Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch talk about what they expect from the 2017 General Assembly session. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
Democrats in Maryland are looking for ways to use this year's General Assembly session to protect the legacy of President Barack Obama and blunt the impact of sweeping changes they fear the Trump administration will usher in.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said he is ready to do battle after Republican President-elect Donald J. Trump is inaugurated Friday in Washington.
"We're going to be playing defense," Miller said. "We're not going to stop progress for anybody."
Democrats were battered in last year's elections, losing the White House and failing to take control of the U.S. Senate or make inroads against Republican ascendancy in state elected offices. But the party retains a tight grip on the legislature in Maryland, and lawmakers and activists say they will use their power to preserve Obama-era policies, including expanded access to health insurance, protections for undocumented immigrants and new environmental standards.
Two lawmakers have even introduced legislation aimed at keeping Trump off the state's ballot in 2020 unless he releases his tax returns in full.
Other states where Democrats hold power are taking related actions. California hired former attorney general Eric Holder to defend the state's laws. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised to use the state legislature to show the country an alternative way to help the angst-ridden middle class. And the District of Columbia set aside $25,000 to pay for the legal defense of immigrants that might be deported under the Trump administration.
"Folks feel re-energized," said Del. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat. "The work is done on the ground level. The state government, the local government is close to the people."
But in Maryland, Democrats must deal with a popular Republican governor who gets to shape the state budget and can veto legislation.
Republican leaders in the General Assembly, meanwhile, say they are buoyed by Trump's win. Del. Nic Kipke, the party's leader in the House of Delegates, said he was optimistic that the new president would roll back changes implemented under Obama and warned Democrats not to go too far in seeking to frustrate the Trump administration.
"They need to make sure they don't put politics ahead of what is best for our citizens and that's not something that they're good at in my experience," he said.
The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
Among the first major shifts to come out of Washington is proposing to end of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Congress have moved to repeal. Trump has said he wants the law swept aside immediately, potentially leaving in the lurch some 400,000 Marylanders who gained health coverage under the law.
It's unlikely Maryland could afford to pay for those individuals' care by itself, but Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the state should seek ways to fill at least part of any gap that is left.
"We're going to have major challenges," he said. "We're going to fight for the people who are going to be left without health protection."
Pinsky, vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, did not offer a specific plan.
Trump's administration is also expected to deviate from Obama's immigration policy, and could undo measures that let people who arrived in the country illegally as children work and study legally. Some predict Trump will also seek to step up the rate at which people are deported.
Kim Propeack, a campaigner with immigrant group CASA de Maryland, said her organization's members were feeling a "heightened sense of terror."
Anticipating a victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton at the polls, Propeack said the group expected to focus its efforts in Annapolis on access to health care for undocumented immigrants. Now, their priority is a measure that would bar police and other officials in Maryland from aiding deportation efforts — a version of the sanctuary policies adopted by some cities and counties.
Activists also plan to seek another change that would allow child immigrants who lose their legal status to continue college studies. Maryland voters adopted the Dream Act in 2012, which opened a route for undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college, but Propeack said that law imposed more onerous conditions on students than the Obama provisions.
The environment is another area that Democrats are focused on. Miller told reporters last week that significant changes to Obama's policies could be damaging for the Chesapeake Bay. Miller said he has little faith in Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2010, the Obama administration spelled out steps to curb pollution in the bay, including limits on fertilizer use, rules on the treatment of sewage and instructions for local governments to reduce runoff.
"The guy who's in charge of the environment wants to abolish his own department and wants to undo the regulations," Miller said.
Meanwhile, Pinsky and Del. Jimmy Tarlau, also a Prince George's Democrat, plan to introduce legislation that would block Trump from Maryland's ballot in 2020 unless he publicly releases five years of tax returns. For decades, presidents have released their returns, but Trump has refused to do so while the Internal Revenue Service is auditing them.
Still, members of both parties have said they might be able to collaborate with the Trump administration on some issues.
Catherine Pugh, the new Democratic mayor of Baltimore and a former state senator, said revamping infrastructure is one area where she sees common ground with Trump. Hogan has said he thinks Maryland becoming the site of a new FBI headquarters is a "slam dunk" with Trump in the White House. Virginia — led by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton backer — is Maryland's competition.
Politically, Trump's victory is already shaping the 2018 election, when Maryland will elect a governor and 188 legislators.
Democrats say they are looking for ways to hitch Hogan to policies enacted by Trump, who doesn't share the governor's popularity in Maryland. In interviews, Democratic lawmakers highlighted both men's use of social media to spread their message.
Last week, Hogan showed a moment of exasperation with questions about Trump, batting away an inquiry about the new administration's impact on the police reform agreement in Baltimore. He called the question "stupid."
Hogan has blended traditional Republican calls for lower taxes and business-friendly policies with populist moves such as lowering tolls across the state and popular Democratic causes, like requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. Hogan didn't support Trump, but said he plans to attend the inauguration.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor will respond to changes coming from Washington once the Trump administration takes action.
"The governor sees this third session as an excellent time to get things done," he said. "Some of the politicians who are making statements about the president-elect and the governor are free to do that but we're focused on Maryland."
Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, acknowledged that tying the governor to the president could prove difficult.
"He's showing himself to be quite nimble on some political issues," Moon said of Hogan.
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