ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s General Assembly ended the day in a flurry of small issues, some contentious, and sent lawmakers home to await a Court of Appeals ruling on redistricting and the 2022 election.
The pace of the closing day stood in contrast to two weeks earlier, when lawmakers worked feverishly to send more than three dozen bills to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk. That effort set up a series of successful veto overrides over the weekend.
But Monday started slower. Some longtime observers called the day one of the “most boring” in recent memory.
“There are a lot of important issues for individual senators for individual parts of the state but I would say the vast majority of the top issues we had have already crossed the finish line, and we’re really kind of closing things down,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said in the waning hours of the session.
In the end, Ferguson, who has led the chamber for three sessions, called the 2022 gathering “historic.”
One of the biggest-ticket items left for the last day was a nearly $570 million package to strengthen the state’s cybersecurity that passed in the final hours. The cybersecurity bills were spurred by a ransomware attack to the state’s health department in December that choked off information about COVID-19 health metrics.
Additionally, a package of public safety bills also passed late Monday over the objection of Republican senators unhappy with changes pushed by the House.
“If we came in with a Ferrari, I don’t even think we are leaving with a skateboard,” said Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick, of the crime legislation.
Ferguson defended the end result.
“We took some of the governor’s ideas and put them into pieces of legislation that have already passed,” he said.
The governor earlier Monday praised the session as the best of his nearly two-term tenure, but he expressed disappointment that his favored crime bill, what Hogan described as “tougher penalties for people who shoot people,” was likely to die.
“It’s looking less and less likely as the hours wind down,” he said. “It’s very frustrating because it’s the most popular bill in the entire 2000 bills. Nearly 90% of every single demographic group in every area of the state of Maryland supports it. Less than 10% do not. I don’t know how they’re going to explain that to the voters but that’s up to them to figure out.”
Hogan last week announced he would allow a bill that bans all untraceable guns, sometimes called “ghost guns,” to become law without his signature. He called the bill “a positive step as we seek to stem the tide of violent crime — but it does nothing to penalize those who actually pull the trigger on firearms.”
In the end, Hogan’s prediction was right as his tougher criminal penalties bills died. His call for more judicial transparency, focused on judges, was replaced by a version watered down by the Senate and further diluted by the House that eliminates individual data on judges in favor of aggregated sentencing data provided by state’s attorney’s in each jurisdiction. The data won’t be published publicly until 2025.
Looking back, the 2022 session and the term as a whole will likely be defined by the pandemic.
The balloons and confetti that fell Monday at midnight were the first since 2018. The end of the 2019 session was more muted and solemn following the death of then-House Speaker Michael Busch. The pandemic the following two years sidelined the traditional festivities.
Busch was again a presence in the House as Speaker Adrienne Jones and Busch’s wife and daughters unveiled the official portrait, painted posthumously, of the longest-serving leader of the House.
As the omicron variant waned, mask use in the Senate was made optional. Reporters were soon allowed back on the floor though in limited numbers. The House later allowed reporters back on the floor but never lifted the mask mandate though it did later allow lawmakers the option of uncovering their faces when they spoke on bills.
The parties also returned to this year’s final session. Lawmakers between sessions hopscotched from reception to reception.
The legislature returned to Annapolis in January to be greeted by never-before seen levels of surplus — $7.5 billion over three years — rather than structural deficits they often have grappled with in recent years.
Some of that surplus helped pay for a temporary 36-cent gas tax reduction that expires on Saturday. The legislature opted not to extend it despite calls to do so from Republican lawmakers and Comptroller Peter Franchot.
The legislature did pass major initiatives, some of which were vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan and then quickly overridden by the General Assembly over the weekend.
Lawmakers finally passed a much debated package that calls for a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2031 based on 2006 levels. The state is expected to meet a carbon-neutral goal by 2045. Owners of large buildings are also expected to reduce or offset their carbon footprint in about eight years. Hogan allowed that bill to become law without his signature.
Also becoming law without Hogan’s signature is a bill that will implement the state’s recreational marijuana program if voters approve an amendment to the Maryland Constitution in November.
Hogan, Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones also came to an agreement on nearly $2 billion in tax relief.
Retirees 65 and older making up to $100,000 in retirement income, and married couples making up to $150,000 in retirement income will be eligible. Under the deal, 80% of Maryland retirees will get substantial tax relief or pay no state income taxes at all, the governor’s office said. It comprises about $1.55 billion of the overall tax-reduction agreement.
Also included in the agreement are sales tax exemptions for child diapers, car seats, and baby bottles, dental hygiene and diabetic care products, and medical devices.
The agreement also included $800 million for the education reform plan known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.