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House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, right, and Senate President Bill Ferguson, shown in a 2020 photo, will be working with a Democratic governor in the 2023 legislative session. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

1.8.23 – Daily Record – By: Bryan P. Sears Daily Record – ANNAPOLIS

Moore has his priorities — and Md. legislative leaders have theirs, too.

The pace of the 2023 session of the Maryland General Assembly may likely seem different than in recent years. The vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions and modifications are gone, as is an eight-year era of divided government.

The legislature will have a new Democratic governor in Wes Moore, the first Black man to lead Maryland and just the third elected as governor in the country. The Democratic-controlled assembly will also have new budget authority.

There will also be dozens of new legislators in the House, led by Speaker Adrienne Jones, and in the Senate, led by Senate President Bill Ferguson.

Not including any appointments Moore may announce, the 141-member House will have at least 29 new members. The 47-member Senate will have nine freshman.

“This is a different year, since we’re now (not) only in a new term, new governor and a lot of other new members, we have several new members and others that are in the positions that we need to deal with in terms of our priority,” said Jones.

With all of that change, the pace and priorities might seem more modest than usual, at least at the start.

Both Ferguson and Jones expressed optimism and believed there would be improved communication with the governor’s office under Moore. Still, Ferguson said, the work of the General Assembly will continue even as the new administration, led by an executive with no government experience, finds its footing.

“You know, look at the end of the day, and I think about the last three years in particular. You know, I think when the Senate led Marylanders benefited, and I think that that will be the case, regardless of whom the executive is, and that we will use a different set of tools at times, but we will continue to lead,” said Ferguson. “And that’s an important value that the Senate has espoused and demonstrated for many, many years. I think we proved it over the last three years, and Marylanders agreed and expanded our supermajority by two members. So we are the stabilizing force. And I think that is what Marylanders will expect to see and that we will deliver upon with a new governor.”

Top priorities

One priority Moore has identified is an acceleration of the state’s $15 minimum wage law.

The state’s minimum wage increased to $13.25 per hour on Jan. 1. And while many businesses are paying more than the current rate, the state will not require $15 per hour for most employers until 2025.

Jones called it a priority.

“Yeah, it needs to be done,” she said. “I think it can be done.”

Another key priority for Jones and many Democrats is the passage of an amendment to the Maryland Constitution ensuring access to abortions.

Jones, and her predecessor, Speaker Michael Busch, both proposed such an amendment only to see the Senate, under two different leaders, block it. Last year, Ferguson declared the proposal dead, saying it would not get a vote on the floor.

But a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision ratcheted up the desire by Democrats to make the change — even if it is as much symbolic as necessary.

This year, Ferguson, in an interview, vowed a different fate for the amendment.

“We will have the constitution amendment on the floor. I believe it will pass,” said Ferguson.

Jones said she’s optimistic it will pass and be on the ballot for voter approval in 2024.

“I think the mere fact that (Ferguson) shared that with a member of the press (is an indication) that it will happen,” said Jones. “We’ve had a conversation. It will happen.”

Pot legalization

The House and Senate are also on the clock as they negotiate how a new recreational cannabis market will be licensed, regulated and taxed.

Leaders on the issue stress the need to have the industry up and running by July 1 in order to prevent illicit dealers from establishing a beachhead in a post-cannabis-prohibition era.

“I think it is a definite that we will pass legislation, put it on the governor’s desk by the end of session that deals with the most important aspects of the cannabis, cannabis market, adult use marketplace implementation,” said Ferguson.

Jones, however, suggested more time might be needed.

“You want to get something right,” said Jones. “I don’t like to say, ‘OK, on this date’ because sometimes there could be little nicks that happens but the only thing I can say is that it’s our desire get it done and get it done right and not just rushing to say OK, we gotta get this done.”

Gun regulation

Lawmakers will grapple with another recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended the state’s good and substantial reason requirement for obtaining a wear-and-carry handgun permit.

Because of the decision, the number of permits issued is expected to grow. A report by legislative analysts found that more than 54,000 applications had been made to the Maryland State Police as of September.

“I don’t know what the right number is,” said Ferguson. “What I know is that there should be criteria for when people can carry a gun. I you know, I think about it with my own with my own kids, you know, sending them to amusement parks and when they go to church, well, you know, I just I think that I have great deal of concern that unfettered access to guns is not a solution to gun violence.”

Red Line revival

Moore made a campaign promise to resurrect the 14.1 mile Red Line light rail project that was meant to connect Woodlawn to Bayview Hospital in east Baltimore.

Outgoing two-term Republican Gov. Larry Hogan nixed the project in 2015, calling it a boondoggle. Moore and Democrats see it as necessary in addressing income gaps in Baltimore.

Jones said access to jobs would have had a wider impact on public safety in a city that recorded 300 or more murders for the eighth straight year.

“I firmly believe had that been able to get established when it was supposed to get established that our crime rate would have been going down,” she said.

But a revived transportation plan will look like is unknown. Moore and Democrats now use East-West transportation system interchangeably with Red Line. They also say the original plans will have to be revisited and perhaps reimagined.

“I think there’s enormous potential with new technology around bus rapid transit,” said Ferguson. “That is, you get a lot more miles per dollar and you can do it faster. And it’s not just east-west. And I think that what we need is a system. We don’t need just one line. And I think that’s going to be the key is that any place where you have a metropolitan area where there is an effective system of transit, those are the ones that benefit the most.”

Jones said the transit line could even be larger than originally planned.

“It may be something that’s either more expanded because we’re talking about something back then,” said Jones. “And then we’re in 2023. So it may be something that’s more applicable in terms of the times we were in. So maybe it’s a modification of that (original plan).”