ANNAPOLIS — Long-time Democratic leaders in the House and Senate vowed to place the first marker on what they see as a coming historic increase in state education funding.
The vast majority of those increases and how they will be paid for are deferred for at least a year. Still, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said they will lay the groundwork for the Kirwan Commission’s coming recommendations and what is currently $4.4 billion in potential new spending.
“This year we’re going to put a peg in the ground that they’re not going to make us pull up,” said Miller. “We’re going to fund Kirwan despite the governor’s opposition.”
Miller’s comments were made at the Annapolis Summit, separate public interviews with the legislative leaders and the governor sponsored by The Daily Record just a few hours before the opening gavel Wednesday for the 2019 legislative session. They signal what is likely to be a contentious 90 days of debates over education, school construction funding, clean energy rules, prison sentencing rules, legalized marijuana and sports betting, and increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
About one-third of the legislature — some five dozen members — are new to the House and Senate this year.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan enters his second term (he’s officially sworn-in on Monday) facing a General Assembly that is not only more Democratic but also considered more left-leaning.
Hogan has raised concerns about the costs of the Kirwan Commission and previously rejected the possibility of increasing taxes to pay for what lawmakers see as an effort to make the state’s public education system “world class.”
“I was disappointed that the leaders of the legislature pulled the plug on the Kirwan report and pushed it back until next year,” said Hogan. “I was hoping to get a report. From what I saw from the preliminary discussions, a lot of the policy stuff is great. I agree with most of the things in the report. I’d love to see a lot of it take place.”
“But they did not come up with any funding formulas and they did not come up with any proposals for generating revenues,” Hogan said, touting his record of funding education.
Much of the funding increases come as a result of required formula increases that push education spending higher each year. Other portions of that came from legislature who found themselves trying to force Hogan to spend more.
“The governor’s comments were absolutely nonsense. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense personified,” said Miller.
Hogan has been hesitant to talk about funding the costs associated with Kirwan in the absence of any final recommendations or a price tag — a position that appeared to rankle the leader of the House of Delegates.
“He’s the one who has to come up with some suggestions on to fund it,” said Busch. “Give us some ideas, governor. You’re the one who’s got to put the money in the budget.”
Hogan also voiced concern about legislative proposals to increase the state’s minimum wage beyond the $10.10 an hour enacted last year.
“We already have one of the highest minimum wages in America,” Hogan said. “We’re by far the highest in the region and one of the highest in the country.”
The question, he said, is whether an increase would be “helping or hurting people” if it leads to job losses. Hogan stressed that job-training programs would help lift workers out of minimum wage jobs.
“You’re not supposed to be able to support a family on the minimum wage,” he said.
The governor didn’t take a direct position but questioned the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and whether it would make the state less competitive with neighboring states such as Virginia.
Close to legalizing marijuana?
The legalization of recreational marijuana in Maryland could be as close as two years away though Busch and Miller are not yet on the same path to accomplishing the task.
Busch said the legislature could pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would put the issue of legalization before Maryland voters in 2020.
“I personally prefer a straight up or down vote,” said Miller. “People elected to the legislature to take tough votes: Where do you stand on the issue. Cluttering up our constitution with all these issues, marijuana and sports betting, let the (legislature) do what they’re supposed to do and take a stand.”
As an intermediate step, the General Assembly is supposed to create a task force to examine the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana. The panel will be led by Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery, the House majority leader.
Issues to be addressed include how legalized marijuana would be sold, concerns about sales to minors, and the effect on Maryland’s criminal code with regard to controlled dangerous substances, the leaders said.
Busch said that legalization is likely just a matter of time.
“I think that’s coming; I think that’s the future,” Busch said of legalization.
“It will be much like overturning prohibition,” which was achieved by amending the U.S. Constitution, Busch added.
Hogan urged the General Assembly to enact mandatory minimum sentences on repeat violent offenders, citing the deadly violence that has afflicted Baltimore for several years.
“You can’t stop the (annual) 300 murders if you don’t get these violent gang members off the street,” Hogan said. “People are being shot every day by real guns.”
Hogan, coming off his strong re-election victory in November, noted that the legislature failed to pass mandatory sentences for repeat offenders during its 2018 session in renewing his call.
“People in Baltimore city want it to pass,” the governor said.
Hogan, Miller and Busch all agreed that any measure to enact tougher sentences for repeat violent offenders must avoid the strategy of “mass incarceration” of lower-level criminals, a tactic that lawmakers sought to undo with criminal justice reforms in earlier sessions.
The Daily Record legal reporter Steve Lash contributed to this report.