As Mayor Brandon Scott prepares to announce his legislative agenda ahead of next week’s start of the General Assembly session, many city lawmakers think that Baltimore is in its best position in eight years, thanks to a newly unified Democratic front in Annapolis.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, at times, has harbored an adversarial relationship with the state’s largest city, punctuated by frequent sparring with city leaders and administration decisions to cancel the Red Line transit project and delay promised State Center investments.
Now, the city is entering a legislative session with one of its own residents as top executive in Gov.-elect Wes Moore and with the state sitting on a $2.5 billion surplus and another $3 billion in savings accounts. The Democrat talked often on the campaign trail about his intention to collaborate with, not battle, city officials.
“Unlike with the previous governor, there’s not going to be a cool reception, there’s going to be a warmer reception and real, genuine work together,” said former House Appropriations Chair Maggie McIntosh. The Baltimore Democrat served in the House of Delegates for more than three decades.
Scott is expected to lay out his goals and priorities for the legislative session Thursday afternoon, and Baltimore’s top lobbyist said City Hall will focus on painting the Moore administration an “overall picture of what Baltimore’s holistic need is.”
“We definitely do have increased optimism on outcome and alignment of priority,” said Nina Themelis, the interim director of the mayor’s Office of Government Relations.
“The stars don’t align this way all the time”
Sen. Cory McCray said his entire legislative experience has been colored by Hogan’s tenure. The Northeast Baltimore Democrat and ally of Mayor Brandon Scott, who was elected to the General Assembly in 2014, recounted the frustrations of seeing Hogan veto bills to expand voting rights for Marylanders convicted of crimes, raise the minimum wage and gradually increase the Maryland Transit Administration’s capital budget by $123 million over six years. State lawmakers overrode all three vetoes.
But McCray noted that lawmakers this time are heading into an environment with a whole roster of decision-makers who boast of roots in Baltimore. In addition to Moore, incoming Comptroller Brooke Lierman represented the city in the General Assembly, while Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones each hail from the Baltimore area.
“The stars don’t align this way all the time,” McCray said.
Del. Robbyn Lewis similarly called the advent of the Moore administration “a complete sea change” for many legislators whose tenures in the General Assembly have only overlapped with Hogan. The South Baltimore Democrat described a feeling of both “uncertainty and opportunity” heading into next week, but also expressed great optimism that lawmakers from across the state will recognize the importance of investing in Baltimore.
“It doesn’t mean everything is perfect now, but we’re as well positioned as we’ve ever been to get some important stuff” done for Baltimore, she said, adding that an alignment of leaders and other factors has left her “more hopeful” than she’s been in more than 20 years of living in the city.
McCray and Lewis both expressed optimism for a new dynamic for the city under the governorship of Moore, who championed Baltimore in his run for office and pitched himself as a leader with a deep, personal understanding of the city’s needs. “When I think about the things that we have to do both for and with Baltimore, I don’t look at it simply saying that, ‘Well, we need to do X, or we need to do Y,’” he said before earning the Democratic nomination for governor. “We need to do it all.”
Among members of Baltimore’s legislative delegation who spoke with The Banner, public safety, housing and blight, transportation, and environmental issues were the most frequently mentioned priorities.
Still, not everyone is so confident that new leadership will mean smooth sailing for Baltimore.
Brian O’Malley, the president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, has advocated for bolstered investments in transit since Martin O’Malley was in the governor’s mansion. Though he’s glad to see Hogan on his way out, the activist is tempering his expectations for the Moore administration.
“I am a little apprehensive because people are very optimistic and there are a lot of needs,” he said. “Even though O’Malley clearly was a Baltimore person who rose to the governorship, there were statewide dynamics at play.”
Ferguson, the Senate president, said that in his view, tackling widespread, generational problems requires a thoughtful distribution of limited resources.
“But what we can do is be more strategic and more collaborative with the resources that are available. And that, I think, is going to be the single biggest difference maker,” said the South Baltimore Democrat.
McIntosh said that turnover within the Scott administration will likely impact the city’s lobbying strategy. Themelis became acting director of the city’s government affairs in mid-November, after former director Natasha Mehu left City Hall to join the lobbying firm Manis Canning & Associates. Cezia Cager, who holds the powerful role of Scott’s chief of staff, joined City Hall around the same time.
“This means the mayor is going to have to do more legwork than he did before — as in, he’s going to have to physically go to Annapolis more than he did the last session,” McIntosh said.
She also posited that a relative lack of turnover within the city delegation in the House and Senate will be an advantage. Though McIntosh is retired, Stephanie Smith and Tony Bridges, both Democrats, will represent Baltimore on the powerful appropriations committee.
It’s possible they may compete for Moore’s attention with delegates and senators who “all but ignored” Hogan’s office, she added.
“All of a sudden this year, there’s going to be more people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’d like to see that legislation. We have comments on it.’ It’s going to be very interesting to watch this shift in dynamic,” McIntosh said.
Themelis said Mehu left her in a strong position to succeed, thanks to a thorough handoff, and that the team has spent the last few months meeting with city delegation members to discuss the mayor’s high-priority initiatives and city agencies’ analyses of upcoming legislation.
That liaising is among the most important work the city’s office of government affairs is tasked with, said Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Democrat who represents West Baltimore.
State lawmakers face anywhere from 3,500 to 6,000 pieces of legislation during the 90-day session and are unable to themselves analyze the impact each may have on Baltimore. Themelis and her team are tasked with monitoring those potential outcomes and informing the city delegation, from asking the police department to provide a fiscal impact analysis for a bill to instructing the law department to make sure a bill would not violate existing city law.
“The key for the mayor’s office is just making sure that agencies are responsive to the legislators,” Hayes said. “For the last eight years, we were more of a punchline than actually a partnership, so collaboration across all lines will be easier.”
Matt Hill, an attorney with the housing advocacy group Public Justice Center, said he doesn’t see the turnover as any different from other years. The group Renters United Maryland, of which Hill’s organization is a part, has outlined policy priorities for the session to protect tenants’ rights, curb evictions and prevent unlicensed landlords from going to court for evictions. The advocacy group is also asking lawmakers to dedicate $175 million for the 2024 financial year towards emergency rental assistance, a measure he said is needed to fill in the gaps after a huge pot of federal pandemic aid for renters runs dry.
Each of these requests should get a warmer reception under Moore than the previous administration, Hill said. Baltimore is uniquely in need of investment and policy attention after generations of neglect and racist policies, the housing attorney added, and he’s hopeful a coalition of lawmakers from across the state and the new governor will help push these local priorities through.
In a recent op-ed in The Banner, McCray called for a “Marshall Plan”-esque investment in Baltimore’s declining infrastructure, pointing to large pots of available funds at the federal, city and state levels to make improvements. In an interview, the state senator pointed to affordable housing, pandemic learning loss, environmental remediations and investments in the Maryland Transit Authority as key city priorities heading into the session.
And the Baltimore legislator set a high bar for himself and his colleagues. The onus falls on the newly assembled roster of Charm City backers in Annapolis to deliver significant legislation this session, he said.
“Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity,” he said.