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A new era in the Md. General Assembly

Jones, Ferguson poised to lead the 2020 legislative session in a changing of the guard

A new era in the Md. General Assembly

Jones, Ferguson poised to lead the 2020 legislative session in a changing of the guard

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House Speaker Del. Adrienne Jones speaks during an interview Jan. 2 in her office in Annapolis. (The Daily Record / Jason Whong)
House Speaker Del. Adrienne Jones speaks during an interview Jan. 2 in her office in Annapolis. (The Daily Record / Jason Whong)

Maryland’s two legislative chambers will undergo a seismic shift in leadership as the General Assembly meets for the 2020 session at noon.

Two new presiding officers will replace the state’s two longest-serving leaders, sometimes referred to as “The Mikes” — outgoing Senate President Thomas V. Miller Jr. and the late House Speaker Michael Busch.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones and presumed Senate President William “Bill” Ferguson will take the gavel Wednesday, also becoming the first pair from the Baltimore region to lead their chambers at the same time since 1985 when Senate President Melvin “Mickey” Steinberg and House Speaker Ben Cardin presided.

Both Jones, who describes herself as a visual learner, and Ferguson have spent a large amount of time in the interim traveling the state, getting to know the districts of other lawmakers who are now constituents of the presiding officers.

Jones rose to the position in May after weeks of serving as speaker pro tem and filling in for an ailing Busch. She was initially one of three candidates talked about as a replacement for the state’s longest-serving House leader but withdrew her name and endorsed Del. Dereck Davis. But when neither Davis nor Del. Maggie McIntosh could secure enough Democratic votes to claim the spot, Jones became the compromise pick.

Ferguson, elected in 2010, was the youngest member elected to the Senate and earned the title “baby  senator” from Miller. He was not among the original group of contenders for the job when Miller announced he was leaving the position — but remaining in the Senate — after more than three decades.

“I certainly never would have predicted I am where I am today,” said Ferguson.

Observers say their ascendancy will likely benefit Baltimore if not the Baltimore region as lawmakers debate policy issues including crime and a plan that will eventually pump $4 billion a year into public schools.

But Jones and Ferguson use almost identical language in playing down exactly how much Baltimore will benefit.

“The presiding officer from the Senate is from Baltimore, and I’m from Baltimore County,” said Jones. “When we take our oath of office as presiding officers we are presiders over the whole entire state, and we preside over where there is the greatest need. Not every jurisdiction has the same type of needs. Had the two presiding officers been from Talbot and Caroline County, I think if they’re really doing their position right and there are great needs in Caroline or Talbot … if you’re elected by your members to preside they take confidence that if there are needs in their area, as a presiding officer you’ll try to address those so they don’t get any worse.”

Baltimore’s needs have been well documented in the state. The largest municipality in Maryland recorded a fifth consecutive year of 300 or more murders and has fallen behind in education spending as the state edges toward full implementation of the Kirwan Commission proposals.

Sen. Bill Ferguson speaks in an interview Jan. 2 in his office in Annapolis. (The Daily Record / Jason Whong)
Sen. Bill Ferguson speaks in an interview Jan. 2 in his office in Annapolis. (The Daily Record / Jason Whong)

Ferguson, who grew up in Montgomery County but represents Baltimore, maintained that he takes a wider view of the issues.

“The best and strongest and most sustainable policies that have passed in my nine years are the ones where as many jurisdictions as possible see their own benefit in it as well,” said Ferguson. “I think the regional differences that are the chattering concerns are less of an issue for me.

“We took an oath to the constitution for the state of Maryland. We don’t take an oath to the constitution for our individual districts. I think in the state Senate that’s something that is enshrined in our modus operandi and will continue to be moving forward.”

Even questions regarding keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore are portrayed as being of statewide concern.

“I would say this not a Baltimore issue,” said Ferguson. “It’s really a question of the long-term viability of the horse racing industry in Maryland and whether or not there are venues for ongoing operations. I think it’s really important that we move something.”

Top of mind for both will be the full implementation of new school funding that would pump roughly $4 billion annually into public education. Baltimore City is $310 million below the recommended funding and one of two jurisdictions that could be hardest hit if it tries to pay for its share of any Kirwan recommendations.

Jones and Ferguson maintain that nothing will derail the implementation even as they will wrestle with how to pay for it.

“To me, Kirwan and the Blueprint for Progress is a vehicle to right the inequities,” said Jones.

“We’re looking at options,but certainly not No. 1 on my list is taxes. We’ve got other things,” said Jones. “We are looking at other types of sources.”

But none of those other options — legalized sports gaming, recreational marijuana, and even elimination of some tax credit programs — are enough to fully offset the budget gaps that grow to $2.5 billion as Kirwan funding increases.

Both leaders say efforts to legalize sports betting will pass this year, but even with passage it will require voter approval in November. Maryland could still be 18 months away from taking legal sports bets where other states have been taking them for more than a year.

Ferguson said the Senate is focused on the first four years of the Kirwan education plan, which will be the foundation for the rest of the 10 year phase-in.

“I think there are revenue sources that are viable and out there that we will be considering that do not include an increase in the sales tax rate, that do not include an increase in the income tax rate and do not include an increase in the property tax rate,” said Ferguson.

One of those options could be an expansion of the 6% sales tax to those services that are currently not taxed.

“Our economy has changed so rapidly that our tax system has not caught up, and it’s impossible to fund a 21st century education system with a 19th century tax system,” said Ferguson. “We will have to have a broader conversation about our tax system, generally, for public services. I think this year we have to focus on sustainably funding the first four years of the Kirwan implementation plan. I think we can do that responsibly.”

Ferguson said such an expansion of the state’s tax system might not happen immediately.

“The conversation around our tax system matching our economic activity is something that has to happen in the near future. That’s probably not this session, but in subsequent sessions it will be a reality that we’ll have to address.”


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