Political Events Around Assembly Session Sketch a Divided Debate

Compiled by Woody Woodruff

As the state General Assembly session got under way Jan. 9, events inside and outside the legislative halls sketched a political portrait of the state adjusting to four more years of divided government:

►A left-leaning budget policy think tank is calling for sweeping changes to the state’s tax code to pay for billions in increased public education spending. Experts with the Maryland Center on Economic Policy said the changes they recommend would result in an $1.9 billion increase in state revenue — enough to pay for what the organization believes will be the state’s portion of recommendations from the Kirwan Commission. The organization said the current state of Maryland’s tax system doesn’t collect enough money to pay for expected increases in education spending. (Daily Record) Danielle Gaines of Maryland Matters had the details without the paywall:

►Larry Hogan is trying to sneak more charter schools in as the education funding debate sharpens, draining money away from public schools. As Jeff Bryant shows in a Progressive Breakfast analysis, the LA teachers' strike was fought on the battleground of a huge charter school impact on their system -- and they won. “The emergence of charter schools as an important consideration in teacher collective bargaining agreements, and the recognition of charters as a form of privatization, are two major developments in the education policy and politics of choice,” Bryant writes. “Republican lawmakers held a press conference [in mid-January] on Capitol Hill to kick off National School Choice Week, an annual event that began in 2011 under President Obama -- who proclaimed it as a time to ‘recognize the role public charter schools play in providing America’s daughters and sons with a chance to reach their fullest potential.’ This year, Democratic lawmakers took a pass on the celebration. You can thank striking teachers for that.”

►WJZ TV had the AP short version of the ruling Dems’ agenda for the session, where Styrofoam (certainly a scourge) vaulted to the front of putative enviro concerns thanks to Dereck Davis, the formidable chair of House Economic Matters, the committee where good bills go to die. His backing means the bill might take fewer than four years to get passed. Banning plastic bags? Increasing the required renewables percentage of power generation? Pesticides on lawns? Crickets.

Danielle Gaines of Maryland Matters has the full priority list in tidy form:

  • Curbing the cost of prescription drug costs by establishing a commission to increase transparency for the cost and choices of prescription drugs, as well as legislation to cap the out of pocket drug costs to state retirees.
  • Protecting health insurance reforms, including the Affordable Care Act ban on denying insurance for pre-existing conditions.
  • Limiting tobacco use to those over 21 years of age, a top policy priority of the Legislative Black Caucus and a move already undertaken by six other states.
  • Banning 3-D guns and gun-building kits to create “ghost guns.”
  • Banning polystyrene to curb waterway pollution and potential negative health effects.
  • Adding $20 million to the state’s budget for child care tax credits to expand access to the program.

“The fact that [the formerly failed initiatives prescription drug cost controls, $15 minimum wage and the polystyrene ban are] now leadership-approved measures reflects the leftward drift of the Democratic caucuses in both changes of the legislature,” Gaines observed.\

►The Assembly Dems could hardly be considered courageous when you consider what the voters of Maryland appear to be feeling about the Fight for $15: In one of the top issues facing legislators in Annapolis this session, 61% of Maryland voters favor raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and almost half (47%) strongly favor the idea, according to a new poll for MarylandReporter.com by Gonzales Research & Media Services. Len Lazarick of Maryland Reporter has the story. And the state Fight for $15 Coalition was out front early in support.

►Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed “Lexus Lanes” on the MoCo section of I-495 (Beltway) and I-270 are piling up roadblocks in the General Assembly session as hyperlocal resistance, evidence from proponents of a superior mass-transit alternative and deep skepticism of public-private partnership “pixie dust” embedded in the Hogan scheme for financing the project (in the range of $10 billion or more) accumulate. Here is a roundup, to which can be added that Sen. Clarence Lam and Del. Marc Korman of MoCo have dropped a bill pushing Hogan right up to the table on the multistate pact to cut emissions from the transportation sector (definitely not a predictable side effect of more lanes on the Interstates) “FOR the purpose of authorizing the Governor to include the State as a full participant in a certain initiative, agreement, or compact that limits or reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector;” and so forth.

►And another cute Hogan “public private partnership” scheme, to build a superfluous Baltimore-Washington Maglev system plowing right through vulnerable neighborhoods, got a highly skeptical reception from the Assembly’s Black Caucus, especially when the private-sector proponent appeared to claim a private right of eminent domain. Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-Prince George’s) said “It doesn’t stop where we are. It’s not meant to serve us. It’s meant to serve people who are going to spend a couple hundred dollars to shave off five minutes.”

►Several decades ago, a commission headed by Alvin Thornton set new standards for equitable funding for the state’s diverse school districts, from rich Howard County to underfunded Baltimore City. Cheesy behavior by everyone in the Dem-dominated governments let those commitments trickle away, especially during the Great Recession. Two decades later, a commission headed by former UM chancellor Brit Kirwan updated the funding issue and added a deep dive into best educational practices, resulting in a money-and-reform package that will struggle for full funding but got everyone’s attention. A longtime education advocate, commission member and Prince George’s state senator, Paul Pinsky, sounded the note of now or never in this recap.

►Meanwhile the IT revolution is playing its usual catchup in Maryland government, where livestreaming of floor sessions is finally coming to the Assembly. But the Info Systems folks working on the Assembly schedule’s online presence found themselves disrupting the lunch dates of lobbyists by setting up real-time schedule changes in hearing dates and times. The lobby lobby, a very powerful and well-paid gaggle, complained that it was too hard to schedule their army of influencers this way. The Maryland Reporter quoted one kingpin: “ ‘We need dependability and reliability. The staffs and lobbyists can’t spend the entire day looking at your screens,’ said Bruce Bereano, one of the state’s top-grossing lobbyists with dozens of clients.” (and also one of several top-grossing Maryland lobbyists to have served jail time for pushing the envelope). There were no complaints from the unpaid lobbyists who flock to Annapolis many a Monday to engage with their Assembly members without benefit of contributions to their campaigns.

►Elections have consequences; Anne Arundel County voted out a blatantly right-wing county exec, and “Federal immigration officials have confirmed that they ended a contract with a Maryland county to house immigration detainees because local officials quit participating in a screening program. The Capital reports that a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an email that the decision to end the contract with Anne Arundel County was tied directly to the county’s decision to no longer participate in the 287(g) program. The program trains correction officers to screen inmates for immigration violations. [New] County Executive Steuart Pittman [D] withdrew from the program in December, saying it didn’t make people safer,” WJZ-TV reported.

Anne Arundel County activist Claire Miller said in her Jan. 28 report in the Progressive Maryland Weekly Memo that “On December 27, 2018, County Executive Steuart Pittman kept his campaign promise and ended the county's ICE agreement that had county detention officers screening detainees for their immigration status. He also stated he would use some of the federal funds the county received for housing detainees to help detainees with their immigration hearings. Unlike criminal proceedings, immigrants are not assigned public defenders for immigration hearings.

“Councilman Nathan Volke introduced two resolutions in an attempt to persuade County Exec Pittman to sign a new agreement with ICE and to persuade him not to use federal funds for housing detainees to help with immigration hearings for detainees.

“Anne Arundel County Council voted 4 to 3 to defeat Resolutions 1-19 and 2-19 at last Tuesday night's County Council meeting. The council voted along party lines: 3 Republicans for and 4 Democrats against.”

►In the DC burbs, MoCo’s MDC DSA branch was one of four progressive groups in the county -- who campaigned separately and together for endorsed candidates last Fall -- who met recently to celebrate success. In particular, they welcomed new County Executive Marc Elrich, a persistent left voice in the county, now in charge of a jurisdiction larger than ten US states. Our frequent contributor Hal Ginsberg described the celebration.

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