One week ahead of the 2024 Maryland General Assembly’s start, workers steam cleaned the grand rugs of the House and Senate chambers, priming the red- and blue-emblazoned carpets for a fresh season of floor debates.
A mere fraction of the thousands of bills proposed will get a final vote in the cavernous marble chambers. Fewer still will force lawmakers to rise from padded chairs and publicly dispute their merits, perhaps pacing while speaking into a microphone and wearing down their own small section of the rug.
With only 90 days to turn ideas into a laws, legislative leadership sets priorities on what could be hotly contested issues well before opening day. Here’s a look at some of the biggest challenges before them this year.
Top of mind for most everyone in Annapolis are concerns over the state’s budget. State forecasters have predicted revenues will not keep pace with costs as soon as the next budget year. One significant factor is the state’s sweeping and expensive education plan.
“We have to prioritize what we’re spending on,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said, adding the General Assembly must take action now to restore balance to future budgets.
The fiscal crunch forces lawmakers to seek revenues and that may not mean more taxes, but rather “prioritizing the resources that we have,” the Baltimore Democrat told The Baltimore Banner.
Each year the chambers alternate who initially reviews the governor’s proposed budget, and this year the Senate will take the first crack.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said the chambers are working together on a package of juvenile justice and public safety bills.
“People need to feel safe,” the Baltimore County Democrat said.
In the months leading up to the session, the legislature has closely examined the youth legal system, listened to the juvenile services department, police, prosecutors, advocates and researchers, and fielded complaints from frustrated constituents.
Ferguson also linked people feeling unsafe to economic stagnation.
“You cannot grow and be a place where people want to come if people don’t feel safe,” he said.
Juvenile justice will be a major focus of the session. Ferguson said lawmakers will look for ways to create a system that can reduce the number of young people committing crimes and create better outcomes for system-involved children.
Jones said the legislature expects a “robust housing package” from Moore’s administration to fill gaps in the state’s workforce housing. In a recent report published by Comptroller Brooke Lierman’s office, housing costs topped the list of reasons Marylanders were leaving the state.
Ferguson said the key to solving the affordable housing crisis is to introduce supply.
“If we do not create more affordable housing, then we will be in a very challenging place,” he said.
Also on the front burner: Filling gaps in transportation funding. In December, Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld slashed billions of dollars in state transportation projects. He’s done so as the gas tax revenues that fund these infrastructure projects have waned as more consumers choose electric vehicles.
As a result, transportation projects across the state are at risk, Jones said, “We can’t just cut our way out of this issue when revenues have been stagnant for a decade.”
Last legislative session, lawmakers created a commission to make recommendations and Jones said some of their ideas — which could include higher tolls and fees on electric vehicles — will be considered this session.
Jones presented a vision to scale up the state’s mental health resources that included increasing outpatient treatment programs and the number of inpatient beds and reducing emergency room wait times.
A decency agenda
In response to a spike in attacks motivated by race, gender and religious bias, and to safeguard equity and inclusion, Jones will introduce a package of bills she is calling The Decency Agenda.
Jones will introduce the bills in the first week of session.
“As a state, we should be doing all we can to promote a culture of decency in our communities — one that focuses on educating our students, strengthening our democracy, celebrating our diversity and supporting those most in need,” she said.
Hate-bias incidents were up 20% in 2022 compared to 2021, according to the latest available data compiled in the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights report and released in January. Most bias incidents were motivated by a victim’s race, sexual orientation or religion, and the majority of events happened in homes, schools, roadways or sidewalks.
There’s yet another new plan for reviving the thoroughbred horse racing industry in Maryland that will require approval from state lawmakers. Under the plan, the Stronach Group would turn over ownership of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to the state, which would renovate it and find a new operator. Lawmakers would need to revise legislation passed in 2020 to reshuffle existing racing subsidies to pay for the renovation.
Aid in dying
A proposal to allow certain terminally ill patients to request prescription drugs they could take to end their lives will get an airing this year, after nearly becoming law in 2019. The obstacle has been in the Senate, where it failed on a rare tie vote that year, but the Senate president said the bill will get a vote this year.