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Politics

After passing abortion and climate laws, plus tax relief, Maryland lawmakers to hit the campaign trail. Both sides have something to talk about.

The Democratic supermajorities in Annapolis entered this year’s General Assembly session with an agenda of issues to please core blocs of voters they will depend on in statewide elections later this year: Protecting abortion rights, fighting climate change, helping workers, legalizing recreational marijuana.

They ended 90 days of lawmaking late Monday having checked those boxes. Bills are set to become law that will expand abortion access, curtail the use of fossil fuels, create a paid family leave program for most workers and send marijuana legalization to voters to decide.

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On top of that, an unexpectedly and historically massive state budget surplus meant lawmakers of both parties could join with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to temporarily suspend the gas tax as fuel prices surged and also to provide nearly $2 billion in tax relief for retirees and parents of young children as economic confidence slumps. The surplus is the product of a surge of federal spending and a faster-than-expected rebound in sales and income tax receipts after the COVID-19-induced recession.

That means as election season begins in earnest Tuesday, politicians will have plenty to campaign on from this year’s legislative session. The statewide primary is scheduled for July 19, while the general election is Nov. 8.

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“Everyone is going to be able to go home, particularly Democrats, and say they were successful,” said Clarence Mitchell IV, a WBAL-AM talk show host and former lawmaker known as C4.

Whether and how they can use that to persuade voters remains to be seen over the coming months.

Republicans looking to hold on to the governor’s mansion and gain ground in the Senate and House of Delegates will likely blame Democrats for not doing more to provide tax relief and for failing to act on anti-crime legislation Hogan pushed. Democrats will seek to regain the governorship by stressing how that would allow them to pass many more progressive policies. Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registrations statewide.

Even the governor on Monday called the past 90 days “our best session yet after eight years,” citing the tax cuts, new congressional district maps, and progress on some of his crime proposals. But he suggested his unsuccessful proposal to impose harsher penalties for crimes involving firearms enjoys widespread support: “I don’t know how they’re going to explain that to voters, but that’s for them to figure out.

“I think people in the legislature are going to have to defend their record and I think Republicans are going to be able to stand up and say the things they were fighting for and Democrats are going to have to explain why they didn’t take action on some things,” said Hogan. “But luckily I’m not one of the people who has to go out and do that.”

The governor is in the final year of his second four-year term; term limits bar him from running again.

As the campaigning begins, Democrats will also have to fight against sagging approval ratings for President Joe Biden and an expected wave of Republican gains in midterm elections across the country, said Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. And they face the new congressional district map, one that’s significantly less friendly to their party, after a judge’s ruling last month that rejected their first attempt at new U.S. House boundaries. The Maryland Court of Appeals is expected to decide shortly the fate of a map of new state legislative districts.

But as long as the accomplishments of the legislative session remain fresh, Eberly added, that stands as a powerful contrast to the economic uncertainty brought on by inflation and the ongoing pandemic that continues to weigh on voters: “It’s going to influence politics without question,” he said.

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A new State House normal

This year’s session ended not quite back to a pre-pandemic normal, but the closest to that since 2019. That’s when the final day of session was marked by tributes to House Speaker Michael Busch, who died a day earlier. The legislature abruptly adjourned its 2020 session more than two weeks early as the pandemic struck. The 2021 session involved delegates split between two chambers, linked by video, to physically distance them. The Senate floor last year was a warren of plexiglass phone-booth-like enclosures.

Now, nearly all General Assembly work has returned to in-person business, with lobbyists, journalists and other members of the public present to observe, along with a heavy reliance on livestreams of committee meetings and floor sessions.

On Monday night, a packed (and masked) House chamber again listened to remembrances of Busch as his official portrait was unveiled just to the left of the rostrum from which he led the House for 16 years, the most by a speaker in state history. At midnight, lawmakers celebrated the end of the session with confetti and balloons for the first time in years.

The shift from pandemic restrictions was reflected in the flurry of major proposals that made it to the governor’s desk. Leaders in the Democratic majority cast this session as one of the most productive in recent memory, making headway on climate and the environment after years of debate, and passing a paid leave program that was more than a decade in the making.

“We feel confident we’ve got a solid record to run on,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, the House majority leader.

Republicans sought to cast many of those Democratic policy priorities as costly and foolish even before the session ended.

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On paid leave, after resolving some significant disagreements within their ranks, Democrats advanced a program that will provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for most Maryland workers starting in 2025. It will be paid for through a payroll tax shared by employers and employees that starts in 2023. Republicans suggested the proposal moved too quickly to be vetted and for residents and businesses to realize its impact.

‘Passing the bill now and collecting the money later’

“What’s driving this? Well, there’s an election coming up and this bill polls incredibly well and it polls well because employees don’t know that they’re going to pay for this,” said Del. Matthew Morgan, a St. Mary’s County Republican. “We’re passing the bill now and collecting the money later.”

During debate on climate change legislation, which accelerates state goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and will require owners of large buildings to reduce their carbon footprints, the minority party stressed that such actions in a small state like Maryland won’t make a difference, and yet will saddle businesses and residents with the costs of energy upgrades.

Even among Democrats, there was disagreement over how aggressively the bill should force steps to replace fossil fuel-based systems with ones that can be powered with electricity. That could echo into a crowded race for the Democratic nomination for governor. Many environmental advocates stressed their belief that the legislation did not go far enough to push the state to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, which the bill sets to drop 60% below 2006 levels by 2031.

“To reach those goals, the state must pursue equitable policies that directly limit emissions from vehicles, power plants and buildings,” Josh Kurtz, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said after Hogan announced Friday he would refrain from vetoing the bill. “But there’s still significant work left to do.”

‘Disagreements between policymakers part of legislative process’

Luedtke downplayed the role such disagreements among Democrats might play in the primary.

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“Disagreements between policymakers are just a normal part of the legislative process,” he said. “Maryland voters are savvy enough to understand that.”

But others said nuanced takes on some of those policies could help narrow a field of at least 10 Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Many of the candidates were vocal in their criticism of Hogan’s vetoes, saying that if they could take his place, less time would be spent on override battles.

”Having some issues’ lines in the sand will hopefully help define for the voters where the candidates stand,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat. “We shouldn’t do it based on paid ads. It should be on where they stand on issues.”

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A flurry of Hogan vetoes on Friday also illuminated the stakes of this fall’s election for Democrats. Since Hogan took office in 2015, the Republican’s veto pen has set the bar for passage on a number of the Democratic majority’s proposals. Simply passing the legislature is often not enough for progressive priorities. Instead, assembling a veto-proof majority to overcome Hogan’s opposition required winning support from more moderate Democrats, as well.

Some override votes close

On the vote to override Hogan’s veto of legislation to expand access to abortion, for example, Democrats had no votes to spare to ultimately pass the measure into law. Overrides of vetoes to the paid leave program, reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system, and investment in MARC commuter train service passed by slightly wider margins.

Republicans are hoping to make gains among Marylanders concerned about the costs of such initiatives. Del. April Rose, the House assistant minority leader from Carroll County, said she was hopeful that concern, plus a desire for further tax relief, would buoy Republican candidates later this year.

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“I think the Republicans of the state are energized,” Rose said. She said she hoped Republican gains in the State House come fall could bring Maryland “a little bit closer to a two-party state.”

Given Democrats’ voter registration advantage, political observers consider that unlikely, however.

The Democratic Party’s stranglehold on the state’s political apparatus and Republicans’ relatively weak statewide organization, apart from Hogan’s broad popularity, makes it easy to predict to what extent Republican gains will make their way into the halls of Annapolis, said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University: “My guess is, not much.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

For the record


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