ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s 439th session of the General Assembly may go down as the session that set the tone for the remainder of the term.
A more progressive legislature, one where nearly one-third of the members are new, passed bills that set up future debates over education funding, the environment and marijuana policy. Democrats were able to perform lightning-fast overrides of vetoes issued by Gov. Larry Hogan. Even their failures on bills such as the banning of some herbicides or a bill to permit medically assisted suicide seem to establish a marker for coming years.
“The changeover is really more progressive than the presiding officers,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College. “If we see the turnover of leadership and these new members coming into their own, it will be something to watch. I think this session really set the table for future policy debates.”
The session began and ended on surprising and sober notes that portend an inevitable changing of the guard in both the House and Senate.
In January, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. announced his treatment for metastatic prostate cancer diagnosed in late 2018. The longtime leader of the Senate vowed to fight the disease that has spread to his pelvis. Throughout the session Miller ran more floor sessions while sitting and took breaks passing duties off to Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County.
Miller’s thick silver hair thinned considerably, but he only missed two days while receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he will now begin radiation therapy. He plans to update the Senate on his health in November.
“It’s about the Senate, not about me,” he told the chamber recently.
The day before the end of session Michael Busch, 72 and the longest-serving speaker in the state’s history, died after a battle with pneumonia. Busch had missed much of the last two weeks of the session. Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, presided over the chamber in his absence and on days when Busch was not on the rostrum this session.
Busch had been challenged with two serious surgeries, including a liver transplant in 2017 and an emergency heart bypass in 2018. His death before the final day of the 2019 session led to a rare joint session memorial service in the House with the Senate and governor on sine die day.
The House also was forced to reprimand two of its own for much different reasons.
Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, D-Harford County, was censured and stripped of her committee assignments in early March following her use of a racial slur to describe an area of Prince George’s County. Her punishment was the most severe that can be meted out short of expulsion. A number groups continue to call for Lisanti to resign. So far, she has refused.
Del. Hasan “Jay” Jalisi, D-Baltimore County, was reprimanded — a somewhat lesser penalty than Lisanti received — in late March for what a legislative ethics panel said was a pattern of abuse of staff and others dating back to his first session in 2015. Jalisi has denied he did anything wrong and claimed he was the victim of a “political hit job” by a “powerful lobby” he declined to name.
Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, inadvertently brought intense scrutiny on Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and the University of Maryland Medical System when she introduced a bill prohibiting UMMS board members from benefiting from contracts with the medical system.
Pugh received $500,000 in a no-contract arrangement with the hospital for her “Healthy Holly” children’s book series. She and two other board members have resigned from the board. Robert Chrencik, the head of the hospital, and four other board members took leaves of absence. Similarly, Pugh has been on leave from her job as mayor — for health reasons — since April 2 as investigations and calls for her resignation have intensified.
A law passed by the assembly and expected to be signed by Hogan will turn over the board, impose new disclosure and conflict of interest requirements and ban single-source contract deals between board members and the hospital.
Lawmakers are already talking about returning in 2020 to focus on similar issues at the system’s affiliate hospitals.
Progressive lawmakers had a good year with a number of key victories, including the passage of an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 for large businesses. Smaller businesses — those with less than 15 employees — won’t be fully phased in until 2026.
Additionally, progressive Democrats successfully passed bills banning Styrofoam food containers and mandating an increase in the amount of electricity generated in Maryland by wind and solar to 50 percent by 2030.
Lawmakers also provided a down payment on the $4 billion education funding proposal commonly known the Kirwan Commission. The General Assembly, over the objections of Hogan and his budget advisers, crafted a compromise proposal that provides $355 million in fiscal 2020 for pre-kindergarten education, teacher raises and community schools for impoverished areas. The plan calls for another $370 million in the following year. The legislature could increase that by $130 million if lawmakers can identify a funding source.
Another issue that is likely to return would legalize medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who meet certain criteria. The bill passed the House — a first since it was introduced — but failed in the Senate when Sen. Obie Patterson, D-Prince George’s, broke Senate rules and refused to vote despite being in his seat. The bill died 23-23.
Democrats, however, were successful in their efforts to abolish the state’s Handgun Permit Review Board. The panel created in 1972 came under criticism for overturning more than 200 decisions of the Maryland State Police on conceal carry permits. Second Amendment advocates and members of the board said the vast majority of those rulings were modifications of restrictions imposed by the police that some say are so confusing as to render the permit unusable.
Sen. Robert “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, warned that lawmakers will eventually have to address the state’s “good and substantial” standard for obtaining a permit before the courts strike it down and turn Maryland into a right-to-carry state.
Gun control advocates failed, however, in efforts to impose background checks on private sales of rifles and shotguns.
And while the 2020 regular session is less than nine months away, lawmakers are expected to return to Annapolis in a few short weeks to elect the first new speaker of the House since 2003.
Jones, the current speaker pro tem, has expressed an interest in the job. Should she be elected she would become the first woman and first black member to lead the chamber. She would also be the first from Baltimore County since Gordon Boone briefly held the gavel in 1963.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, is also a contender. Should she be elected, she would become the first woman and first openly gay leader of the House as well as the first from Baltimore since former Gov. Marvin Mandel in the 1969.
Del. Dereck Davis, the chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, who will likely need the help of House Republicans to win. He could become the first black speaker of the House and the first from Prince George’s County since 1962.
Whether there is a second special session falls in the hands of the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on a case involving redistricting and the constitutionality of Maryland’s 6th District. Should the court uphold a lower court order, lawmakers could be back to the capital to redraw the lines — possibly affecting other areas of the state — for the 2020 election.