Tax cuts, justice reform unresolved as Maryland General Assembly session nears end

Several critical issues, including income tax cuts and an overhaul of Maryland's criminal justice system, remain unresolved as the General Assembly enters the marathon finale Monday to its annual 90-day session.

Also hanging in the balance are broad changes in the way police departments hold officers responsible for misconduct and stiffer sanctions for drunk drivers.


The fate of several other high-priority bills — including a tax break for Northrop Grumman and a study of oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay — depend on deals to be struck between members of the state Senate and House of Delegates.

If lawmakers can't agree before the session ends at midnight, the bills will die. A deal on tax cuts, in particular, could come down to the wire.


"I'm hopeful that they'll all be resolved," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "We're all kind of jockeying around, obviously, posturing."

Whatever happens with the remaining issues, this year's legislative session saw significant changes in policy for which Gov. Larry Hogan and lawmakers in both parties can take credit.

"Did we get 100 percent of what we wanted? No," the Republican governor told The Baltimore Sun Friday. "But have we made progress? I think, absolutely we have.

"The thing I'm most proud of is that while neither one of our sessions have been without friction, we've really tried to work in a bipartisan way, and we've made progress."


The session did have its share of political sniping.

Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, accused the governor of abandoning bills he introduced. Hogan compared lawmakers to college students on spring break.

Some African-American legislators suggested Hogan's budget decisions were driven by race. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller blamed the governor for hate mail some lawmakers received after they voted to override one of his vetoes.

Still, the governor and the legislature agreed on a massive infusion of development aid directed largely at Baltimore, and a budget that is as close to a bipartisan consensus spending plan as Maryland has seen in decades.

For Hogan, his $42.3 billion budget's smooth ride to passage two weeks ago was reason alone to declare success.

"Our most important job here is the budget and I don't think anyone's had as much success on the budget in recent history," Hogan said during a news conference last week.

Lawmakers had little to quibble with when Hogan submitted a budget in January that funded most of the Democratic majority's highest priorities: education, the university system and health programs.

One bill that remains to be finalized Monday, the Justice Reinvestment Act, is the result of work by the legislature and governor since last year's session. The overhaul of Maryland's criminal justice system would push treatment for drug use over incarceration, shorten prison sentences and allow more people to expunge convictions from their criminal record.

After House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on the legislation late Saturday, final approval of a bill Hogan plans to sign is all but certain Monday.

As the session moves toward adjournment, the fate of other closely watched bills is less clear.

The Senate and House are in basic agreement on expanding a tax credit that benefits the working poor, but are far apart on proposed income tax cuts.

Senators want to extend the cuts to wealthier individuals and small business owners. Delegates want to restrict them to middle-class and lower-income taxpayers.

Miller said the Senate's position is based on the report of a commission that looked at how to improve Maryland's economy. The panel recommended cuts in the income taxes paid by small businesses.

"With all the chips on the table, Maryland has got to become more business-friendly on Monday," Miller said.

But Busch said the tax cut "should favor the vast majority of Marylanders equitably."

Hogan said he would be happy with whatever tax cut proposal lawmakers can agree on.

On police accountability, a key disagreement is whether to allow Baltimore and Maryland's 23 counties to include civilians as members of police trial boards, and whether they should have a vote on disciplinary decisions.

"Civilian oversight is huge for us," said Larry Stafford Jr., executive director of the activist group Progressive Maryland.

The Senate and House agree that the bill known as Noah's Law — for a Montgomery County police officer killed by an alleged drunken driver — should require more motorists arrested for drunken driving to install an ignition interlock device that would prevent them from starting their vehicles if they've been drinking.

Advocates for tougher sanctions for drunken driving are apprehensive.

"At this time of year, it's when a lot of good legislation gets whittled down to bare bones," said Montgomery County Police Capt. Tom Didone.

Other measures have already passed.

The package of bills to promote urban redevelopment, targeted primarily at Baltimore but with benefits for other jurisdictions, might be the session's most significant legislation so far.

Pushed jointly by Miller and Busch, the measures are expected to marshal hundreds of millions of dollars for such purposes as demolishing vacant buildings, promoting redevelopment and providing expanded educational opportunities.

Hogan supported many of the goals of those bills and funded some of the programs in his budget, but he objected to those that created new spending requirements. In a significant concession last week, the governor let the bills become law without signing them.

The investment in Baltimore, torn just a year ago by rioting after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, brought Rep. Elijah E. Cummings to Annapolis last week to tell lawmakers, "I will go to my grave being thankful to you."

The legislature did override eight of Hogan's vetoes, and the governor made little headway on his proposal to eliminate gerrymandering in congressional redistricting.

And instead of curbing spending mandates as Hogan proposed, lawmakers added new spending requirements.

Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Hogan's losses won't hurt the governor politically.

"He can still go on the hustings and tell his base he fought the good fight but the evil Democrats did it again," Norris said.

Hogan said the session was what Marylanders wanted when he was elected.

"They voted for divided government, and checks and balances," he said. "And that's not always the smoothest and easiest and prettiest thing. ... But sometimes it comes up with some pretty good results."

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.




Unresolved issues

Lawmakers have until midnight to make decisions on several pieces of major legislation:

Justice Reinvestment: Criminal justice overhaul would shift emphasis from jail to treatment for drug possession, rewrite the parole and probation system, cut sentences for small-time drug dealers and adopt a tough program based on federal law for large-scale traffickers — among many other provisions.

Income tax cuts: Lawmakers agree they want to cut income taxes for every taxpayer, but they disagree how big the cuts should be for those with higher incomes.

Police accountability: A wide-ranging measure designed to mend trust between officers and the communities they police is hung up on whether citizens should be allowed to vote on police disciplinary boards.

Drunk driving: "Noah's Law" would require more first-time drunken-driving offenders to install ignition-interlock systems on their vehicles, preventing them from starting when the driver has been drinking.

Northrop Grumman: Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed $37.5 million tax credit for the aerospace giant cleared the Senate but faces a skeptical House of Delegates.

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