By Anjali Shastry, Deidre McPhillips and Brian Marron
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS — More than a third of the legislators at Wednesday’s opening of Maryland’s General Assembly were newly elected, the most sworn in at one time in recent memory, House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said during the inaugural legislative session.
This incoming group of 58 new delegates — 27 Republicans and 31 Democrats — and 11 new senators — including seven Republicans and four Democrats — will be dealing with a variety of issues over the 90-day legislative session. The state’s budget, which will be presented next week by Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, looms over all of them.
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Republicans also hold more sway overall than in recent memory, with 14 in the new Senate and 50 in the House of Delegates joining Hogan, who is to be sworn in next week.
Maryland’s projected budget shortfall crept past $1 billion late last year. Outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to recoup $400 million of it was approved last week.
Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, said Wednesday after the brief opening session that Marylanders should not expect any tax increases to make up the remaining shortfall.
Miller said the legislature this session will also be dealing with higher education and K-12 school systems; the environment; potential cuts to state discretionary funding; and cuts to a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for state employees.
Sitting next to each other on the House floor Wednesday were Dr. Terri Hill and Dr. Clarence Lam, both newly elected physicians from District 12. Neither Hill, D-Baltimore and Howard, nor Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard, has held public office before, but both said they ran to extend their public service from medicine to the legislature.
They join incumbent Dr. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, and newly elected Dr. Jay Jalisi, D-Baltimore County, to bring the total number of physicians in the General Assembly to four.
“We benefit when there’s a greater variety of voices at the table,” said Hill. “Gov.-elect Hogan has made clear what his priorities are, and I don’t think they’re in conflict with those of the General Assembly, but there’s going to be a lot of back and forth and give and take.”
The Democratic-majority General Assembly may face partisan challenges in working with Hogan’s administration, but freshman delegate Jason Buckel, R-Allegany, said that bipartisan cooperation is likely.
Buckel, a civil litigator, said the problems the legislature faces are not partisan, but statewide. His interest lies in the budget and tax issues, as he was named to the Ways and Means committee.
“We may have differences of policies for how we would reach the objective, but I don’t think our objectives are really any different,” Buckel said.
State Senator Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said getting the budget under control was the state’s single most important problem. Next week, Shank will join Hogan’s cabinet as the director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
Other issues to be tackled include Hogan’s proposal to repeal the stormwater remediation fee, a “rain tax” as it is popularly known, which taxes property owners based on impervious surfaces, and potential pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
“The voters sent a resoundingly clear message that this level of taxation is not acceptable,” Shank said. “We have a tax revolt in Maryland, and I think you’re going to see a challenge in terms of making sure we live within our means.”
Other issues to be tackled include police body cameras, which became prominent after the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, and a debate about transportation funding.
With Hogan’s announcement on Tuesday that Pete Rahn, who he described as “the best highway builder in the entire country,” would be the new transportation secretary, he strongly indicated that proposed mass transit projects, such as the “purple line” linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, would not be moving forward.
Lam, assigned to the Environment and Transportation Committee, said he supports the debated rail projects — including a “red line” in Baltimore – because they encourage job growth and stability.
Hogan has already begun to reach across the legislative aisle by putting Democratic state legislators on his cabinet. These include outgoing Delegate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., D-Baltimore, as a senior adviser who will oversee a possible expansion of Maryland’s charter schools, and Rona E. Kramer, a former state senator from Montgomery County, to head up the Department of Aging.
While legislators were mixing and mingling with crowds inside the Capitol, protesters milled about in the cold outside.
Dozens of activists filled up Lawyer’s Mall calling for Maryland to change its policies on environmental issues, touting a bill by state Senator Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery, which calls for the state to double its use of clean energy from 20 percent to 40 percent.
Those in attendance held signs stating “Forward with Clean Energy” and waved handheld wind turbines.
But Miller said he is not optimistic about the bill’s chances of passing, citing the bill as “pricey” for small business owners and detrimental to workers at coal power plants.
“We want to continue to clean up the environment, continue to have clean air and clean up our streams, rivers and bay,” Miller said. “But at the same time, we worry of putting in place a guideline that we can’t reach in a reasonable period of time.”