Maryland lawmakers will head back Wednesday to the State House in Annapolis amid a resurgent pandemic to sort through an ambitious slate of proposals during their final legislative session before facing voters in this year’s elections across the state.
The coronavirus will cast a shadow over the General Assembly’s session for the third straight year, with lawmakers planning to kick off their work largely online with livestreamed committee hearings in hopes of dodging major omicron outbreaks.
The latest coronavirus wave will add urgency to some relief measures, including efforts to boost the state’s beleaguered health care workforce, craft further aid for industries like tourism and hospitality likely to again be hit hard by this surge, and build an ongoing plan for testing people for the virus.
“COVID was always going to be the top priority for us,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, but the new wave has made it “clear that the health impacts and the stability of our health system is going to be another core component that we’re going to have to be focused on.”
With the June primaries looming, electoral politics also will hold a central place in the minds of many politicians. Many are refining their reelection messages or gearing up to run for higher office, even as a number of major figures, including term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, are heading for the exits.
Among the issues raised as potential priorities this session are a slew of progressive proposals that have been touted by lawmakers for years — legalizing marijuana, major climate change legislation, more protections for renters facing eviction — but have yet to muster enough support to pass.
Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage in the General Assembly and will be able to set the agenda, even over the objections of Hogan and Republican legislators. That includes deciding how to spend a budget surplus bolstered by federal pandemic relief money.
Elections will be among the first orders of business when the session kicks off, as lawmakers finish redrawing their own legislative districts as part of Maryland’s once-a-decade redistricting process.
The politically contentious process will largely be in the hands of the Democratic majority, although Hogan and Republican lawmakers continue to raise complaints of unfairness and partisan gerrymandering. Hogan has called on Democratic lawmakers to set aside their proposals in favor of maps drawn by a multiparty commission Hogan created.
States are required to redraw electoral districts once every 10 years to account for population shifts.
A continued exodus from Baltimore City — which shrank by 5.7% between 2010 and 2020 — will cost the city clout in the General Assembly, with more of the legislature’s 188 seats are allocated to fast-growing parts of the state, especially the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Baltimore is slated to lose two seats in the General Assembly under proposed maps made public just before Christmas. Sen. Cory McCray, a Democrat who chairs Baltimore’s Senate delegation, called trying to defend as much of the city’s political representation as possible in redistricting a priority.
Marijuana will certainly be in the air again in the State House after lawmakers have inched toward legalizing recreational use for several years. Top lawmakers, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Ferguson, have vowed to tackle the issue this session.
The speaker has promised to put the question to voters, something she reiterated with certitude in an interview the week before the session’s start.
“We are going to put a referendum for legalized cannabis on the 2022 general election ballot,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, noting that polling shows a clear majority in Maryland in favor of legalization.
But exactly how a legal market would be regulated, what criminal laws addressing things like black-market sales might look like, how to spend tax revenue from legal sales and what to do about the criminal records of people with past convictions for marijuana offenses remains unclear.
Also unclear: just when those questions might be answered.
The speaker’s proposed referendum would simply ask voters to weigh in on whether they support legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use. House Judiciary Chairman Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who’s sponsoring the legislation, said a work group he’s leading would have a framework of bills in time for the 2023 session.
Some lawmakers and outside advocates, however, have pressed for the General Assembly to legalize marijuana directly, instead of putting the issue on the ballot and waiting for voters to weigh in.
Meanwhile, others like Ferguson and Sen. Jill P. Carter, both Baltimore City Democrats, have argued legislators should hammer out the details of how Maryland would legalize marijuana before sending the question to voters.
“I don’t think we should ask Marylanders to vote on an issue in which we’re not telling them the full story,” Ferguson said. “Marylanders deserve to know the details of what legalization would look like if they’re going to be voting on it at the ballot box.”
Environmental advocates are hoping to finally pass major climate legislation after a comprehensive package aimed at sharply cutting Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions fell short last spring amid disagreements between key senators and delegates.
Adding funding for renewable energy, improving school facilities and replacing the state’s vehicle fleet — and thousands of local school buses — with cleaner, electric-powered engines are on lawmakers’ wish lists. Sen. Paul Pinsky, who’s sponsored the Senate version of the package and chairs the key committee, said he hoped to also include measures to phase out natural gas in new buildings.
Pinksy, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about a deal this year after several meetings to work out differences.
“We have to be bold and I think they understand that,” Pinsky said of discussions with House Environment and Transportation Chairman Kumar Barve.
Housing and evictions
Lawmakers last year expanded access to free legal aid for renters facing potential eviction — but didn’t outline long-term funding to pay for that help. Among the bills that fell short was a proposal from state Attorney General Brian Frosh to substantially hike the fees for landlords to file for evictions, aimed at curbing how frequently Maryland landlords turn to the courts when tenants fall behind on rent.
Frosh, a Democrat who’s retiring at the end of the year, said he plans to push the fee hike again.
Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored several of the proposals last year, said two priorities for her this session are allowing judges to put evictions on hold if renters have applied for housing aid — preventing landlords from putting families out of their homes in case bureaucratic delays hold up assistance — and finding ways to fund legal aid.
Abortion again an issue
The renewed national battle over abortion rights — fueled by legal challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court that could allow major restrictions on abortion access in conservative states — could reverberate in Maryland. State voters enshrined the right to abortion into law in the 1990s, but several Democratic lawmakers said it’s time to pass measures expanding affordable access to abortion procedures.
Republican opponents like Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County, the GOP leader in the Senate, dismissed efforts to renew the issue as mostly a political stunt to fire up supporters. Abortion is a well-settled issue in Maryland and not currently under fire.
But Democrats note that two-thirds of Maryland counties don’t have a clinic providing abortions.
“The legal right to abortion is not the same as having access to abortion,” said Del. Ariana B. Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat who’s co-sponsoring legislation on the issue. The question isn’t about whether abortion is legal in the state, Kelly noted, but whether it’s “affordable and safe without having to wait a long time and without having to drive too far.”
Democrats also want to make sure Maryland laws and regulations reflect changes in medical practice during the nearly three decades since state lawmakers last took up the issue.
Hogan’s last session
Hogan’s office declined an interview request from The Baltimore Sun for this article. At a news conference Thursday, Hogan said his attention has been focused on dealing with a pair of emergencies — the omicron wave of coronavirus cases and snowstorms that hit the state in the last week — instead of the upcoming legislative session.
But Hogan said he’s discussed a few priorities with legislative leaders for his final full session, including his more “fair” proposal for redistricting, a slate of tax cuts (Republican legislative leaders also said tax cuts are a priority) for business owners and individuals, as well as a package of criminal justice bills that would primarily stiffen penalties for certain firearms offenses.
Hogan has proposed a similar slate of tax and crime initiatives in previous years, but has been unable to win enough support from Democratic lawmakers to pass them into law.