Maryland General Assembly set to convene in another session shaped by COVID

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The Maryland General Assembly gavels in for its regular 90-day session Wednesday, the third that will be shaped dramatically — procedurally and for policymaking — by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the coronavirus isn’t the only element that brings uncertainty to this year’s proceedings.

Election-year sessions have unique dynamics of their own. On top of that, lawmakers will need to vote on a measure to redraw legislative district boundaries by late February — a topic near and dear to their hearts. And it’s the last legislative session for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who is term-limited and continuing to try to elevate his national political profile.

How the governor approaches the legislature is “the major variable” heading into the 2022 session, said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), a senior member of the General Assembly who has served alongside five governors.

“Does he want to go out in a time of good feeling and cooperation, or does he want to continue to differentiate himself and try to help the Republicans in the general election,” he said. “We don’t know the answer to that. I frankly think it’s more likely than not that he’ll want to go out with good feelings — and I hope that’s the case.”

Hogan’s legislative priorities including boosting funding for police agencies, and seeking tax relief for retirees — though his policies have failed to gain traction in the past.

From a policy perspective, 2022 is shaping up to be the “three C’s” session — with cannabis, climate and choice topping the legislative agenda. COVID is the fourth C, which will loom over everything the legislature does this year. “Care” could be the fifth — with how to boost child care providers and whether to provide paid leave insurance for people caring for sick loved ones also on the agenda.

Traditionally, election-year sessions have the lightest and least controversial agendas of the four-year term. Lawmakers are reluctant to, say, raise taxes in an election year or rile up key segments of the electorate by doing something controversial. Legislative leaders don’t want to pass high-profile measures that could jeopardize their most vulnerable members.

But this is the first election year since 1990 when someone other than the late Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) has been Senate president, and the first election year since 2006 when someone other than the late Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) has been House speaker. Their respective successors, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), have embraced ambitious and largely progressive agendas in recent years.

The imperatives brought on by the pandemic — and the presence of a budget surplus that’s approaching $6 billion, fueled in part by additional federal spending — could also bring about a more ambitious agenda than most election years. Livestreamed floor debates — and lawmakers’ ability to quickly clip and share footage of their impassioned remarks — could also have an effect on the proceedings.

In an interview Monday, Jones said the legislature will focus on helping communities that were struggling before the pandemic hit and have been slow to enjoy the spoils of the recent economic recovery.

“It seems like apple pie, but there are places in the state where that’s not happening,” she said.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), the longest-serving current member of the General Assembly, said the level of activity in any legislative session — including in election years — is often dictated by outside forces. He observed that even though the legislature is expected to take action on abortion rights and gun control legislation this session, pending Supreme Court rulings on abortion and guns, depending on when they’re delivered, could galvanize lawmakers into more aggressive action.

“I think the circumstances are such that a lot of issues will get an airing this year and we may be addressing more than we would normally do in an election year,” Rosenberg said.

Other unusual dynamics will be at play this session.

Changes in the legislature — and in the political fabric of the state — have been accelerating in recent years. This year the House will have two new committee chairs: Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) at the Ways and Means Committee, and Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) at Economic Matters. Jones said both are well-respected by their colleagues, and she noted that when she spoke to both about her plans to promote them, they were surprised and humble.

“They both said, ‘Oh my God,’” Jones recalled. “They didn’t take anything for granted.”

The top two Republican leaders in the House will also be new this year: Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (Allegany) and Minority Whip Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. (Carroll). Republicans in the Senate will also have a new minority whip, Sen. Justin D. Ready (Carroll).

At least two more House committees will have new leaders beginning in 2023: Appropriations and Health and Government Operations. The same is true of the Finance Committee in the Senate.

And as if that wasn’t enough change in leadership, both presiding officers head into this year’s session with new chiefs of staff — Sally Robb with Ferguson and Jeremy P. Baker with Jones.

Jones said she expects the legislature to take up redistricting and finish it quickly. Officially, Hogan introduces the map and if lawmakers do not act on it within 45 days, it automatically becomes law.

But the chances of that happening are nil: The Democrats in the General Assembly are almost certain to adopt the map that emerged last week from the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission. Unlike with congressional redistricting, the governor cannot veto whatever map the legislature produces — though it is still subject to a legal challenge.

Cannabis

Legislators are making getting a referendum on the ballot this fall to legalize recreational marijuana a top priority. This will provide a financial windfall for the state when it’s enacted — and Democrats are also hoping it provides an electoral windfall for them in November.

Jones said the legislation will be debated this year through an equity lens.

“Equity in cannabis policy is not just who gets licenses to grow and distribute cannabis,” she said. “It also has to do with expungement of criminal records for those who have been doing prison time for marijuana.”

Some lawmakers are at odds over what level of detail to present to voters in a referendum, and advocates are pressing lawmakers to bypass the ballot — and the year-long delay created by going to voters — to approve a legalized recreational industry this year.

Climate

A compromise between the Senate and House on climate fell apart on Sine Die last year, but Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chair Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and House Environment and Transportation Committee Chair Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) are determined to finish the job this year.

The bill will almost certainly include a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, as well as guidelines for electric vehicles, green buildings, environmental justice initiatives and more.

The Senate seems likely to work on a single, all-encompassing bill, while the House is more likely to split up the legislation’s provisions into chunks. Several other climate measures will also be considered this session, including a proposal to divest the state’s pension portfolio from fossil fuel companies.

Choice

Bills haven’t been introduced yet, but there will be legislation to make women’s reproductive health services more accessible and affordable — and increase the number of trained and licensed abortion providers in the state. There will also be a bill to make it illegal to prosecute women who seek abortions or people who help them — the opposite of the Texas abortion ban that went into effect last year.

It isn’t clear whether the legislature will also seek to enshrine abortion rights in the Constitution, an idea floated by Busch shortly before he died. Jones said the idea was on the table.

“We don’t need to preserve the right in Maryland, but we do need to modernize the right,” Rosenberg said.

COVID

The 2020 session was cut short by the pandemic while 2021’s was notable because of the plexiglass booths erected around lawmakers’ desks in the Senate and the decision to create an “annex” for half of the House, to ease crowding in the chamber. The 2022 session comes amid the worst hospitalization numbers since COVID-19 hit the state nearly two years ago.

“We literally are in a crisis situation right now, at least for the next couple of weeks,” said Rosapepe. “The history of pandemics and the experience of the last two years — it seems unlikely that omicron is going to be the last disruptive surge.”

He said part of the legislature’s job is to focus the state’s response for the remainder of this year and next.

While Maryland is awash in money, thanks to pandemic funding from the federal government and higher-than-expected tax revenues, Rosapepe — the vice-chairman of the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee — said the state must spend its surplus wisely.

“The labor market is significantly broken,” he said. “Dealing with the economy and dealing with the labor market problems will be a significant issue during session.”

There is consensus on using some of the surplus to ease burdens of those hardest-hit by the pandemic and some lawmakers will also push to shore up eviction protections and housing support in the state.

A legislative advisory panel has recommended spending the surplus on priorities to include maintenance and construction projects at state buildings, parks and college campuses.

Crime

On Monday, Hogan unveiled a proposal to boost police funding by half a billion dollars, and renewed pressure on the legislature to pass bills that have failed to gain traction in the past, including a judicial transparency bill and a measure to crack down on gun crimes.

While Hogan’s bills have failed to pass for multiple sessions, lawmakers are sure to consider crime control and police reform measures.

“We do have crime problems in the state,” Rosapape said. “I think we’re going to have to do things dealing with making people safer.”

Hogan declined an interview for this story through a spokesperson. He is expected to make an additional announcement about legislative priorities Tuesday afternoon.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report. 

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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