Maryland state lawmakers head back to work tomorrow, facing down a hole in the budget and pressure to address crime and violence involving young people.

For the next 90 days, members of the General Assembly will hear hours upon hours of testimony and consider thousands of bills. Advocates will host rallies on Lawyers Mall and lobbyists will make the case for their clients.

Over the course of the marathon of lawmaking, delegates and senators will pass a multibillion-dollar budget to run state services and agencies while they work to address issues ranging from housing to health care, crime to climate change.

The Baltimore Banner spoke with Democratic and Republican leaders, and here’s what they said Marylanders should expect over the next three months.

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‘Tough fiscal realities’ loom

One of the most important tasks, leading lawmakers say, will be addressing “tough fiscal realities,” as House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones put it.

The state’s budget — $63 billion last year — has been flush with cash for the last few years, from a combination of an influx of federal aid and an economy that rebounded from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the economic winds are shifting, meaning there are limited resources available, particularly for the ambitious plans that Democratic politicians have for priorities such as boosting public schools and improving public transit.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, will propose his budget next week, a spending plan to cover 12 months of government programs and operations starting July 1. Last month, analysts did the math and figured out that the state is $761 million short of what it would need for the next budget year. And that gap is expected to grow in coming years.

That means Moore will need to consider cutting back on spending, raising more money, dipping into reserve accounts — or some combination of the three. After Moore presents his budget proposal, state lawmakers will have the chance to nip and tuck and make their own changes.

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“We have to prioritize what we’re spending on,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “Projected costs are greater than projected revenues. We have to take actions today, now, that will set us up to be more aligned and in balance in the future.”

Ferguson said he hopes to enact policies that grow Maryland’s economy in the future, particularly seizing on opportunities in technology and cybersecurity, but acknowledged that the state must currently live within its means. Some fees may be on the table, but he said that broad-based tax increases are not under consideration “in major ways,” he said.

Some advocates are pushing for tax increases targeted on high earners, including a return of a higher tax on millionaires and possible changes to corporate tax laws that enable some companies to avoid paying taxes in state.

“Not only is there a structural deficit looming, but the also the General Assembly has been passing policies that have cost Marylanders more money and they haven’t had a way to fund those policies,” said Sen. Stephen Hershey, the Republican minority leader in the Senate.

The budget picture also affects transportation, with officials predicting a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the long-term construction program for roads, highways and transit. The Maryland Department of Transportation has proposed slashing projects.

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A commission created by lawmakers has come up with proposals of ways to raise money for transportation, including creating a fee for electric cars and raising tolls. Lawmakers could take up some increases, but also will watch as the transportation funding commission continues its work.

Addressing juvenile crime

Lawmakers from both parties agree that the government needs to do a better job addressing young people involved in crime — though Republicans and Democrats differ on what adjustments may be needed.

“People need to feel safe,” said Jones, a Democrat from Baltimore County. “The Department of Juvenile Services and law enforcement need to take a more coordinated approach to keeping youth and our neighborhoods safe. We’re not serving these youth and the people they victimized.”

Republicans — as well as some police and prosecutors — want to roll back recent juvenile justice reforms, particularly one law that limits when children younger than 13 can be criminally charged and another that requires that a minor in police custody consult with a lawyer before being questioned by police.

Democrats have been firm that rolling back those protections for minors are off the table. But Democratic leaders have signaled they’re open to tweaks of the recent laws, though not wholesale changes. The House of Delegates held a series of hearings in the fall to gather information to guide their decisions this session.

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In the Senate, Ferguson said greater scrutiny on the Department of Juvenile Services has given lawmakers a better understanding of what works and what does not.

Lawmakers also could consider the operations and programs within the Department of Juvenile Services: How DJS decides whether children should go to court or be offered other services, and which programs are available for both kids in state custody and those who are being supervised in the community.

“We’ve got to find ways to be more regularly holding the juvenile services system accountable for outcomes,” Ferguson said.

Maryland state Sen. Stephen Hershey, the Senate minority leader, speaks during a press conference outlining Republican lawmakers' proposals on criminal justice for the 2024 General Assembly session. The press conference was held at the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.
Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Stephen Hershey, center, hold a press conference in November outlining their criminal justice proposals for the 2024 Maryland General Assembly session. (Pamela Wood)

Republican efforts

Democrats outnumber Republicans by a two-to-one margin and largely control the agenda for 90 days. As a result, Republicans often find themselves limited to pushing for tweaks to make Democratic-sponsored bills slightly more palatable.

This session, Republican leaders expect to fight against proposals to raise taxes and fees to close the state’s long-term budget gap.

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“If you want to pay for all the promises you made, you have to raise taxes significantly,” said Del. Jason Buckel, the House of Delegates Republican leader. “That is not something that Marylanders want, polling generally shows that.”

Buckel said lawmakers should take a hard look at the spending obligations piling up before them: the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education plan that will cost billions more per year when fully implemented, a climate-fighting plan that could cost $1 billion per year, the over-budget Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs, the proposed Red Line in Baltimore that doesn’t yet have a price tag.

“We can’t afford these things,” he said.

Republicans will also face an uphill battle on juvenile justice reforms.

Buckel said some of the Democrats’ ideas have merit, such as improving DJS programs or expanding probation, but they’ve got to be paired with greater accountability for kids who cause harm to others.

“Sometimes you have to accept half measures from the Democratic majority,” he said.

Hershey said Marylanders across the state have been pressing their politicians to take action on juvenile crime, including in Democrat-dominated areas like Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs. He cautioned repercussions if Democrats don’t address juvenile crime.

“They’re the ones who have to go back to their district after the 90-day session and explain to their constituents what they did,” said Hershey, who represents the Eastern Shore. “I wouldn’t want to go back and say we tweaked something. I’d want to go back and say we did something to make our streets safer.”

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, entering his second year in office, has yet to unveil most of his agenda for the 2024 General Assembly session. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Gov. Moore factor unknown

One factor that’s unclear is what Moore’s priorities will be in his second year in office. The Democratic governor’s office has promised 12 to 15 bills, including measures to combat crime and promote affordable housing.

But Moore has so far unveiled two proposals: One to help military spouses get jobs in state government and another to give more time off to state government workers for service in the National Guard.

Moore’s office did not accommodate requests from The Baltimore Banner and other media outlets for interviews with the governor prior to the General Assembly session’s first day.

In his first year, Moore made a point of testifying in person on his highest-priority proposals, and dispatching Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller and cabinet secretaries for others — a stark change from former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who never testified before lawmakers or worked directly with lawmakers on his bills.

Lawmakers from both parties said last year that they welcomed the additional attention from the governor.

Moore counts his first-year success as 10-for-10, with all of his proposals being approved, though some were significantly altered. He succeeded in boosting tax credits for low-income workers, giving a modest increase to a tax break for retired veterans, accelerating the planned increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour and creating a paid service program for young adults.

Now Moore has a year of governing experience under his belt, and lawmakers are eager to see what else he proposes this year.

“You’ve got your first year under your belt so you get more of a feeling of how things work around here,” Jones said of the governor.

Other issues

The other 2,000-plus bills will run the gamut from minor technical bills to significant policy issues.

Lawmakers will come to Annapolis seeking money to pay for construction projects for parks, schools and nonprofit organizations. They’ll continue to tweak local liquor laws and local hunting rules, as they do every year. They may seek adjustments to the laws governing newly legal cannabis sales.

Lawmakers will likely be presented with a new plan for reviving the thoroughbred horse racing industry by having the state (or a state-designated entity) take ownership of the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. A prior law passed in 2020 set out a plan for state-financed upgrades to Pimlico as well as Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County; that law would need to be reworked to support the new plan that focuses only on Pimlico.

They may consider implementing some of the many recommendations for fighting climate change recently proposed, such as pushing people to choose electric heat pumps and vehicles instead of fossil-fueled options.

Advocates again will push for Maryland to legalize medical aid in dying, a proposal that came ever-so-close to passing before the coronavirus pandemic. Under the proposal, terminally ill patients — after going through several hoops — could request prescriptions for drugs they could take to end their lives.

And, without fail, something always comes up that no one has predicted at all.

Maybe it could be efforts to keep the Washington Commanders in Maryland, or maybe it will be something else, Ferguson surmised.

“Some issue like that will jump out,” Ferguson said. “But this year feels very much like a governance session. There’s not a headline thing. It is very much like you just go to do the work.”

Del. Jazz Lewis, a Prince George’s Democrat entering his first session as House majority whip, said lawmakers are prepared to handle whatever comes their way.

“We have a good system in place to respond to anything,” he said.

Baltimore Banner reporter Brenda Wintrode contributed to this report.