1.10.24 – WP- By Erin Cox and Katie Shepherd
Maryland’s General Assembly convenes Wednesday with big policy ambitions and without enough money to fund them, setting up a 90-day sprint to make tough choices needed to close a budget gap.
Democrats have held legislative majorities in Annapolis for decades, and while wielding a supermajority in recent years have passed climate change goals and a sweeping education plan and lined up plans for scores of big transportation projects. But the state’s economy has stagnated and a financial windfall from pandemic aid has evaporated, leaving policymakers with what Gov. Wes Moore (D) has described as a season of having to “say no” and set priorities.
The governor has yet to release his agenda for the upcoming session, but 188 lawmakers will gavel into their annual rush of lawmaking on Wednesday ready to unleash agendas of their own. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), for example, plans to release a “decency agenda” that is “focused on combating the rise in hate that we’ve been seeing.” Other lawmakers are keen on ensuring the Holocaust is taught in public schools or that books cannot be banned. And several are working with Moore on ways to regulate the negative possibilities tied to generative AI technology.
Here are some of the top issues up for discussion:
Reversing transportation cuts
Maryland Democrats want to blunt some of Moore’s $3.3 billion worth of cuts to transportation projects, which impacted projects planned but not yet started across the state and reduced funds immediately for things such as transit service and road maintenance.
Lawmakers from both parties have objected, with some wondering how to executethe governor’s big ambitions to build the Red Line in Baltimore and a Southern Maryland rapid transit line, and to replace the American Legion Bridge that spans the Potomac River and connects Northern Virginia with Maryland. “It’s hard for me to seriously say we’re going to build” those things “when we are cutting current transit service,” said Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
Maryland’s contribution to transportation projects are largely funded through a per-gallon gas tax, a revenue source that has dramatically declined thanks to increased fuel efficiency, remote-work patterns, and the rise of electric and hybrid-plug in vehicles.
A commission tasked with brainstorming ways to come up with transportation revenue has suggested two short-term, stopgap ideas for the legislature to enact. One would increase registration fees, either across the board for all cars or specifically on electric vehicles. A second would both boost tolls and use the toll money to pay for non-tolled projects elsewhere in the state. Neither solution is expected to generate enough money to restore most of the $3.3 billion in cut projects.
Public safety and juvenile justice
Lawmakers say constituents are concerned about crime, including carjackings and auto thefts, as well as crimes committed by juveniles. A poll conducted in the fall showed that most Marylanders endorse an approach to youth violence that favors tougher sentencing over rehabilitation through social programs and counseling.
The legislature passed in recent years designed to make the criminal justice system more just for children could be revisited, lawmakers said.
Those changes include a law that bars prosecutors from charging children under the age of 10 with a crime and allows children younger than 14 to be charged only for serious violent crimes. Another law, the Child Interrogation Protection Act, in most circumstances prevents police from interrogating a minor without allowing the child to consult with an attorney.
Several high-profile incidents — including a shooting in Baltimore involving several teenagers and the arrests of 13 teens in one day for allegedly stealing cars in Montgomery County — have sparked concerns from some lawmakers, police, prosecutors, crime victims and others who worry that the changes may have hampered the state’s ability to hold children accountable for breaking the law.
“There has to be a clearer process for knowing that when a young person is using a firearm to commit harm, there is a clear and swift consequence that is happening,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said in an interview.
“The consequence has to be actually effective at changing behavior, because that’s what matters at the end of the day. And I don’t think we have a good enough system in place to effectively say certain programs are actually and truly shifting behavior and having the impact of changing a young person’s trajectory in life,” he said.
Budget troubles and tax changes
After two years of federal pandemic aid bloating Maryland’s balance sheets, the state faces a shortfall expected to widen to more than $2.8 billion annually in five years — largely driven by a sweeping education program adopted in 2021 without a plan to pay for it.
The impending cliff has some Democrats eyeing restructuring tax codes and others prescribing more incremental solutions.
Officials say everything is one the table, from asking more of the wealthy and corporations (while giving middle- and lower-income people a break) to updating decades-old fees or legalizing online lottery sales.
“We’re going to raise [taxes] only if it’s absolutely necessary,” Jones, theHouse speaker, said, adding that “we’re looking all at all of our options.”
Moore has warned since August that the state’s “economic engine does not support our ambitions” and that both a rejiggering of the economy and budget cuts are in order.
The short-term shortfall estimated by legislative analysts last year stood near $700 million, a sum that many budget experts thought might be bridged without deep cuts to the state’s roughly $63 billion budget.
“The budget is just a matter of perspective,” said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Howard). “If your perspective was the Great Recession, this would look like a great budget. If your perspective was the past two years, when we were flush and had more resources than we have had in state history, it might not look so good.”
Guzzone’s counterpart in the House agreed: “We’re still in a posture where the long-term outlook is worse than the short-term,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s). “There will need to be a reckoning long-term.”
Republicans are eyeing the budget situation and hoping to persuade their Democratic colleagues to rein in spending.
“The truth is, we can’t pay for all of the promises that the Democratic legislature has made,” said House Minority Leader Jason Buckel (R-Allegany). “The rubber’s going to meet the road over the next 90 days on some of these issues.”
Affordable housing and child care
Top Maryland officials have started calling the state’s housing shortage “a crisis.”
The problem spans income groups and has been tied to both the state’s loss of workers and its stagnant economy, which has barely grown over the past seven years. The governor and state lawmakers intend to pitch a range of potential solutions.
More than a quarter of the state’s renters are considered “extremely low income” by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which calculates that there are 207,000 households in poverty and that the state is short 146,000 affordable homes for them. Lower- and middle-income workers who have moved out of the state often say they’re pushed away by a lack of affordable housing, according to a new report from the state comptroller.
Broadly, the housing shortage has helped drive up prices for all home buyers. The Maryland Realtor’s Association reported in December that the median sales price rose 6.7 percent from the previous month to $400,000. At the same time, the number of houses for sale dropped by 20 percent, a mismatch of supply and demand the association says creates market forces that will only drive prices higher.
Several leading lawmakers have also debated measures to expand access to affordable child care, noting its link to the state’s stagnant economy. The pandemic-era spike in child-care costs and a lower-than-expected labor force participation from women highlighted in the comptroller’s report have drawn concern from state policymakers. The state’s workforce has not rebounded since the pandemic, the report concludes, with 100,000 fewer women working. Most who left the workforce are at a peak working age, and they left at a rate at least twice as high as the national average.
In some parts of the state, such as Baltimore, a family with the area’s median income spends as much as a third of its income on child care, according to a June report from the Maryland Family Network.
The Democrats leading the General Assembly each said increasing the available housing should be a chief priority. And some Republican counterparts agree.
“In order to have a strong economy, you’ve got to have housing that is affordable,” said Ferguson, the Senate president. He listed changes to zoning laws, using state funding to boost the affordable housing supply and policies that help people buy or stay in their homes as policy ideas that are likely to advance this year.
Buckel, the House minority leader, said that “government can incentivize the type of construction that we need to make, you know, housing more affordable in Maryland.”
Implementing ambitious climate change goals
In 2022, Maryland Democrats passed some of the nation’s toughest goals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and the time has come to put them in place. The goals range from ramping up offshore wind production and hastening a transition to electric vehicles to seeking better building standards, all to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent from 2006 levels by 2031 and have net-zero emissions by 2045.
“This is the season of implementation when it comes to the state’s ambitious environmental goals, so I think we’ll be very focused on how we’re on track to meet those goals,” said Korman, who chairs the House Environment and Transportation Committee. House Economic Matters Committee Chairman C.T. Wilson (D-Calvert) said his committee will look at ways to make sure the supply chain can support the state’s wind energy goals.
Environmental advocates have questioned whether Moore’s plan to implement the goals has enough funding.
“Governor Moore has done what no Maryland Governor has done before: put forward a plan to invest $1 billion a year in the clean energy economy to eliminate our net climate pollution,” Jamie DeMarco, Maryland director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a December statement praising the governor for proposing ways to advance the environmental program. But he also criticized Moore for stopping short of embracing a specific plan to raise all the money. “It is Governor Moore’s responsibility to lead on the question of revenue raising, and not punt the hard choices to the legislature.”
Aid-in-dying for terminal patients
Maryland has long debated how to allow doctors help terminally ill patients end their lives, and the issue may have reached a tipping point this year.
Although views have shifted over time, there has not been enough support in the Senate to pass a bill, as lawmakers with concerns about protecting patients have helped vote down proposals after prolonged and emotional debates.
“From early indications, talking to members, there’s a desire to see it move forward again,” said Ferguson, the Senate president. “I think we’ll get a vote this year.”
Advocates last year shifted tactics, saying the measure protects bodily autonomy at every stage of life, including the end of life. After the Supreme Court undermined abortion access in 2022, Maryland aid-in-dying activists began making an argument to Democrats who voted to protect abortion access in the state that the value of bodily autonomy should also extend to people making decisions about their own lives and how long to endure suffering while facing down a terminal diagnosis.
Those efforts have thus far been thwarted in part by pushback from the state’s influential Catholic community and someBlack communities — groups that have historically opposed aid-in-dying — and concerns that legalizing the practice could put vulnerable people without support networks at risk of being pressured into ending their lives for financial or other reasons. But some previously opposed lawmakers, including state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), have indicated a shift in their thinking about the issue, which could open the door for the bill’s advocates this year.
Hospital and mental health access
Maryland’s emergency room wait times lag behind the other 49 states, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Unnerving reports of people waiting more than a day to be seen or suffering potentially life-threatening medical emergencies in the waiting room have prompted the state to put together a work group of hospital leaders, safety advocates and lawmakers to find a fix. Sen. Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel) said the legislature will take the issue up this session, even as the work groupcontinues to consider solutions over the next year. One such bill may aim to make it easier for hospitals to transition patients out of emergency room beds and into rehabilitation centers or other health-care facilities, she said.
Lawmakers will also attempt to ease the workforce crisis in the health-care industry by passing legislation to better fund education programs that funnel workers into the field, Beidle and Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) said. Those programs would boost the number of nurses, radiology technicians and other workers who help turn over rooms, feed and transport patients, and keep hospitals running smoothly and safely.
Beidle said the legislature is likely to tackle several other health-related issues, though she has not yet seen bills, including opening the state’s health insurance marketplace to undocumented immigrants, improving funding for mental health services and mandating more transparency in the sale of nursing homes in Maryland to protect residents and ensure continuity of services for high-risk patients.
By Katie Shepherd Katie Shepherd covers Maryland state politics and government for The Washington Post’s Metro Desk. She previously covered Montgomery County, Md., and wrote about Health & Science for the Post’s National Desk. Before joining The Post, she was a staff writer at Willamette Week in Portland, Ore. Twitter