Maryland lawmakers face budget gap, political warfare in new session

Lawmakers left Annapolis last year with a modest budget surplus and talk of a bipartisan tax cut.

This year, they return to dismal financial prospects, readied for partisan warfare.


The surplus has evaporated, as have the calls for cooperation that heralded the start of the past two General Assembly sessions.

Leaders of both major parties fear policy debate could be overshadowed by political maneuvering that jump-starts the 2018 campaign season.


"The claws are coming out, and this isn't going to be pretty," said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican.

The agenda Maryland lawmakers will consider in the annual 90-day session that begins Wednesday is sprawling and has implications for families and businesses across the state.

It includes budget cuts, forcing many businesses to offer paid sick leave, and addressing the escalating opioid epidemic. Lawmakers also plan to tackle inequity in the criminal justice system and the lack of diversity among licensed medical marijuana business owners. And they will wrestle over environmental policy, particularly a ban on the natural gas extraction method known as fracking.

Maryland's attorney general is backing an effort to punish drug companies for price gouging, and the state teachers union is pushing a cap on the time devoted to standardized testing.

With state revenue falling short of projections, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and leading Democrats in the legislature must agree on $544 million worth of spending cuts for the next year — 3 percent of the state's $17.2 billion general fund. Those tough budget decisions will take place amid a potentially toxic political climate.

Democrats, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, contend that the governor has reneged on his promises of bipartisanship.

"He's gradually burning my bridges — the bridges I had built with him — and he's never built bridges to Speaker Busch," Miller told The Baltimore Sun.

In a separate interview, Busch said he and the governor have not spoken since April.


Hogan declined to be interviewed for this article.

His spokesman, Doug Mayer, said Busch has not requested a conversation.

Mayer said there are policies "we're never going to agree on," but noted that Hogan has promoted his version of policy ideas traditionally championed by Democrats — manufacturing tax breaks and a paid sick leave proposal.

"The governor's hopeful we can get things done," Mayer said.

Annapolis leaders of both parties will keep an eye on Washington, where President-elect Donald J. Trump and congressional Republicans could make sweeping changes with major consequences for Maryland.

Maryland Republicans are girding to protect Hogan's agenda and high approval ratings, while Democrats are intent on reclaiming the governor's mansion.


"I hope this session isn't the beginning of the election, but I'm very concerned that it might be," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican.

Democrats will open the session attempting to override Hogan's veto of a renewable energy law. The measure would require more of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources, but the governor has objected to the surcharge it places on rate payers.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders declared the governor's top priority dead on arrival.

Hogan wants the legislature to repeal a law, passed over his veto last year, that requires the governor to publicly score transportation projects and justify which ones he funds.

The governor contends the law is so cumbersome that he will be forced to cancel most transportation projects in the state. Advocates say he's mischaracterized the law.

The governor's daily social media posts offer dire predictions of the catastrophic consequences of what he calls the "road kill bill." Meanwhile, he dismisses a provision of the statute that explicitly keeps final decisions on which projects are funded in his administration's hands.


He's threatening to propose a doomsday transportation plan this year — excluding projects in most counties — and to blame it on Democrats.

Miller fumed last week over web ads promoted by the governor's political arm, Change Maryland, which accused the Senate leader of trying to scuttle a Calvert County bridge Miller says he's been trying to get replaced for 20 years.

He accused Hogan of "governing by Facebook" and making hay over a bill that does nothing more than promote transparency.

Hogan demands the law's repeal. Busch called that a "nonstarter" in the House.

The tone shift among Maryland's political leaders has outside observers questioning what can get done.

"It's got the feeling of a pre-election session — the sense that the stakes are much higher than they ought to be," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College of Maryland.


Meanwhile, the Legislative Black Caucus has reorganized and plans to flex its 48-member-strong political power in ways that had eluded the group before. Caucus chairwoman Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat, said a top priority is legislation to effectively halt Maryland's medical cannabis industry until more minority-owned businesses are on track to get licenses.

"What we're doing will not cause any additional delays," Glenn said. "We want to be able to open up the process so that we can ensure some racial diversity in the industry."

Nearly all of the 22 companies awarded preliminary licenses to grow or process the drug recently formed a trade alliance and hired the prominent Annapolis lobbying firm Manis, Canning & Associates.

One of the key environmental issues this session will be how to regulate fracking. A moratorium on the natural gas extraction method will soon expire, but environmentalists contend that regulations adopted by the Hogan administration are too weak.

State Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, is planning to sponsor legislation calling for a complete ban.

The main obstacle could be Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the Senate committee that would consider a ban. The Baltimore Democrat said she's not happy with the proposed regulations either, but would rather see an extended moratorium, allowing time for stricter rules to be written and codified in a future session.


Hogan's spokesman would not reveal whether the governor will seek broad tax cuts, nor how he would pay for them given the state's half-billion-dollar budget hole.

"We'll continue to look for ways to deliver tax relief," Mayer said.

Neither of the presiding officers ruled out enacting tax cuts, and Miller said a group of business leaders is working on a resolution to a thorny sales tax issue that derailed talks last year. But each was grim about prospects for broad reductions.

"It's going to be very tough to have any kind of tax cut." Busch said.

The legislature's chief analyst said flatly that there's "no room" for major tax cuts.

"We may be able to play around the margins, but there's no opportunity in the forecast as it exists now for significant reductions to revenue," said Warren Deschenaux, executive director of the Department of Legislative Services.


Last week, Hogan announced plans to again seek a tax credit for manufacturing companies that open in certain areas with high unemployment, among other economic proposals. He did not offer an estimated price tag for his plan.

Mayer said Hogan will continue to ask lawmakers to eliminate spending mandates that consume much of his budgeting discretion; the legislature, which enacted the mandates to ensure minimum levels of spending on priorities such as education and health care, so far has not been persuaded.

While the session may be starting in an atmosphere of partisan division, some are hopeful it needn't end that way.

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Del. Kumar Barve, who chairs the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said his panel has had success working out compromises with Hogan the past two years. He'd like to see it happen again on fracking and other issues.

"Can he have a productive year? Yes, he can," the Montgomery County Democrat said of the governor.

"It really depends on him, because we've shown a willingness to work with the administration."