For the Maryland General Assembly, it’s a new dawn. It’s a new day.
Maryland’s longest-serving House of Delegates speaker, Mike Busch, died last April. Mike Miller spent more than three decades as Senate president before stepping down before this session.
When the 441st session got underway on January 7, the House had new leadership with Baltimore County Democrat Adrienne Jones, and the Senate welcomed Baltimore City Democrat Bill Ferguson as its new president.
Delegate Heather Bagnall — a Democrat who represents Severna Park, Arnold and other areas in District 33 — called it a “seismic shift for both chambers,” while fellow District 33 Delegate Sid Saab, a Republican, said he expects the new leaders to share the same progressive message championed by their predecessors.
While their impact remains to be seen, one thing is certain: Maryland is set to debate important issues with longstanding implications. Education reform, sports betting, e-cigarettes and Baltimore City crime are some of the thousands of issues that will be addressed during the 90-day session.
Maryland is long overdue to update its spending formulas. The Kirwan Commission was tasked with studying the best school systems in the world and recommending changes to put Maryland on a path to similar prestige. After roughly two years of research, the commission has recommended significant expansion of full-day preschool, teacher raises, an internationally benchmarked curriculum that enables most students to achieve “college- and career-ready” status, and several other initiatives.
Now that the findings are out, Maryland will have to foot the bill, which has been estimated at an additional $3.8 billion annually by 2030.
“Every kid deserves a world-class education,” Saab said. “More than 80% of the budget is mandated, though, and we still have to worry about infrastructure, roads, police and fire.”
Aside from Kirwan, there are other education quandaries to settle. Democrats have put forth a plan called the Built to Learn Act. Funded in part by Maryland Stadium Authority bonds and state casino revenue, the $2.2 billion plan would escalate school construction. Hogan has countered with the Building Opportunity Act, a school construction plan that would cost $3.8 billion over five years.
In Anne Arundel County, Bagnall is working with the public schools superintendent, Dr. George Arlotto, to create a line item in the budget that focuses on how funding can be used to close the equity gap, “not special education, but the other gaps within our education system,” she said.
TRAFFIC AND THE BAY BRIDGE
With a 14-mile backup in October, and several other delays throughout the summer and fall, frustrations boiled over when drivers were stalled by Bay Bridge traffic. A scheduled maintenance project on the bridge didn’t improve the situation.
Making matters worse for commuters, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) announced in August that all three potential sites for a new bridge span are located in Anne Arundel County.
That announcement did not come as pleasant news to Anne Arundel County’s delegation, many of whom have been thwarted in attempts to give Anne Arundel the same veto power that the Eastern Shore counties have in choosing the next bridge location.
“We’re still looking for Anne Arundel County to have a stronger say and for Anne Arundel County to not carry the full burden for proposals of getting over the bay,” said Michael Malone, a Republican from District 33.
In addition to the Bay Bridge, Bagnall said she is working with the state to address myriad traffic issues, including Route 450.
“Historically, attempts have been made at addressing it, but we’re on something like our fifth hydraulics study,” she said. “ … We have identified the problem 10 times over. Now we have to fix the problem. We do a very poor job at not just informing the public but including the public.”
If the General Assembly reaches a consensus, sports betting could be on the ballot next November. While some lawmakers are eager to catch up with Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Delaware — which have all legalized sports betting — Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has said that the state constitution requires commercial gambling to be approved by the voters.
Lawmakers need extra revenue to pay for the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations, and even though the projected income would go a short way toward meeting that goal, there is too much support on both sides of this issue to ignore legalized sports betting as a possibility.
Last year, lawmakers bumped the legal age to buy tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21. Now, they have their sights set on vaping. The conversations stem from a surge in deaths, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting 57 e-cigarette or vaping-related deaths nationwide as of January 7, 2020 (no start date is listed for the data).
The Trump administration has expressed its intent to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, but no formal decision has been made as of January 10.
“It is not sufficient necessarily to wait for the federal government to take action,” Bagnall said. “Sometimes we have to, as a body, do what’s best for the population in Maryland.”
Saab wants to implement term limits for state delegates and senators, another issue that would be put to the voters. “I view it as a public service, not as a career,” Saab said.
He is also helping to pilot a project that pairs school resource officers with Anne Arundel Crisis Response. “We identify kids who could potentially be problems to the school and help them, not just in school but after-hours,” he said.
Inspired by a call she received from the student-led Our Minds Matter movement that started at Severna Park High School, Bagnall is introducing legislation to “take down barriers to care, to destigmatize behavioral health care and mental health care, and also to create an actual behavioral health system.”
To reduce the burden of college debt, Malone wants to reintroduce his bill to double the tax deduction from $2,500 to $5,000 per year per beneficiary per account for Maryland 529 plans. The amount has not been changed since Maryland 529 plans were created in 2001.
Gerrymandering, or manipulating district boundaries for political gain, is another problem he’s targeting.
“Now is the time it has to be done if anything is going to be done,” Malone said. “The gerrymandering issue has to be put before the voters. That issue needs to be addressed now so that it can be put on the 2020 ballot, because if it’s not dealt with now, putting it on the 2022 ballot will be too late because we will have already had the Census figures in and the maps will be drawn under the current rules, which are not sufficient to prevent gerrymandering.”
OTHER NOTEWORTHY ISSUES
Maryland’s elected officials are also discussing these issues: