When the gavel comes down today to start the 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly, plenty will be different — including the very hand gripping the gavel that calls it all to order.
Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s) had served as president of the Maryland Senate for more than three decades. He stepped down from that leadership post in October as he continues to battle prostate cancer, but will remain in the chamber as a regular voting member. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Senate, 32-15.
The new leader of the Senate, as unanimously picked by its Democratic Caucus, is Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore.
This will also be the first full session as speaker of the House for Del. Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore). After the death of longtime speaker Michael Busch just before the end of the 2019 session in April, Jones emerged as his successor following a scarring fight among House Democrats. Just as in the Senate, Democrats hold a commanding advantage in the House, with 99 delegates to 42 from the GOP.
There will be new committee assignments. With multiple lawmakers having resigned during the fall, there will be new faces at the state house, but we can expect much of the same when it comes to procedure, protocol and productivity. Democrats will hold sway on most issues, with Republicans often being a dissenting voice in the wilderness. But with a strongly centrist GOP governor, Larry Hogan, in place, Republicans can make strides with their legislative ideas, provided they remember that they always have to reach across the aisle to get anything real accomplished.
And there’s plenty to work on between now and the week before Easter.
Likely, no issue will be bigger this time than determining how to fund recommendations from a special commission that had been studying over the past few years how to transform Maryland’s public schools — and how to fund that notion. During its final meeting in November, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — referred to as the Kirwan Commission after its chair, William “Brit” Kirwan — voted to advance its plan that would phase in increased education funding over the next 10 fiscal years. In fiscal 2030, direct state aid would exceed $10.2 billion. Hogan has frequently chided the commission, but Democratic lawmakers are confident that the recommendations will be funded this year.
Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) agreed that one of the “biggest hurdles this legislative session is accountability and fairness with the Kirwan Commission” as he says there is “no sense to throwing money without accountability.”
A $2.2 billion plan to build and renovate schools across the state will be taken up during the session. The plan, called the Built to Learn Act, is being referred to as HB1 and SB1, two of 57 House and 118 Senate bills that have been pre-filed as of Monday. It will be funded at least in part by bonds from the Maryland Stadium Authority as well as dollars from the state’s casinos. That would be a refreshing concept, since money from Maryland’s gambling coffers has been promised to improve schools since the 1973 implementation of the state lottery — with inconsistent results. And Hogan announced his own school plan, the Building Opportunity Act, that would provide $3.8 billion in school construction funding over five years, some of which would “come from a share of casino revenues in the education lockbox.”
Regarding gun safety, look for bills that passed the House but not the Senate last year to return. A reintroduced, Democratic-backed bill would regulate sales of long guns, such as rifles and shotguns. There may also be attempts to close loopholes in background checks and gun storage-related issues. Look for a bill that would ban the AM-15 semi-automatic rifle, currently legal under Maryland law.
Local legislators will push their pet projects as well. Del. Brian Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) wants a micro-business bill that would expedite the payment process of employees of small businesses. He also mentioned a bill focusing on aquaculture water column leases granting waterfront property owners the ability to purchase a water column lease out to 150 feet from their property before a commercial enterprise could purchase it to grow and harvest oysters.
Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) has said he will support a bill that would increase the penalty for the theft of a firearm from a misdemeanor to a felony. Morgan is also in favor of a bill that would require local detention centers in the state to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when an immigrant living in the country illegally is brought into custody.
Del. Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) said last week, “I would support a bill that would improve education without real significant tax implications on citizens, especially in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties,” referring to the Kirwan Commission, adding that he would prefer not to see revenue from those counties be sent elsewhere in the state, but rather keep the money local.
One piece of legislation we do not want to see passed is a proposal that would soften St. Mary’s open meetings act, allowing more meetings and aspects of meetings of public officials to be closed to the public. Here’s hoping transparency will win the day on that one.