Maryland lawmakers descended on the capital city of Annapolis Wednesday, ready to tackle the state’s most pressing issues for the next 90 days.
The opening day of the General Assembly session is a day of ceremony and optimism, with lawmakers greeting each other after months spent back in their districts and at their day jobs. Lobbyists and advocates began to press lawmakers on behalf of their clients and bills. Demonstrations were planned on Lawyers Mall to raise awareness of climate change and to support Palestinians.
During the first chamber sessions, members elected leaders to steer them through the next three months and sent hundreds of bills to their respective committees for review.
In the boisterous and larger House chamber, friends and family surrounded members’ desks, as they listened to prayers and welcome speeches, some bounced small children in their laps.
A small convoy of county executives, mayors and state’s attorneys from some of the state’s largest jurisdictions stood and clapped along with the rest of the room. The convoy of dignitaries later moved to the somewhat more reserved Senate chamber, where they were announced and applauded.
After being reelected speaker of the House of Delegates, Del. Adrienne A. Jones warned of the tough work ahead to balance budgets, improve public safety and restore civility in communities.
“Let’s not fool ourselves. The challenges we’re up against are real,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Lawmakers must curb spending to meet expected revenues in upcoming years. In anticipation of budget battles, Jones set the tone.
“We’re going to fund our shock trauma system, increase the availability of affordable housing, and keep our commitment to the Blueprint,” Jones said, referencing the state’s sweeping and expensive education plans.
Across the marble hallway in the state Senate, Sen. Bill Ferguson was elected once again as Senate president. The Baltimore Democrat noted that his first four sessions as the Senate’s presiding officer featured challenges ranging from learning how to do the job, to a global pandemic, to redistricting, to an election bringing in new faces.
Entering 2024, Ferguson said he paused and asked himself: “Wait a second, what is our crisis?”
Ferguson predicted lawmakers would return their focus to policy, making smart decisions about the state budget and how to keep Marylanders safe.
“We are back to governing,” he said.
The Democratic governor and lawmakers from both parties face significant challenges, chief among them a tight budget picture with coronavirus relief funds drying up and revenues not growing fast enough to cover future expenses.
The state’s leaders began stepping into the public debate over policy issues on the first day, though the meat of the discussions and negotiations will come later in the session.
As is custom, the day opened with the General Assembly’s presiding officers and Gov. Wes Moore outlining key issues for a coffee-sipping audience at the annual “Eye on Annapolis” summit.
Moore said he has four goals for the session: Making the state safer, more affordable and more competitive, and ensuring Maryland continues to be a state that’s engaged in public service.
“We are not losing. It’s going to be a successful session,” Moore said at the event, sponsored by The Daily Record newspaper.
“It’s not political, it’s math,” Moore said.
The state is going into the next budget year with a projected shortfall, one that would grow in future years if left unaddressed. The state is legally required, however, to pass a balanced budget each year. Moore said the state would be disciplined. He proposes his budget next week.
Chief among the reasons for the growing shortfall: an ambitious education plan, known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, that will increase spending by billions over a decade.
Moore later told reporters the plan needs to be implemented “sustainably.”
“I believe in the premise and promise of the Blueprint,” he said.
Moore’s administration has proposed deep cuts to the state’s long-term transportation construction budget, because there’s not enough money coming in from the gas tax and other sources to cover the planned projects. Moore said he hoped to arrive at a solution to avoid some of the transportation cuts.
Moore said his bar on new taxes is “very, very high.”
Lawmakers expect to focus on the budget as well.
Ferguson told reporters during a pre-session press conference that there needs to be an evaluation of which state programs produce the best results.
“We have to watch every penny and we have to prioritize, and if something’s not working, we’ve got to cut it and reallocate those funds towards higher-priority items,” he said.
Lawmakers also will consider how best to address crime and violence involving young people. Delegates have been holding fact-finding hearings to inform their work, while senators also have been discussing changes that need to be made.
Moore rolled out his public safety proposals on Tuesday ahead of the session, warning that the issue needs collaboration, not finger-pointing. He said that rehabilitation for young people on the wrong path needs to be balanced with accountability — a theme he repeated in remarks to reporters on Wednesday.
“This administration will be actively involved in that debate,” Moore said.
Lawmakers will also work on combating climate change, improving access to affordable housing, reviving the thoroughbred horse racing industry and many more issues among the 2,000-plus bills that will be introduced. They’re also expected to vote on whether to allow terminally ill patients to be prescribed life-ending drugs.
Jones is adding a personal mission to the list: A “decency agenda,” that she says will address divisiveness in society.
Lawmakers didn’t spend much time in their legislative chambers on Wednesday. After dispensing with formalities and introducing the first few hundred bills, they decamped for their offices to prepare for their hearings or to opening day receptions around the capital city.
They’ll continue work until midnight on April 8.