations?"
Divining how Hogan will interact with the legislature has also become something of an art.
"My impression of the governor-elect is, I don't think he's looking for a big fight," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, incoming chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. But, he added, "the big fights are budget fights."
Del. Maggie McIntosh, incoming chair of the House Appropriations Committee, hopes to combat the notion that Maryland's financial situation is dire.
"I think it's worth setting the record straight. This is not a crisis," McIntosh said. She pointed out that the budget committees routinely find $250 million to $500 million in cuts — amounts that would more than halve next year's shortfall.
Yet the Assembly's budget leaders are bracing for cuts unpopular with many in the Democratic caucus.
Midyear cuts presented by O'Malley last week have already frustrated some interest groups. To help close the estimated $420 million shortfall in the current budget year, O'Malley successfully sought 2 percent across-the-board cuts to many state offices and trimmed millions more from higher education.
Those cuts reduced the rates paid to doctors who treat Medicaid patients, riling the state medical society. If rates are cut further, "We're not going to have enough doctors to see the patients, and it's going to be an enormous problem," said Gene Ransom, the group's CEO.
But for now, Ransom said, "We're heading in with smiles and optimism."
Spending and taxes are expected to dominate an otherwise unpredictable General Assembly session, which begins Wednesday. Here are some of the issues on the table:
Gov.-elect Larry Hogan campaigned almost exclusively on economic issues, promising to curb state spending, roll back taxes and improve Maryland's business climate. When the Republican takes office Jan. 21, he'll face a $750 million budget shortfall and has cautioned residents to prepare for painful cuts. Many in Annapolis expect local governments to get less cash, higher education to see cuts that might cause tuition to rise, and key projects such as the Red Line to be postponed if not scrapped. Hogan said his budget would include some type of tax cut but did not elaborate.
Maryland saw record funding for education under the O'Malley administration, and education advocates are girding for a fight as Hogan looks to trim spending. Colleges have received big subsidies over the past eight years to keep tuition down, and some believe they could be vulnerable to cuts. For K-12 education, legislative leaders expect debate on whether to continue using a geographic cost-of-education formula that sends extra money to some districts, including Baltimore. Hogan has said he plans to push changes to promote charter schools.
A spike in deaths from heroin overdoses and rising crime linked to the drug prompted Hogan to promise action, though he has not offered specifics. Legislative leaders expect debate on how to best combat the epidemic. Among the options: tougher penalties for dealers, more resources for police and better treatment for addicts. Health reform advocates hope to continue expanding access to insurance. The state medical society says cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates could make it hard for low-income patients to find doctors.
Proponents hope to move forward with fracking in Western Maryland, while critics still want a ban on such natural gas drilling. Hogan has said he will seek to repeal the stormwater fee, or "rain tax," which raises money to keep polluted stormwater out of the bay, but key Democrats will fight to keep the fee. New regulations designed to curb pollution from chicken manure spread on fields have become controversial, pitting environmentalists against farmers who find the rules too costly.
Maryland raised its gas tax in 2013, and legislative leaders expect a fight over how to spend the new revenue. Hogan has stressed the need to improve roads and bridges, while business groups and others favor mass transit projects already in the pipeline. Hogan has not said whether he'll continue to fund the Red Line in Baltimore or the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.
Police accountability is expected to be a major issue in the session. Debate is likely on whether to weaken the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, which police defend as necessary and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says makes it hard to discipline officers. State funding for police body cameras could emerge as another area of debate. Key lawmakers plan to revisit last year's law that decriminalized marijuana but did not legalize possession of marijuana pipes and other paraphernalia