The Maryland General Assembly opened its 2017 session Wed., Jan. 11 with the standard, quite insincere talk of bipartisanship between overwhelmingly Democratic legislative chambers and a crowd-pleasing Republican governor.
Larry Hogan is riding a popularity wave in one of the nation's wealthiest states, with 4.2 percent unemployment, and is a wily opponent for the Democrats, who have plenty of wit deficits of their own and a lamentable habit of kowtowing to the business interests that bankroll their reelection campaigns. And Hogan has Trump-like skills at parlaying big-time untruths via skillful memes. Commentators noted his ability to make his inaccurate description of a highway priorities bill as the "Roadkill Bill" (more on this below) stick and even flimflam the press in the absence of substantive pushback from legislators.
The legislators will be wrestling with a revenue shortfall that will almost certainly require cuts -- Hogan has dropped a low-road budget on their desks and they can only move money around within it -- but the inadequacy of the state's unfair tax system seems to be off the table. The few genuinely progressive legislators in Maryland can't get that critical piece in front of their tax-averse colleagues.
Education will be a flashpoint, with Hogan's budget cutting into state aid for -- mostly -- those counties that didn't vote for him, such as the urban suburbs of Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore. The legislature's holier-than-thou demands for higher funding were rendered ludicrous by a tasty Baltimore Sun analysis showing that the highly-touted use of casino revenue to support the schools was a lie -- when casino money went to schools, money from other sources went out the back door for other legislative priorities, leaving the schools in the same boat as pre-casinos. The practice pretty much replicated the nationwide habit of taking federal Title One money for poverty schools and diverting it to schools in better-off areas.
Fissures began to appear the very first day of the session. Senate President Mike Miller appeared to position himself triangulation-style as a bridge between Gov. Larry Hogan and that rascal, Mike Busch, the House of Delegates' leader -- who had the nerve to suggest he might be ready to fight with Hogan right off the bat.
Miller suggested he might be willing to revise that transportation bill that Hogan has complained bitterly (and inaccurately) ties his hands when it comes to prioritizing road and transit spending. What Hogan means is that the bill requires him to justify his priorities, meaning he can't easily please his base in non-urban Maryland with road projects at the expense of urban roads and transit.
Josh Bollinger in the Easton Star-Democrat is one of several observers who noted Miller's triangulating: "But Miller looked to the governor Wednesday when he said a road bill will come back up during this legislative session," Bollinger wrote. "The House might not be in accord with it, but we're going to look to you for some ideas ... to make it more palatable for yourself and the administrative," Miller said to Hogan. Busch, to his credit, has said more directly he is ready to contest Hogan on that transportation bill, leaving it unchanged, and touted several priorities, including lowering the cost of community colleges, with a progressive tinge.
But if Miller, the ol' deal-maker who at 31 years' tenure is the national record-holder as leader of a state legislative chamber, continues to play middle-man and keep the state of play confused, progressives' eyes should not be averted from the way both houses keep their contributors in the business sector happy. Each chamber has a killing floor -- the House Economic Matters Committee and the Senate Finance Committee -- where pro-worker and pro-family legislation goes to die if it has the least chance of cutting the profits of businesses and development interests. The lobbyists are always busy, as they are well paid to be.
The Baltimore Business Journal reported that Del. Derek Davis of Prince George's, the chair of that same Economic Matters Committee, will file a bill pre-empting local governments -- counties and Baltimore City -- from passing their own minimum wage regulation. Like Ike Leggett, who vetoed Montgomery County's $15/hr bill, Davis appears to be preparing a foam of business goodwill for a soft and cushy landing in the private sector when he leaves office.
The progressive agenda therefore contains a number of good bills that have died numerous times in recent sessions and are coming back stronger. Progressive organizations and allies are engaged in growing work in policy formation and change in the areas of police reform, fair elections, economic democracy and strengthening of stable communities. All those aspects will be in play in the 2017 General Assembly.
Baltimore's Job Opportunity Task Force released a two-tier action plan as the Assembly session opened Jan. 11. Their top or "signature" priorities include the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act - Earned Sick Days, a longtime objective that fell just short last year. A weak and divisive alternative plan from Hogan should not be allowed to confuse the legislators (which is the intention). Some three quarters of a million working Marylanders have no paid sick leave. The JOTF proposed legislation would allow workers to earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of seven days per year for full-time workers. The same business interests that had Ike Leggett's ear as he vetoed Montgomery's $15/hr minimum wage bill were lining up to back Hogan's alternative, which would exempt smaller businesses and require paid sick leave only from larger businesses that often already provide it.
JOTF also prioritizes Criminal Record Expungement -- Non-Convictions, a package of several reforms that will make it easier for returning citizens to gain jobs or higher education. Convictions will be expunged or application questions about criminal history will be reduced or eliminated ("Ban the Box"). To reduce the impact of pretrial conditions on persons and families, JOTF also advocates Pretrial/Bail Reform and elimination of the public benefits (SNAP, etc.) suspension or cancellation for felony drug offenses; as well as a move to make community colleges more affordable, and implementation of adult high schools for training and credentials, and broader workforce development and training.
Progressive Maryland, a worker- and community-oriented grassroots organization mainly operating in Prince George's and Montgomery, has prioritized bail reform and a bill significantly expanding the way the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) programs interact to provide important support to working and poor families in the state.
The Baltimore Sun reported as the Assembly opened that:
"The caucus supports abolishing Maryland's cash bail system. Its members want to bring more transparency to how police departments use body cameras and aerial footage, and when that information can be released to the public," the Sun continued. "The caucus members also back a plan by health care groups and Attorney General Brian Frosh aimed at preventing drug companies from price gouging."
State environmental organizations have prioritized an override of Hogan's veto after the 2016 session of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, an omnibus package that would train workers for jobs in renewable energy and raise the state's goals for the proportion of renewable energy in the mix of electric power sources. A package of other priorities is expected to emerge from a Jan. 26 Environmental Summit in Annapolis including the difficult issue of a hydraulic fracking ban, much desired by the environmental community but contentious in Western Maryland because it promises employment. Ban or not, the Hogan administration's loophole-filled proposal for regulating the industry will get plenty of scrutiny from skeptical legislators.
The state's still-strong labor forces are largely aligned with the social policy and pro-worker thrust of JOTF and Progressive Maryland but are somewhat buying into the environmental movement's growing emphasis on job training, a "just transition" to renewable energy and the infrastructure job opportunities of solar and offshore wind. Some of the traditional difficulties between labor and environment are breaking down, though slowly.
As Metro DC DSA's reach expands policywise into suburban Maryland -- where it has always had good numbers -- organizations like JOTF, Progressive Maryland, the grassroots support for the legislative Black Caucus and the state's strong environmental coalition offer ample opportunity for coalition work and bringing our analysis to state and local issues and problems. The nascent county-level groupings of Our Revolution are forming this coming month in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and will act as a further bridge for democratic socialist analysis and action at the state and local level, where the rebuilding of a really democratic coalition must begin.