April 2017Strategy

MD Assembly's jockeying with Hogan for advantages in 2018 election

In this year before the 2018 gubernatorial election -- when Maryland Democrats will pull out all the stops to oust Republican Governor Larry Hogan so a Democratic "trifecta" of governor and both Assembly chambers can have a free hand on post-2020 Census realignment of electoral districts -- legislation and progressive activism are showing many convergences.

With a little less than two weeks left in the Assembly session, quite a lot of action is moving faster than one would expect. In part that's because the Assembly is tired of waiting a whole year to override Larry Hogan's vetoes and are putting some of their choicest material in front of him in a way that statutorily requires him to veto them now, rather than after the session, so the override can come before the April 10 sine die.

Always in the background is Democrats' hopes to tie the unpopular GOP president to Hogan, whose popularity ratings have been sinking in tandem with Donald Trump's abysmal ones in Maryland.

At least some progressive goals seem within reach.

A reluctant Assembly seems, after five years, ready to install paid sick leave across the state for businesses with 15 employees or more, shielding three quarters of a million Maryland workers from the risk of firing or losing a day's pay to take care of a sick child or avoid going to work sick themselves (a public health concern, clearly, where food service workers are involved). It's a tribute to unflagging pro-worker activism solidly behind the bills of the past four years despite their frequent death by committee. But in part Assembly Democrats will make the move to blunt any political advantage from Hogan's entirely inadequate counteroffer of paid sick leave for employees of firms with 50 or more employees. Most of such firms already offer paid sick leave, meaning Hogan's plan would have nearly zero impact.

At this writing the Senate bill offers five days accrued leave per year and the House seven days, so they must be reconciled. But it seems likely some sort of paid sick leave will finally be passed. A concurrent "Fight for Fifteen" campaign to raise the state's already-escalating minimum wage to activists' consensus national goal is probably in the consciousness-raising stage this year but will have more legs because of it for next year. Within that campaign is a push to include tipped labor in the full wage rather than a lower level, similar to the campaigns in Montgomery County and the Restaurant Opportunity Council ballot initiative in the District.

The session began with an override of Hogan's veto last session of a comprehensive environmental bill that raised the bar on non-carbon fuel use for Maryland's public power and also added a significant green jobs state initiative component. Environmental groups have also seen big-time success in pushing a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the state (possibly reducing the impact and appeal of the Cove Point LNG shipping facility) and reducing use of antibiotics in chicken production, a significant employer on the Eastern Shore. The governor, reading the tea leaves, abandoned a fracking moratorium and endorsed the ban.

But politics are heavily embedded in many legislative initiatives. Democrats are keen to tie Hogan to Donald Trump, whose popularity in the state is in the 20-30 percent range, and a Trump Effect appears visible in Hogan's own numbers. Although he remains personally popular (in part because of his celebrated battle with cancer soon after his election) only a minority of state voters now want to see him re-elected. Veto fights are a way to sharpen that contrast and make Hogan embrace or abandon Trump and the national GOP crazies.

The Trump administration's active threat to the state's health care system and its entanglement with the state budget was the subject of a major report in part backed by People's Action and presented by Progressive Maryland and state health-care advocates.  Bills that would set up a commission to monitor the threat and propose solutions are pending in both sides of the Assembly but time is getting late for their approval. It's a good question whether the collapse of Trump's repeal-and-replace effort in the US House will make it seem a more or less urgent issue to Assembly leadership.

Also included in that array of potential veto fights is an education bill that curtails Hogan's opportunities to amp up charter schools and private-school vouchers. However, the legislators didn't face up to a challenge on private school scholarships, agreeing to a part of Hogan's budget that nearly doubles the amount of money that can be applied to private-school scholarships.

Legislators also tweaked Hogan's GOP whiskers with a measure giving the state's attorney general money for five new attorneys for the purpose of suing the federal government.

Trump budget threats against Planned Parenthood and public broadcasting got promises from the Assembly to make up any shortfalls. However, a bill from the House that severely restricts local governments' ability to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement got a chicken-hearted nay from Senate President Mike Miller, probably shaken by the hype over a Rockville rape case; he said the Trust Act wouldn't get out of a Senate committee in its present form.

An attempt to reduce or eliminate cash bail was foundering at the end of March. A struggle to agree with the state's highest court that cash bail unconstitutionally discriminates against the poor and low-income workers is sputters as bills that would complement that agreement are being held back but a bill sponsored by Sen. Anthony Muse of Prince George's, which clearly carries water for the bail-bond industry, works to nullify the court ruling. Progressives were pushing back hard on both the bail measure and stalled Trust Act at this writing. Muse's bill suffered a major setback when the Legislative Black Caucus overwhelmingly voted for its withdrawal March 30, much reducing the chance it would pass both chambers.

Less heralded bills and campaigns that nevertheless represent the nuts and bolts of progressive activism in the state included an effort to improve the state's miserable level of Child care reimbursement; and a pushback (unsuccessful; see above) against a year-old Hogan program using public funds for private school vouchers including underwriting some dubious textbooks.

More locally, Maryland activists including Progressive Maryland have been joined by enthusiastic Maryland members of the DC DSA local's Economic Justice Committee in the fight for passage of a $15 minimum wage level in Montgomery County -- an effort that got a controversial veto from County Executive Ike Leggett. The DCDSA EJC has been working with MoCo councilmember Marc Elrich (once and future DSA member), who authored the original bill and seeks a way to persuade Leggett or get the one more vote needed to override. Most recently the newly elected Mayor of Baltimore vetoed a $15 minimum wage measure passed by the City Council, keeping the conflict alive at the city/county level.

No move among public officials in Maryland will bring the revolution anytime soon. But the still-smarting defeat by Hogan in 2014 has energized an Assembly that has in the past been far more attentive to business concerns than those of working families and consumers. In turn, the quest to return the state to all-blue governance in 2018 has found public officials' actions aligning far more with the campaigns of progressive activists than has been true in previous years. Given that all members of the Assembly will face re-election next year too, with the incentive to cast more cautious votes, this may be the last session for a year or so to see this much progressive accomplishment -- despite the pending and pent-up "Fight for Fifteen."

The Assembly's perhaps convenient awakening is mirrored by a growth of progressive groups and coalitions in the state and in localities. Metro DC DSA is examining how to provide both support and autonomy to new and existing members in Maryland, and our growth is mirrored by groups as various as IndivisibleMD, OurRevolutionMD and Nasty Women of AA County. Progressives will be trying to change the game in the direction of at least a social-democratic array of reforms still on the horizon, in part by diversifying the now-orthodox pathway to candidacy for office in Maryland and recruiting genuine progressives for the 2018 races at state and county levels.

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