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8 key issues facing Maryland lawmakers during the 2020 General Assembly session

Maryland’s 188 state lawmakers open their annual 90-day General Assembly session Wednesday at the State House in Annapolis. From education reform to thoroughbred racing to sports betting, here’s a look at at some of the key issues they’ll be facing.

New leadership

State senators and delegates will look up to new leaders on the rostrum for the first time in years.

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House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County, led the House from 2003 until he died on the second-to-last day of last year’s General Assembly session. In a special May 1 session, delegates elected Baltimore County Democrat Adrienne A. Jones to succeed him.

Across the hall, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller plans to turn over his gavel after more than three decades of leadership. The Calvert County Democrat will return to his seat on the floor of the chamber as Democratic Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore is expected to be elected Senate president.

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Jones and Ferguson have each spent time this year traveling the state, meeting with lawmakers and expanding their knowledge of issues in different regions.

Education reform

Leaders of the General Assembly’s Democratic majority have vowed to pass a law creating a new funding formula for public schools to pay for additional programs such as expanding prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, improving students’ career and college readiness, raising teacher salaries and supporting schools with concentrations of students from low-income families.

The programs, recommended by the Kirwan Commission, would be phased in over 10 years, and eventually cost an additional $4 billion annually — $2.8 billion from the state and $1.2 billion from local governments.

How to pay for the state’s portion of the extra education spending will be a key debate in the General Assembly. Lawmakers could consider raising money by legalizing sports betting, reinstituting a higher income tax on millionnaires and ending certain tax incentives and credits for businesses. Democratic leaders have pledged not to support an across-the-board increase in the state’s income, property or sales taxes.

School construction

Hand-in-hand with improving classroom instruction is improving school buildings, Democratic leaders say.

Both Democratic lawmakers and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan have endorsed versions of a plan to borrow $2.2 billion over five years to address a backlog of school construction requests. The money would be paid back using $125 million each year that would come from a portion of casino revenues set aside for education.

Pimlico and the Preakness

A plan by the city of Baltimore, the company that owns the Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park tracks, and a horse owners’ group would turn Pimlico over to a new nonprofit entity and remodel it into a multisport and entertainment venue in Northwest Baltimore.

Laurel Park, in Anne Arundel County, would remain the home of year-round thoroughbred racing in Maryland and also would get a face-lift.

The plan would require multiple changes in state law, including changing how some of the casino-funded subsidies for racing are used. Democratic leaders say they expect a bill to pass, though Hogan hasn’t offered his opinion.

Flavored vaping liquids

Lawmakers could ban sweet flavored vaping liquids that are appealing to children, as alarm bells continue to ring about the dangers of vaping.

Maryland lawmakers will consider a state ban, even as President Donald Trump’s administration has announced it will pursue a federal ban on many flavors in small-sized vaping cartridges that are popular with teens. The federal plan would exempt larger-sized cartridges, often sold at shops that cater to adults.

Health officials have documented a sharp increase in teen use of vaping and e-cigarette products in recent years. At the same time, there’s been a rash of lung injuries and illnesses among e-cigarette users of all ages. As of Dec. 10, 47 people in Maryland had been hospitalized with vaping-associated lung injuries in 2019.

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Sports betting

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned sports betting everywhere but a handful of states, states have been legalizing sports betting. Maryland hasn’t gotten there yet, despite interest from sports fans and the state’s largest casinos. A bill last year to legalize sports betting never got off the ground.

Lawmakers could have extra incentive this year to allow sports betting as they face the need to drum up money for education reforms. It’s possible they could approve a bill to send the issue to voters on the 2020 ballot.

Health care

In response to litigation from 20 states seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare,” General Assembly Democrats plan to move this year to protect key provisions of the health care law, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.

Among other moves, legislative leaders plan to make it state law that young adults may stay on their parents’ plan until they turn 26 and protect coverage for individuals with preexisting conditions.

Baltimore crime

For the fifth year in a row, Baltimore experienced more than 300 homicides. How will the legislature respond?

Hogan announced last month that he would introduce a series of bills targeting crime, including one to increase penalties for people who give or sell guns to someone they know will use them to commit a crime. Another would increase penalties for intimidation that results in death of a witness or serious injury, and a third would require a report on sentences handed down by judges.

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