Florida lawmakers voted to allow people to carry loaded weapons anywhere without a permit. Several states have fully banned abortion and limited transgender children from participating in sports. Missouri is moving to defund libraries as part of a fight over book-banning. And in Tennessee, there was an effort to expel Democratic lawmakers who led a protest for gun control.
In Maryland, where state government is controlled entirely by Democrats for the first time in eight years, lawmakers have strengthened access to reproductive health care, rewritten rules for carrying guns, raised the minimum wage and created a legal marijuana industry with an eye toward redressing historic injustices from the war on drugs — further cementing the state as a solid home for liberal policies.
House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones framed the policy decisions as important responses to decisions from a U.S. Supreme Court with a conservative majority.
“Some of my colleagues from other states are saying: ‘How were you able to do it?’” Jones said in an interview as the legislative session wound down Monday.
Jones said Democrats’ approach was to address challenges facing this and future generations, who are seeing their reproductive rights curtailed and increasing threats to their safety from gun violence and mass shootings. Democrats were also focused on expanding civil rights and ensuring economic equity, including in the newly legal cannabis industry.
“I look at it as Maryland expanding our rights and our freedoms for future generations ... I think this session defines a generation and that’s where we want to be,” Jones said.
Senate President Bill Ferguson said he thinks lawmakers exceeded the expectations that Marylanders had for them, from setting ground rules for a recreational cannabis industry to responding to the Supreme Court decisions on guns and abortions.
“I am incredibly proud of the work that the Senate has done,” he said.
Jones attributed the success in large part to having an overwhelming Democratic majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. And over the past few years, elections and retirements have led to leadership positions turning over, with younger and sometimes more progressive lawmakers taking positions of power.
But it helps, too, to have similarly minded Gov. Wes Moore in office, especially because he’s made a deliberate effort to work with lawmakers and hear their concerns, Jones said.
“I think that the change in administration, that definitely helps, because we actually talk to each other. We meet and we communicate,” Jones said. (The last governor, Republican Larry Hogan, had both a different political perspective and a more hands-off approach to lawmaking.)
Moore reflected that praise back on lawmakers, telling the House of Delegates as they met on Monday: “You showed Maryland that we can do big things again. You all should be amazingly proud of this session.”
Some of the progressive policies came from Moore himself, including measures to quickly raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and to expand tax breaks for low-income workers.
“I am proud because this session showed that we, as a state, can move differently. It showed that we can move in partnership. And it showed that once again ... Maryland can lead,” he said as he prepared to sign the first bills into law on Tuesday.
Where some states have muzzled teachers from addressing issues of race and gender in their classrooms, Maryland lawmakers gave serious consideration to — but ultimately did not pass — a bill that would have withheld funding from school districts that don’t follow state teaching standards. It was a measure clearly aimed at conservative parts of the state where some parents and school boards have pushed back
Instead of restricting rights of transgender adults and children, as other states have done, lawmakers here expanded the types of gender-affirming care available to patients who have Medicaid insurance, and the governor held the first state recognition of International Transgender Day of Visibility.
Maryland politicians are sometimes an example of what political science professor Todd Eberly calls “the politics of stark contrast.” Essentially, defining one’s beliefs in comparison to others. It’s on display in Maryland on issues such as ensuring abortion access and rights of LGBTQ residents.
“The red states have chosen to fight over these social issues. If you are a state that views these as fundamental human rights, you make it absolutely clear that in the borders of this state, this is where we stand,” said Eberly, who teaches a course on Maryland politics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
But the state isn’t a far-left, super-liberal state. Professor and pollster Mileah Kromer notes that public opinion here is firmly in support of left-of-center Democratic values.
“There’s certainly an argument to be made that in the absence of Hogan as a roadblock, now they have a governor they can craft policy with rather than around,” said Kromer, of Goucher College. “In some respects, that comes across as more progressive, but these are mainstream Democratic policies.”
The Maryland Democratic Party boasted about the progressive achievements.
“In less than three months our Democrats have fixed lingering elections issues, protected access to reproductive rights, protected and empowered survivors of child sexual abuse, expanded gun control, and finalized a budget that is equitable and prosperous for every Marylander no matter your background, zip code, or political affiliation,” the party’s statement read. “Each of those standing alone would be a tremendous victory. As a collection and during just one Session? It’s nothing short of historic.”
Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the General Assembly, holding about three-quarters of the seats, so they can pass bills easily without any votes from the minority party.
But for the past eight years, Democratic lawmakers were slowed down — but not stopped — by Hogan, who frequently used his veto pen to nix liberal laws he disliked.
That meant lawmakers had to ensure their bills passed by veto-proof majorities, with leaders sometimes having to coax reluctant or conservative-leaning Democrats to stay on board. They also had to strategize when to pass bills and present them to the governor so they’d have enough time to override any gubernatorial vetoes while still in their annual 90-day session.
With the election of Moore last fall, lawmakers gained a governor who would likely be their ally on the vast majority of policies. Without fear of a governor wielding the veto pen, Democrats could take their time with bills and pass them with fewer votes if needed.
For example, one of the bills restricting the use of concealed carry handgun permits went down to the wire with two hours of debate in the House of Delegates followed by extended debate in the Senate on the final day of the legislative session on Monday.
Lawmakers also took down to the wire a bill that prohibits law enforcement officers from pulling over vehicles based solely on the odor of cannabis, now that the drug will be legal to use on July 1. It ultimately got its final vote just moments before midnight.
And while the legislature claimed progressive victories, they came under fire from some who thought the policies weren’t progressive enough.
Advocates found fault in particular with a late-session maneuver that increased the maximum sentence for illegal gun possession, from three years to five years. A bill proposing the change seemed to be shelved for the year, but it suddenly reappeared, combined into another bill in the final days of the session.
The change was pushed by new Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, and some saw it as too much of a return to “tough on crime” policies that research indicates don’t work to reduce violence.
“This will harm communities and not keep us safe,” said Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. “It will result in the unnecessary incarceration of first-time gun possessors for longer and further from home, despite the research demonstrating that disconnection from family is a direct contributor for recidivism.”
Warnken said she hopes lawmakers will soon realize that it’s not possible to “incarcerate our way out of the epidemic of gun violence.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have been frustrated with the legislature’s leftward tilt.
The frustration boiled over in the final minutes of the session Monday night, when Republican Del. Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County went on a tirade against the speaker for limiting debate. He later apologized.
During the session, Republican lawmakers made public stands against bills expanding renewable energy and restricting concealed carry handgun permits. They lamented the lack of success of bills aimed to address crime, such as their proposals to increase penalties for stealing handguns and for other violent crimes involving guns, as well as a measure to allow juvenile courts to discipline children as young as 10 — instead of the current age of 13 — for committing crimes with guns.
“We’ve done really almost nothing to address violence, we’ve done really nothing to address violent crime,” said Sen. Justin Ready, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. “And anything we’ve done on crime is kind of nibbling around the edges. To me, that’s frustrating, because I feel like there’s a broad consensus that we need to take action.”
At least when Hogan was in office, the governor could slow down bills or sometimes force lawmakers to moderate their legislation just a bit, said Del. Jesse Pippy, the second-ranking Republican in the House. Now Republican lawmakers are on their own.
“There’s no moderate to conservative administration that we had before,” Pippy said. “And it just makes the job more difficult.”
Baltimore Banner reporters Brenda Wintrode and Callan Tansill-Suddath contributed to this article.