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Md. lawmakers call it a session — for now

Democrats got their top priority, a mammoth increase in education spending

Del. Michele Guyton, D-Baltimore County, covers her face with a page on which an amendment is written on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, as she enters the old House chamber to attend a meeting. Guyton said she was covering her face in close quarters because of COVID-19. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Del. Michele Guyton, D-Baltimore County, covers her face with a sheet of paper on which an amendment is written on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, as she enters the old House chamber to attend a meeting. Guyton said she was covering her face in close quarters because of COVID-19. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — Nearly every Maryland General Assembly session is overtaken in the last days by an issue that bubbles to the top and demands action.

This year, the end of the 2020 session was forced upon lawmakers, not because of a bill but because of a pandemic that has caused schools to close and the public to adjust how they live their lives. It forced the legislature, which at one point vowed to make it to the April 6 deadline, to announce it would lop 19 days off its calendar and rush through its work.

That work continued into the late afternoon Wednesday as  lawmakers blew by their original goal of ending at 3 p.m. because they had not completed work on the budget or capital budget.

By the time they wrapped up business later in the day, the General Assembly could leave Annapolis with Democratic leaders touting a number of major priorities accomplished — including a massive education reform plan and a proposal to save the Preakness Stakes and revive horse racing in Maryland.

“I’m really proud of what we got done, in the midst of where we were and 71 days and transitions that we had, we set out a plan for public education for the next 10 years,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson. “We’re investing billions in school construction. We solved the issue around horse racing in Maryland. We did all of it without raising property, sales or income taxes and set aside millions of dollars to prepare Maryland for what’s coming.”

Despite the short session, Sen. Steve Hershey, R-Upper Shore, called the session successful.

“Overall, most of the senators I talked to got their priority legislation,” said Hershey.

The legislature also passed emergency legislation that provides hundreds of millions of dollars for the governor to use to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, to pay for testing and to prevent price-gouging. The measure also provides for unemployment benefits for people whose virus-related illnesses extends beyond their sick leave and for those whose employers go out of business.

Lawmakers are prepared to return in late May to deal with a number of issues that were casualties of the abbreviated session and also to assess the initial damage to the state’s economy from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones both entered the session as successors to two men who had served on their respective rostrums longer than anyone in Maryland before them.

Ferguson said when he came in he told his staff “we’re going to make it work. And then they threw a pandemic on top of us.”

On Tuesday, lawmakers gave final approval to the Kirwan Commission education recommendations that are meant to pump more than $3.4 billion into public education annually by 2030.

The Senate added provisions Monday night to the Kirwan measure that would pause spending on the plan if state revenues fall by 7.5% or more. Lawmakers expressed a concern about the economy and revenues in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the leader of the education reform commission that ended up carrying his name was euphoric.

“Generations of Marylanders will remember what you did here today,” said Dr. William “Brit” Kirwan, the leader of the Kirwan Commission Tuesday. “Seeing the groundswell of support for this effort to lift up Maryland’s children has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. To every student who sent in letters and attended rallies, to every parent and educator who visited their legislators and made phone calls – this victory is yours.

“To the legislators who have listened, asked thoughtful questions and voted for this bill today, Maryland thanks you. It’s time to make this bill law, so we can begin the work of building the world-class education system our children deserve.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has made clear his distaste for the tax increases needed to finance the Kirwan plan. But unless some Democrats change their minds, the margin of support for the Kirwan plan was strong enough to override a Hogan veto.

Funding issues

It remains unclear how the Kirwan plan will be paid for as the General Assembly passed tax bills that will only partially fund the program.

Included in those tax bills are a plan to increase taxes on tobacco and e-cigarettes, a tax on online advertising and a tax on digital products such as books, music, movies and games.

Lawmakers expect to generate nearly $350 million from those proposals, with a portion of the money in the first year going to help the state pay for the response to the COVID-19 virus.

Opponents of the online advertising tax, which was designed to apply to very large companies such as Google and Facebook, said that legal challenges could delay funding for years. A court ruling against the law could mean the nearly $250 million expected from the tax would never materialize to pay for Kirwan, they said.

The first year of revenues generated by the digital download tax, which extends the 6 percent sales tax to downloaded products, would be funneled to help pay for the response to the pandemic, with future years going to Kirwan.

“For everyone who asks where the funding (for Kirwan) will come from, here’s one of them, said  Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Preakness and sports betting

Lawmakers approved a $375 million plan they said would maintain the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore at a re-envisioned Pimlico racetrack while also bolstering operations at Laurel Park. A smaller facility in Bowie would be closed and converted for recreational use.

The legislature also gave final approval to another Constitutional amendment that would legalize sports better in Maryland.

The bill approved by the General Assembly added a disparity study that will look at minority participation and removed language that made licenses available to the state’s six casinos and to racetracks, off-track betting sites and the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Who gets the licenses could be worked out in separate legislation if the General Assembly returns for an expected special session in May.

“I was surprised that it happened that way,” said Hershey, the Senate Minority whip.

Left undone this session was a bill that would have established a policy for compensating exonerees.

“That’s one that I thought we had a shot of getting through,” said Ferguson.

It is unclear if the legislature will take that issue up again during the special session in May.

Anti-Hogan sentiment

Democrats in the House did work feverishly to push through a bill that would dilute the power of the governor on budget issues. And while the change, if approved by voters in November, wouldn’t directly affect Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Democrats made no bones about the proposal being in response to their frustrations with the second-term Republican.

Del. Marc Korman, D-Montgomery, said the legislature had grown increasingly bitter about the governor thwarting legislative efforts to redirect money into other priorities by fencing it off. The move requires Hogan to spend the money for those issues or not at all. Hogan chose not at all, a decision Korman described as “petty.”

“I think the governor’s actions have forced the issue,” said Korman, speaking of the legislation that has come back year after year in some version for decades. “This has been around for a long time, but frankly I think the behavior has forced the issue.”

Republicans criticized the effort and said Democrat were ramming the bill through on the last day of a truncated session that Republican Del. Jason Buckel, called “Pandemic Sine Die” — a play on the Latin term used by legislators to denote the end of the 90-day session.

The public has been barred from committee rooms and the State House and live-streaming of sessions has been poor with many reports that the meetings were not accessible online at all.

But Korman and other Democrats said the bill was more transparent than other legislation because it would be put to the voters in November.

“This is putting it to the people,” Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford County, said turning the phrase back around on Democrats. “It’s the Wild West.”

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George’s, also spoke out against the bill, calling it “fraught with a lot of complicated issues on all sides.”

She voted against the bill and moments later was stripped of her role as House chair of the Joint Spending Affordability Committee in a move she called “retribution.” When asked if she was being punished for speaking against the bill she said, “I don’t know.”

“You know why,” said Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s, as he walked past Valentino-Smith while she spoke to a reporter. Lewis then rebuked her for speaking to the reporter.

 


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