Maryland’s elected officials, along with their family and friends, swarmed the halls of the historic State House in Annapolis on Wednesday to kick off the 445th session of the Maryland General Assembly.
“We have a lot to do in the next 90 days, so let’s get to work,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, told new and reelected delegates after they were sworn in and chose her to again lead the chamber.
In the Senate, Democratic Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore was also reelected to the top spot in his chamber. He told his colleagues the new session signified “turning the page” both from the 2022 campaign season to a time of policymaking, but also from years of coronavirus pandemic restrictions to a more open and accessible legislative process.
“The Senate is not returning to the status quo,” Ferguson said. “In fact, it is modernizing, improving our previous processes and expanding access so the people sitting in this chamber can have the single greatest impact this year for their constituents.”
This session is poised to be a boon for Democrats, who placed a woman or person of color in all of the state’s top elected positions and picked up several seats in each chamber.
Many of those new officials — Gov.-elect Wes Moore, Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller, Attorney General Anthony Brown and Comptroller-elect Brooke Lierman — were among the prominent figures who roamed the capitol and watched in the chambers as the session began. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, new Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin were among the others.
The legislators came to Annapolis after being elected in November to four-year terms, some of them representing new constituents following redistricting, which occurs every 10 years because of the census. Both delegates and senators receive an annual salary of $50,330.
In recent weeks, Jones and Ferguson have rattled off an ambitious list of legislative priorities, including transportation and housing reform, improving gun control and regulating the recreational cannabis industry that’s set to begin July 1 in the state. The legislators also are looking ahead to next week, following Moore’s inauguration Jan. 18, when he’ll release details of his legislative and budget priorities.
The incoming governor has been tight-lipped on his specific policy goals for his first session but offered a few new details Wednesday during a forum on the session hosted by The Daily Record in Annapolis.
Moore said there are close to 10,000 vacant state jobs and he’ll aim to hire workers over the next year for about half of those positions. Moore has said he believes part of the reason the state has a budget surplus is because the administration of outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan didn’t fill or eliminated positions that Moore considers critical to state agency functions.
He also said Wednesday that reviewing state employees’ salaries and benefits will be part of the process of putting together his budget plan.
Following Moore’s appearance at the event, Jones and Ferguson spoke and agreed that filling job vacancies at state government agencies is a priority. They, too, anticipated discussing increasing salaries for state workers during budget negotiations.
Ferguson emphasized it also will be essential for Moore to appoint capable cabinet secretaries to lead and recruit in the face of these existing vacancies.
“It’s not just salaries,” he said. “It’s going to take looking at soup to nuts how we recruit the right people.”
Moore, during the forum, was pushed on whether he would keep a campaign promise to immediately release $3.5 million in state funds approved last year to train additional clinicians to perform abortions. Hogan withheld the money after the General Assembly passed a law, without the governor’s signature, to expand abortion access in Maryland.
Moore had vowed to release that money on his first day in office. Asked Wednesday when he would do so, he did not explicitly say, but said his administration would be busy getting to work on the day after the inauguration.
Jones and Ferguson said they anticipate that the funding would be released soon after Moore takes office.
While watching the event, Senate Minority Leader Steve Hershey of Queen Anne’s County said he expects Republicans will be given a seat at the table in discussing issues with the Moore administration. In regard to Moore’s priority of hiring more state workers, Hershey said GOP legislators would like to make sure they use data to see which areas of government “are not performing up to standards.”
“If data is really driving ‘We need to be better in certain areas,’ then sure, let’s get on board, because the services that Maryland provides help everyone,” he said. “But otherwise, we are going to provide the opposition when we need to, which is what we’ve done in the past and will continue to do, and on issues that we can work together with, we’ll do that.”
In the Senate chamber, 46 members — one fewer than normal, as Moore has asked Prince George’s County Democrat Paul Pinsky to head the Maryland Energy Administration — took their oaths of office and celebrated Ferguson’s unanimous reelection as senate president.
Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the 39-year-old Ferguson is competent, tough and able to “play Senate psychologist to 46 other senators.”
“[Ferguson] faced a combination of difficult circumstances that few, if any, Senate presidents have ever faced in Maryland history,” said Feldman, referring to the pandemic, which reached Maryland during Ferguson’s first months in the post in the 2020 session. “He was not rattled.”
The chamber also elected one new member of its leadership, Sen. Malcolm Augustine. He replaced fellow Prince George’s County Democrat Melony Griffith as Senate president pro tempore, the president’s second-in-command who leads the chamber in the president’s absence.
Another member sworn in Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Susan Lee of Montgomery County, will be replaced because Moore plans to nominate her as secretary of state. The secretary of state certifies major party candidates during presidential primary elections and works with the governor’s office to put into force executive orders, extraditions, and pardons and commutations, among other functions. Lee’s replacement as senator will be nominated by her county’s Democratic central committee, with Moore making the formal appointment.
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In the House, all 141 members were sworn in. Del. Marc Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat, was named the chamber’s majority leader, replacing former Democratic Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery, who resigned after Moore selected him as his chief legislative officer. His replacement as delegate, Bernice Mireku-North, was appointed earlier this month.
Members of the House nominated Jones to resume her role as speaker and Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, who represents Dorchester and Wicomico counties, to continue as speaker pro tem and lead the House if Jones is absent.
Baltimore Del. Stephanie Smith, in her remarks as Jones was nominated, called her the “epitome of class, dignity and grace” and the “jewel of Baltimore County.”
Hundreds of bills that lawmakers in both chambers had filed before the session were assigned to committees Wednesday afternoon for consideration. Lawmakers are expected to start holding hearings next week on legislation.
Both before and after the official legislative business, the House and Senate floors buzzed with excitement as lawmakers chatted, took selfies and, for some, played with their young children who made the trip for the ceremonial day.
For Cardin, who spent two decades in the House of Delegates — including eight years as speaker — before he entered Congress in 1987, it was something of a homecoming.
“These were my best years. I love being a United States senator. There’s nothing like it. The opportunities I have are unparalleled,” Cardin said in an interview. “But there was something special about this place.”