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Politics

Democrats seek to wield increased power as General Assembly tackles recreational pot, paid leave and gun control

Cannabis, abortion rights and gun control are expected to dominate debates by state lawmakers in the coming months as the Maryland General Assembly begins its annual legislative session Wednesday.

The 90-day lawmaking sprint will be the first for Gov.-elect Wes Moore and the first time in eight years that Democrats control both legislative chambers and the chief executive’s office. The party’s legislators will return in even greater numbers than recent years, when supermajorities allowed them to pass landmark legislation to address issues such as climate change and access to abortion without Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s support.

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Legislative leaders, while equipped with new authority to reallocate funds in a governor’s proposed budget, are preparing their agendas in the expectation that their priorities will largely align with those of Moore, who will be inaugurated Jan. 18.

Among the topics on their to-do lists: Hammering out the details of major laws passed last year, like recreational cannabis legalization and a paid family and medical leave program; following through on campaign promises to raise the minimum wage, enshrine a right to an abortion in the state constitution and develop a guaranteed “year of service” program; and find remedies for gun-control policies altered by court rulings.

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Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, talks Thursday about the 2023 General Assembly session in Annapolis.

Recreational cannabis legalization — and the creation of a lucrative industry along with it — may be the largest, most pressing issue facing state lawmakers because of a July 1 deadline when it will become legal in the state.

Legislators set that date last year when they wrote an initial law and a constitutional amendment, which voters approved in November by a wide margin, to make recreational use legal. The law will permit possession of up to 1.5 ounces and growing two plants at home.

Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat and chair of the city’s House delegation, said lawmakers will need to have a “nuanced conversation” about cannabis that shouldn’t be rushed for the sake of getting it in stores by the summer.

“We can’t allow expediency to be the reason we sacrifice equity,” Smith said.

Maryland’s population is more diverse than those of other states that have legalized recreational cannabis, so its implementation here will fail if it doesn’t directly address the past harms of criminalization and prevent further inequity in the industry, Smith said. For instance, while 31% of Maryland’s population is Black and Baltimore’s is 62% Black, none of the medical marijuana dispensaries in the city have majority Black ownership.

Getting Black-owned businesses on the list of license-holders and making sure tax revenues lift up communities that dealt with criminalization are essential, she said. Questions around cannabis use by people applying for homes and jobs will also be a priority, she said.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Hershey, a Queen Anne’s County Republican, said employment issues related to cannabis include questions about drug testing policies and liability if, for example, a construction worker is injured while operating heavy machinery, but was using legal cannabis at the time.

Other issues he’s concerned about are the number and location of cannabis dispensaries across the state. He noted one advocacy group’s recent projection of 300 stores across the state seemed “enormous” to him.

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Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, speaks Tuesday about the 2023 legislative session in Annapolis.

State Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore said he’s confident the chambers will be able to develop and get the recreational cannabis marketplace operational by July 1. But such a large undertaking — from initial licensing issues to reigning in an unregulated black market — could take years to address fully.

“I don’t think we’ll be finished with cannabis. I think it’ll be like any other issue with alcohol or tobacco. Every session, we tackle something about alcohol licensing, something about tobacco use or prevention — you name it,” Ferguson said.

Another “massive implementation issue” originating from legislation passed last year will be the next stages of the paid family and medical leave program, Ferguson said. The program, funded by payroll taxes, will offer workers at Maryland businesses with 15 or more employees up to 12 weeks of paid time off.

One unresolved issue from last session, Ferguson said, is determining the split between employees’ and employers’ contributions to the program. The other will be deciding when employees need to begin paying into the program to build up a fund and start using it in 2025. That’s when lawmakers said last year it would go into effect.

Another major effort that legislators could try to get over the finish line is a program that offers a guaranteed paid year of service for all high school seniors — a top campaign topic for Moore. The incoming governor has not yet laid out how the program would be structured, but Moore said in an interview Thursday that he will both commit budget resources and working with partner organizations to get the program started this year.

Ferguson, who has long supported service programs, said the Senate put up to $20 million into a “year of service” initiative called Maryland Corps last year and he’s excited to work with the administration on a “broader version.”

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Potentially straightforward issues, meanwhile, could come in the form of raising the state minimum wage to $15 this year and securing a right to an abortion in the state constitution. Both policies were leading talking points for Moore during his campaign and they’re expected to draw widespread support from Democrats.

The minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $15 an hour in 2025; legislators are expected to consider bumping it up early from the current $13.25.

Albin Dragidella shampoos the carpets Friday of the House of Delegates chamber at the Maryland State House in Annapolis.

And while abortion access is not at risk in Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade after Maryland’s legislative session last year made it a higher priority for Democrats in the state.

During the 2022 session, the General Assembly overrode Hogan’s veto of The Abortion Care Access Act. It allows doctors, nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, licensed certified midwives, physician assistants and other certified licensed medical practitioners to do abortion procedures. It also requires that $3.5 million be allocated annually in the state budget to fund a training program for clinicians interested in providing abortion services beyond medication. The funding for the program will be available July 1.

Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat representing Baltimore County, sponsored a bill last session that would have allowed voters to determine if “the fundamental right to reproductive liberty,” including prenatal care and access to contraception and abortion procedures, should be enshrined in the state’s constitution. The House passed the bill, but Ferguson didn’t bring it up for a vote in the Senate.

Ferguson said the focus was on getting the Abortion Care Access Act passed, which they did with just enough votes to later override Hogan’s veto.

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“We definitely had the votes then for that bill,” he said of the act. “It was close, but we did it by the skin of our teeth and got through it, and I think the constitutional amendment was a harder case.”

Jones plans to reintroduce the constitutional amendment bill again this session and expects it will pass, based on discussions she’s had with lawmakers who voted against it last year.

“No one knows everyone’s story in terms of background, and I said that to some people on the other side who were against it,” said Jones. “I said, ‘You’re entitled to your opinion, but ... the other person also is entitled. You don’t know what’s going on in their life.’”

Hershey, the Senate Republican leader, said he expects to debate the merits of the constitutional amendment.

“We look at a lot of health care issues that aren’t in the Maryland constitution, so I don’t know that this needs to be there. I know that individuals feel that it’s necessary,” Hershey said.

The U.S. Supreme Court also struck down Maryland’s concealed carry gun permit policy in 2022, deeming it unconstitutional. Before the June opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, Maryland required people applying for such a permit to demonstrate why they needed it.

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“The scary proposition in my mind that we have said that more guns might be the answer. I just don’t think it is,” the Senate president said.

Ferguson said that there have been discussions regarding how to reconfigure the concealed carry policy.

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“The bottom line — from our perspective — we want to make sure that what does get passed will keep our communities and the police safe,” said Jones.

Momentum is building for what could be another landmark bill this session, one that would change the statute of limitation for child sexual abuse. A renewed spotlight on the issue came in recent months during arguments over the release of the Office of the Maryland Attorney General’s report into sexual abuse and past abuse cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Under current law, survivors of child sexual abuse can sue their abuser up until their 38th birthday or within three years of an abuser’s criminal conviction.

House Economic Matters Committee Chair C.T. Wilson, a Democrat from Charles County, is reintroducing legislation that would create a two-year “look-back window” to allow older survivors to sue.

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The legislation, which was introduced during three previous sessions and passed the House twice, has never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. But Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith, a Democrat from Montgomery County, told The Baltimore Sun last month that he plans to support Wilson’s bill in 2023.

According to Jones, there have been discussions with the Senate about a path forward for the bill.

“They got their information enlightened,” she said of those conversations.


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