Advertisement
Politics

Grocery store booze, gun penalties and vanishing texts among issues unlikely to pass Maryland legislature after crossover day

As the Maryland General Assembly’s annual 90-day lawmaking session grinds into its final three weeks, there remains plenty of time for politicians to hammer out deals and line up votes on everything from leadership’s major priorities to a backbencher’s most modest proposals.

Little remains settled, with only a single piece of legislation — a monthlong gas tax holiday — having made it to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk so far this year.

Advertisement

But when the clock ticked past a midnight deadline Monday — the end of so-called “crossover day” — the odds grew far longer for any bill that hadn’t passed at least one legislative chamber. Bills missing that deadline still could become law, but they face higher procedural hurdles and would need new jolts of political support to be revived.

Some ideas that haven’t gained traction, such as a tax cut for retirees, remain part of negotiations between legislative leaders and the governor’s staff. But many other proposals still languishing in committees appear unlikely to pass this spring.

Advertisement

Here are five legislative priorities that have failed to gain steam.

Decoupling the gas tax from future inflation?

Swift, unanimous action by state lawmakers and Gov. Larry Hogan late last week immediately slashed Maryland’s 36-cent-per-gallon gas tax to zero for 30 days in response to rising fuel prices and broader concerns about inflation.

But Republican-led efforts to effectively whittle down the state’s gasoline and diesel taxes over the coming years have sputtered.

Maryland’s per-gallon fees on fuel automatically rise [or fall] in response to changes in the Consumer Price Index and the average cost of gas, a tweak aimed at accounting for the steady decline in the value of a penny over time due to inflation. The gas tax has risen an average of 1.5 cents per year since the automatic increases were passed in 2013.

Republicans pitched bills to either pause or abolish those increases as a way to help Marylanders deal with rising costs. The average family would see modest savings from shaving a few pennies off the tax over several years — but the state’s transportation trust fund would take a projected multimillion-dollar hit.

While the bipartisan temporary gas tax holiday sailed through at near-record speed, the proposals to freeze the per-gallon rate appear stuck on empty.

No more secretive disappearing text messages for public officials?

After news that Gov. Larry Hogan’s office regularly uses Wickr, a messaging app that allows users to automatically and periodically delete messages, Democrats in the General Assembly pursued legislation that would ensure such ephemeral communications would be retained as public records.

But proposals in both chambers have stalled amid what one sponsor described as tepid interest.

Advertisement

“It was challenging [in] that there were not more advocates who showed up to support the bill or greater concern from the community,” said Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties.

On the House side, Del. Vaughn Stewart agreed the proposal’s prospects are “not looking great.”

But Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the Senate committee reviewing the legislation, said he doesn’t believe the bills are “absolutely dead.” Lawmakers struggled with how broadly to define the sorts of communications to capture under the Maryland Public Information Act, he said.

The bills would update state law to clarify that the Office of the Governor is a “unit of government” and so required to retain and archive some records. The Hogan administration had argued that the governor is the head of government, not a unit of government.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci has called the bill “blatantly partisan and hypocritical,” suggesting more transparency also is needed in the legislative process.

Harsher penalties for gun crimes?

Hogan and his fellow Republicans in the legislature once again proposed a slate of harsher criminal penalties for crimes involving firearms, claiming tougher prison terms would drive down violent crime.

Advertisement

The proposed package includes longer mandatory minimum prison sentences for people convicted of crimes involving firearms, especially those with prior convictions, and make it more likely people caught with a gun while on probation or parole would end up in prison. The bill also makes it harder for some people accused of offenses involving firearms to be released on bail.

Very similar proposals passed the state Senate in 2020 and 2021 — but failed both times in the House of Delegates. Leaders of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly ignored Hogan’s attempt to push the package when lawmakers met for a weeklong special session in December to redraw the state’s congressional districts.

This time, Democratic senators opted to wait and see if the House of Delegates took unexpected new interest in the proposed package before deciding whether to vote on it yet again.

Delegates didn’t, and so Hogan’s priority crime legislation looks set to whither once again.

Several GOP backers called themselves “frustrated” at what they see as a refusal to seriously address a crisis of violence, particularly in Baltimore. But plenty of critics, who viewed the bill as recycled tough-on-crime legislation that drove up prison populations while failing to cut crime, are happy to see it stall.

Should convicted police officers lose their pensions?

Among the most controversial proposals initially included in last year’s landmark slate of police reforms was a proposal to allow the state to strip criminally convicted officers of their pension benefits as part of their punishment.

Advertisement

Supporters argued that corrupt or abusive police officers shouldn’t be entitled to pension payouts funded by the same taxpayers whose trust they betrayed. But opponents objected, noting that other state employees don’t face similar potential sanctions and calling it a “mean-spirited” provision that could leave officers and their families destitute due to a criminal conviction.

Maryland Policy & Politics

Maryland Policy & Politics

Weekly

Keep up to date with Maryland politics, elections and important decisions made by federal, state and local government officials.

Lawmakers abandoned the proposal last year but a number of Democrats — led by Sen. Jill Carter of Baltimore and Dels. Jheanelle K. Wilkins of Montgomery County and Wanika Fisher of Prince George’s County — brought it back for this year’s session.

But due to apparently scant interest among most lawmakers the proposal hasn’t made it out of committee in either chamber.

Selling beer or wine in a grocery store?

There are few issues more politically delicate in Maryland than the state’s complex alcohol laws, with even relatively minor tweaks of the regulations risking the potential ire of the patchwork of outfits — bars, restaurants, liquor stores, craft breweries, distributors and more — with a proprietary interest in the business of booze.

So perhaps the odds weren’t good from the beginning for an attempt to let grocery stores statewide sell wine and beer, something that’s a common practice in many states but forbidden in most of Maryland.

The proposal, sponsored by Baltimore Sen. Cory McCray and Montgomery County Del. Lily Qi, would’ve let Maryland voters decide by putting the question on the statewide ballot in November.

Advertisement

But to get onto the ballot the proposal first had to get by the General Assembly. And to get by the General Assembly, it had to move out of a committee. McCray’s and Qi’s bills managed neither.

Pour one out, or pop a bottle, depending on your view.


Advertisement