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Again under shadow of COVID, lawmakers launch 2022 session

House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson say they have plenty of priorities for the 2022 session, including legalization of marijuana, climate change legislation, juvenile justice changes and finding the best uses for a $5 billion state surplus. Gov. Larry Hogan, meanwhile, is calling on lawmakers to reduce the state’s income tax for many retirees and to expand the Earned Income Tax credit for low-income residents. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

Maryland’s top two Democrats will have a lot on their plates entering the 90-day session that begins at noon Wednesday.

The ongoing pandemic will once again loom large over the legislative session. This is the third year the coronavirus has affected how the General Assembly operates. Aside from the pandemic, the major issues of the session include the legalization of marijuana, a historic budget surplus, crime and climate change.

Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones are both in their third year leading their respective chambers. They have yet to preside over a session that resembles those of their predecessors.

Ferguson said he had hoped the special session in early December would be a transition into a more in-person regular session. Spiking case numbers of a more transmissible, though less severe variant of the virus squelched that transition — at least for the early part of the session.

“Obviously health and safety have to be paramount,” said Ferguson, who added that he remains optimistic.

“If 70,000 people can go to a football game and kids can go to school every day, the legislature can find a way to operate safely and be open to the public,” he said.

Jones’ chamber will start with 141 members on the floor Wednesday. She said the House will then hold hearings virtually. Floor sessions will be smaller, pro forma meetings to introduce bills and communicate with the Senate, at least into February.

The speaker said the House would return to more traditional floor sessions “when it’s safe to do so.”

For Ferguson, the bulk of the session will be focused on what he called “the four Cs” — COVID, cannabis, climate change and community safety — and the budget.

Jones, who also has a lengthy list of priorities, said the House will focus on “getting people back to work;” strengthening Maryland families; and ensuring everyone can put food on the table and afford basic necessities.

The presiding officers have some issues in common for the coming 90 days. Included are passage of a redistricting plan, work on a climate change bill, and passage of recreational cannabis legislation.

Ferguson and Jones, at least initially, appear to have different approaches to legalizing cannabis for adults.

“There’s a lot of opinions on how to move forward on adult-use legalization,” said Jones, noting that polls have found a majority of Marylanders support legalizing marijuana. “I decided a referendum is the approach I am most in favor of. It doesn’t stop us from looking at things like expungement.”

An initial House plan would put the issue on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the legislature would hammer out details on how to implement the law, including granting licenses and ensuring racial equity in ownership as well as expungement for those previously convicted of some possession offenses.

The approach is similar to how the legislature passed and then implemented sports wagering

Ferguson and others would like a second bill that lays out how the law would be implemented in advance of a referendum vote. That law would go into effect if voters approve legalization.

“My position here is very clear: If we’re going to put something on the ballot, people need to know what they’re voting for,” said Ferguson. “We shouldn’t just put up a yes-or-no question on should it be legal. We can run a poll for that. We don’t need a ballot question for that.”

For Gov. Larry Hogan, 2022 marks the final full 90-day session of his tenure.

Hogan has maintained consistently high approval ratings. A Gonzales Maryland Poll Tuesday reported a 74% job approval rating for the Republican. The high ratings have not translated into political muscle with the majority Democratic legislature, which has been able to override his vetoes at will.

The governor declined pre-session interviews. Instead, he rolled out some of his top priorities, including public safety and tax relief, in a series of press conferences.

Hogan will focus on “trying to get some fair maps” as lawmakers finalize state Senate and House districts.

Hogan submitted a plan crafted by an independent panel he appointed. That plan is widely expected to be rejected in favor of one finalized last week by a legislative panel.

The legislature has until Feb. 25 to approve a final plan or Hogan’s automatically takes effect. Pragmatically speaking, lawmakers may push to finalize the new districts before the Feb. 22 candidate filing deadline.

Ferguson and Jones return to Annapolis with an enviable problem: a historic budget surplus of more than $4 billion in the current year and in excess of $5 billion over two years.

“It is surreal that we are in this place,” said Ferguson. “How we spend that money will be very important. We need to set ourselves up for success. It’s a great opportunity. We can’t squander it.”

Both presiding officers said surplus dollars, mostly driven by a massive influx of federal pandemic aid, should be used on roads, bridges, schools and other one-time expenses.

“The investments we are looking at is to put this money and people to work,” said Jones. “(The House) will be focusing on making critical upgrades rather than new, long-term spending priorities.”

A large surplus will also generate conversations about tax relief.

“I imagine the governor and the Senate will have some ideas on taxes,” said Jones.

The governor previously announced his interest in expanding tax cuts for retirees.

On the eve of the new session, Hogan proposed what he called the largest tax relief proposal in state history. Weighing in at $4.6 billion, Hogan proposed a phased-in elimination of all state income tax for anyone 65 and older who also claims Social Security.

Hogan had previously proposed similar reductions. The legislature rejected them as too expensive though it passed more targeted cuts.

The governor said improved economy and historic surplus means “we can afford it and must do it. All that is needed is political will on both sides of the aisle.”

Hogan also proposed to make permanent expanded tax credits for those who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The proposals, Hogan said, would provide an additional $650 million in credits to low-income workers.

“We just have to keep asking ourselves whether each proposal helps those that need it the most or those who have the most,” said Jones.