ANNAPOLIS (April 11, 2017)—Democrats during the 2017 Maryland General Assembly session made concerted efforts to preempt policies from the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.
An unexpected shortfall in revenue added to the usual partisan conflict over the budget while a series of corruption scandals dogged the Democratic Party, fueling several reform efforts by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Republicans expressed consternation with Democrats' anti-Trump efforts throughout the session; most notably in February, when most of the Senate Republicans walked off the floor during debate over a resolution to empower the state's attorney general to pursue cases against President Donald Trump's administration on a wide range of issues.
However, by the end of the session, many leading Republicans seemed pleased with the results. Several Republican-backed bills were passed and Hogan retains his strong polling numbers ahead of the 2018 gubernatorial elections.
House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, told the Capital News service that "despite the partisan efforts to kind of drag us into the D.C. post-election theater, we were able to pass some meaningful bills."
Despite its many battles, Kipke said the 2017 session was the "most bipartisan" he has seen since he took office. Hogan concurred, telling reporters that 2017 was an "incredible, bipartisan session."
"We got everything done that needed to get done in terms of the legislation," said Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George's. "We dealt with health care, we dealt with education, we dealt with environment and we dealt with public safety. So I think it was a very good year quite frankly"
The two parties came together on several significant issues, most notably opioid abuse, job creation, anti-fraud measures, education, and environmental issues.
With regard to opioid abuse, Maryland passed restrictions on the quantity of opioid painkillers that can be doled out by doctors in a single visit; measures to increase the availability of naloxone—a drug that can counteract the effects of overdose; and introduced steep penalties for people who distribute opioids that later cause the death of another person. The government also passed new penalties for distributing Fentanyl—an extremely potent synthetic opioid that has an extremely high lethal overdose rate.
The HOPE act, which passed late Monday, requires the state's Behavioral Health Administration to establish at least 10 more crisis treatment centers distributed evenly across the geographic regions of the state.
The More Jobs for Marylanders Act passed with bipartisan support. The law is designed to bolster manufacturing jobs in Maryland by offering tax incentives to companies that create jobs in high-unemployment areas and job training programs. Hogan considered the law a core piece of his 2017 agenda and signed it into law Tuesday.
The Taxpayer Protection Act makes it easier for the state to prosecute fraudulent tax refund filers and gives the comptroller's office greater latitude to investigate tax fraud and identity theft. Comptroller Peter Franchot pushed hard for the legislation, holding conferences and events around the state to drum up support for the bill. It passed this year with unanimous support in the Senate and a single nay in the House of Delegates.
Maryland became the first state with shale reserves to ban fracking. The state has had a moratorium on fracking in place for several years, but the outright ban became politically feasible once Hogan came out in support at a joint press conference with Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, one of the leading advocates for a ban. Sen. George Edwards, R-Allegany, Garrett, Washington, said of fracking in Maryland "It's over. Done. Period."
Other bipartisan environmental legislation included the Clean Cars Act, which increases the state's budget for tax credits for electric vehicles, and the Clean Water Commerce Act, which expands the scope of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration fund to include sediment reduction, but does not include any new funding.
State Democrats were dogged by two major political issues during the session. The first was Trump's election in November. Delegate David Moon, D-Montgomery, said that Trump's election was the "biggest surprise" of the 2017 session and that state Democrats were still trying to figure out what Trump's agenda would really look like. Moon cited Trump's proposed investments in infrastructure as a possible point of bipartisan cooperation.
The second issue is the ongoing slate of corruption accusations that have hit members of the party. Over the past several months, four Democrats—current, former and almost-legislators—have faced campaign finance, bribery, and wire fraud charges.
The charges helped fuel a push for anti-corruption laws and ethics reforms by Hogan. Several reforms passed with bipartisan support, but they placed Democrats on the defensive at a time when, in purely political terms, the party needed to be on the attack against Hogan's strong statewide approval ratings and popularity. A poll released by Goucher College in late February has Hogan's approval rating between 60 and 66 percent, nearly unchanged from the same time last year.
Maryland faced a budget shortfall this session, prompting several fights over funding allocation, perhaps most significantly over several million in funds that the governor's budget proposal cut from the Prince George's County Medical Center.
Some of Maryland's budget struggles stem from the challenge of predicting how much revenue the state will take in; income taxes, in particular, can be very volatile and overestimates can leave the state with a sudden fund shortage.
The problem is that the lawmakers rely on revenue estimates to determine how much to spend. If an estimate is too low, lawmakers distribute the surplus, leaving no dollar unused. However, when an estimate is too high, this spend-to-the-hilt approach leaves no room for adjustment without cutting from funded programs.
A bill proposed by Delegate Maggie Mcintosh, D-Baltimore, sought to solve that problem by placing surplus revenues in a fund that can only be spent during the following year. Basically, the law creates a buffer that can absorb the consequences of overestimated revenue; meanwhile, lawmakers can still spend money left over from underestimates, they just have to wait a year for it to become available. The sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, said the goal is to "build a robust and solvent 'rainy day' fund." Hogan signed the bill into law in late March.
Paid sick leave became a major point of contention, as the governor and lawmakers proposed multiple versions of how much paid leave the state should require companies to offer and which companies should be affected. The version that finally passed the legislature requires businesses with more than 14 employees to offer one hour of paid sick leave per 30 hours worked, up to 56 hours per year. Employers with fewer than 14 employees have to offer the same amount of sick leave, but it can be unpaid. Hogan may veto the legislation but said he had not yet reviewed the bill at the end of the session late Monday night.
A bill that would limit standardized testing time also passed. And Hogan allowed a bill that would fund Planned Parenthood—should federal dollars dry up—become law without his signature.
As always, not every bill made it through this year.
The General Assembly failed to pass a bill that would expand the number of growing licenses for the state's medical marijuana industry in an effort to increase diversity in business ownership. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, said she was "devastated" the House didn't pass the bill before the midnight deadline. "We have a multi-billion industry with no minorities participating," Conway said. "…I'm almost speechless."
Immigration advocates expressed deep disappointment Tuesday after the The Maryland Law Enforcement and Governmental Trust Act died in the Senate. The bill would have essentially made Maryland a sanctuary state by restricting the involvement of law enforcement agencies in Maryland with federal immigration efforts, banning state government agents from asking crime victims or suspects about their immigration or citizenship status.
Sen. Rich Madaleno, D-Montgomery County, said the state "failed to react to the anxiety of the immigrant community."
Hogan said he was disappointed that his proposals to penalize repeat drunken drivers and reform the state's redistricting process did not pass. Democratic lawmakers passed their own version of redistricting reform, which would create a non-partisan redistricting process only if five other mid-Atlantic states do the same.
A bill proposed by Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, D-Harford, would have made the Canvasback Duck the official state waterfowl; the bill never made it out of committee.
Reporters Jake Brodsky, Natalie Schwartz, Carrie Snurr, Hannah Klarner, Cara Newcomer and Jack Chavez contributed to this story.