Maryland lawmakers return to Annapolis this week with a new governor about to be sworn in, expanded powers over the state budget and a long list of challenges to tackle, including creating a recreational marijuana industry and further protecting abortion care in the state.
And for the first time in nearly three years, lawmakers expect to have a near-complete return to pre-pandemic procedures for their 90-day session, with most of their meetings and sessions held in person — even as the coronavirus continues to linger and sicken Marylanders.
“It will almost be like a normal session,” Del. Jason Buckel, a Republican leader, said hopefully. “Back to reality.”
The reality that’s facing lawmakers has changed, as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is on his way out, and Democratic Gov.-elect Wes Moore will be sworn into office on Jan. 18. For the first time in eight years, Democrats will control the governor’s office and both chambers of the General Assembly.
Starting Wednesday and continuing for 90 days, the Maryland General Assembly’s 188 lawmakers will convene in Annapolis. Their only requirement is to pass a balanced budget, but they’ll also consider thousands of bills, from routine tweaks of existing programs to attempting to resolve some of the state’s persistent problems with violent crime, education funding and inadequate transportation networks.
In interviews with The Baltimore Banner, the presiding officers of the House of Delegates and state Senate said they’re looking forward to having Gov.-elect Wes Moore in office, not only because he’s from the same party, but also because they believe he’ll be more willing to talk and partner with lawmakers.
“I find it rewarding that we will have a governor that will communicate, because he has shown that is the type of person he is. That to me is a big difference,” said House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. Jones has led the House as speaker since 2019.
Hogan negotiated with state lawmakers rarely in his eight years in office and never appeared before a General Assembly committee to pitch his bills, as other governors did for their highest-priority items. Hogan’s Cabinet secretaries and department heads often offered no position on bills affecting state agencies, to the frustration of lawmakers.
Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, are expecting Moore to be more collaborative. Both were early endorsers of Moore’s campaign.
“I think that Governor Moore has an incredible vision for where he wants to take the state,” said Ferguson, who has been Senate president since 2020.
Moore remains a bit of an unknown quantity, however, when it comes to governing. During the campaign, Moore outlined a broad array of goals on the campaign trail — promoting “work, wages and wealth” was one of his slogans — but he has yet to unveil a list of specific items he wants to tackle in his first months in office.
Some gubernatorial campaign promises can be fulfilled through the governor’s executive actions, but others will require legislation to be passed by the General Assembly. Moore’s picks for Cabinet secretaries also will be vetted by state senators, who will hold confirmation votes. So far, Moore has made very few personnel announcements.
A spokesman for Moore did not respond to a request for comment about the governor-elect’s policy priorities.
Regardless of what Moore proposes, state lawmakers know they already have their work cut out for them on a range of issues.
High on the agenda will be following up on November’s vote to legalize the use of marijuana by adults. Maryland already has a medical cannabis industry and regulation system, and now lawmakers will need to figure out how to establish an industry for soon-to-be-legal recreational marijuana, including setting tax rates and deciding who should be allowed to grow and sell the drug.
Lawmakers will also once again wrestle with whether to make it easier for victims of child sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators and organizations that employed or supervised the perpetrators. Renewed attention has been focused on the issue as the courts weigh whether to publicly release an exhaustive new report on decades of abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Democratic leaders plan to address concerns raised when the Supreme Court struck down the Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed access to abortion care last summer.
While Maryland has had a state law guaranteeing access to abortion care since the early 1990s, legislators plan this year to start the process of enshrining that right in the state Constitution, through an amendment that would go to voters for approval in the 2024 election. A state constitutional amendment had been discussed before the Supreme Court action, but never made it all the way to voters.
Then there are the concerns that lawmakers face year after year: driving down violent crime and making communities safer, improving public education, improving transportation, fostering economic development.
Lawmakers will also figure out what to do with huge amounts of extra money in the state budget. For the current budget year that ends June 30, the state is projected to wind up with $5.5 billion extra — $3 billion in the state rainy day fund and a $2.5 billion surplus.
Hogan cautioned that the new governor and lawmakers shouldn’t spend it all in the next budget year, which will start July 1. With a potential recession or economic downturn looming, Hogan suggested it would be wise to be careful with the money.
Moore will introduce a budget proposal just two days after he is sworn in. And when lawmakers review and approve the budget, for the first time they will have much more power and flexibility than they had in the past.
Previously, state lawmakers could only cut money from a governor’s proposed budget. They couldn’t move money around or add that cut money to a different part of the budget.
Now they can, thanks to voters who approved the change during the 2020 election.
Ferguson said he thinks the budget flexibility will help lawmakers and Moore work together to tweak the budget to fund their shared priorities. Because Moore officially only has two days to introduce the budget proposal after he’s sworn in, it may largely reflect the work done by the outgoing Hogan administration.
“I suspect we will use the authority because the outgoing governor has priorities, the incoming governor has priorities and the General Assembly will be the institution that has been here and knows where we’re going,” Ferguson said.
Jones, on the other hand, said the legislature should only flex its new budget authority “if necessary.”
While Democrats drive the agenda in Annapolis — they make up 72% of the General Assembly — Republicans will work to make their voices heard.
Though Republicans are severely outnumbered, they represent millions of Marylanders, many from rural areas, who have a different view on how to solve the state’s problems, said Buckel, a Western Maryland Republican who is the House of Delegates minority leader. Republican lawmakers have a responsibility to be a voice for the other side in the face of overwhelming Democratic power, he said.
Buckel listed many of the same priorities that the Democrats have — “the holy trinity of crime, our economy and education” — but Republicans favor different policy solutions. On violence, for example, Buckel said that further restricting gun ownership hasn’t done anything to decrease shootings. And Republicans favor tougher punishments for violent offenders.
While Republicans will attempt to pass their own bills, they’ll also fight against far-left proposals that they believe are out of step with most Marylanders, Buckel said.
Buckel said he’s concerned that Democrats’ strong showing in the November election, and Moore’s massive gubernatorial win over Republican Dan Cox, will motivate Democrats to pursue more progressive policies.
“I am concerned,” he said. “There are people in the legislature who are absolutely in love with some of the farthest-left radical ideas.”
Without a Republican governor who commanded media attention and wielded a veto pen, it’s up to lawmakers to promote the party’s ideas in Annapolis.
“Our legislators really are the primary voice of Republicanism in Maryland,” Buckel said.