By Zach Sparks
Between January 9 and April 8, many Americans will focus on the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars and Grammy Awards.
During that 90-day timespan, the 188-member Maryland General Assembly will engage in policy debates, with Democrats and Republicans drafting legislation that will have a long-term impact on Marylanders.
Created in 2016, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence has spent two years analyzing ways Maryland can meet the challenges of a changing global economy. Often called the Kirwan Commission because of its chair, William “Brit” Kirwan, the group was asked by lawmakers to devise specific recommendations on how to improve student performance at all levels and how to fund the necessary investments.
When the Kirwan Commission announced in December 2018 that Maryland would need $4.4 billion annually to meet those goals, Governor Larry Hogan balked at the price tag. The panel later lowered that figure to $3.8 billion, but legislators still need to determine how state and local governments will divide the cost.
With Marylanders voting “yes” on a ballot referendum in November to ensure casino revenues are spent on Maryland schools, the state is expecting to receive an additional $4.4 billion in school funding.
Democrats want to spend the money on the commission’s recommendations: investments in prekindergarten and special education while also increasing teacher pay. Hogan wants to allocate some of the funds for the same purpose — he set aside $200 million to implement the commission’s recommendations and an additional $20 million to expand access to prekindergarten — but he also wants to earmark $1.9 billion for new construction funding over five years.
A Republican in District 31B, Delegate Nic Kipke said education is important but that Maryland schools need to be held accountable for the current funds they have before taxpayers are asked to fork over more money.
“Our schools systems are some of the best-funded schools systems in the country, and currently, our educational outcomes rank middle of the pack,” Kipke said. “We have some of the worst SAT scores in America, for example. So there isn’t a direct correlation between funding and educational outcomes.”
Heather Bagnall, a Democrat newly elected to a seat in nearby District 33, thinks an investment in the Kirwan priorities would be worthwhile.
“The recommendation has a 10-year rollout and the investment is going to pay off massively in the long run with a more educated, prepared workforce, which is also going to help attract employers to our area,” she said.
The state may not determine the funding formulas until 2020, but look for the conversation to get started in 2019.
A debate about recreational marijuana will likely flow along party lines. Medicinal cannabis was made legal in 2013 but licenses were not issued until 2016.
The legalization of recreational marijuana would mean more money to spend on schools. Based on discussions he has heard, Senator Bryan Simonaire anticipates the debate to heat up next year in the Senate. Kipke expects the measure to go on the 2020 ballot and be passed by Maryland voters.
Now that a four-year rollout has brought Maryland’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, Democrats in the General Assembly want to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
District 31B representatives have strong feelings on the subject. Newly elected Delegate Brian Chisholm said that the minimum wage, for some people like his wife’s aunt who has Down syndrome, provides opportunities to fulfill a purpose rather than feed a family of four. He also has other concerns.
“As a small-business owner, the message I get consistently is ‘We have openings, we have positions and we can’t fill them. We can’t find able-bodied people who want to work for us,’” Chisholm said. “So you can take that minimum wage from $10 to $100 and I think it’s just going to have a negative effect on the business community as a whole. You will set your own value if you’re good at what you do and if you’re willing to work.”
Reflecting on his own experience working an entry-level job at the Friendly’s restaurant on Mountain Road, Kipke said a higher minimum wage would result in fewer jobs for teens who rely on those jobs to learn how to arrive to work on time, manage a schedule and checking account, and work with the public.
“If the Democrats are insistent on passing the $15 minimum wage, which I think is irresponsible, frankly, it would be my hope that we could look at protecting some of our rural areas, which would immediately be put at an economic disadvantage to all of our surrounding states, [which pay less]. And I would also like to look at how we can exempt certain youth so it doesn’t harm youth employment.”
GUN LAWS AND MENTAL HEALTH
The gun debate has renewed life after five Capital Gazette newspaper employees were shot in their Annapolis office in June 2018.
One bill in 2018 addressed the issue of mental health. The “red flag” law allows judges to order that someone’s guns are temporarily seized if that person is a danger to themselves or others. The current law allows officers, health professionals, spouses and family members, legal guardians, and dating or intimate partners to file a petition.
Simonaire would like the law to be modified after the state gets input from sheriffs and police officers who have seen the law’s impact. Kipke is concerned about the risk to law enforcement officers who seize the guns, and he believes the people “flagged” by the bill should be brought in for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Some people, he said, are worried that such a provision would stigmatize people with mental health issues.
“I think we need to look at it as helping our fellow man,” Kipke said. “If somebody is so dangerous that they might take their life or take the life of others, I think bringing them in and treating them is important.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have also pushed for banning “ghost guns,” which are homemade guns without serial numbers, and firearms made with 3D printers. Those bills would mirror laws that have been passed at the federal level.
If Maryland legalizes sports betting, more money would be available for schools, roads and other needs. Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, West Virginia and several other states have already approved sports betting.
The main debate is whether to allow gaming only at casinos or also at racetracks, Kipke said. He’s in favor of either so long as there are protections against gambling addiction, which Simonaire also sees as a problem.
“You may get the money for education, but you have to realize it will adversely affect other families,” Simonaire said.
The General Assembly has already committed to reaching 25 percent renewable energy by 2020, and lawmakers are now looking to enact the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, which sets the bar at 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.
According to a report published by the Maryland Energy Administration in January 2018, the state uses nuclear for 45.5 percent of its energy, coal for 25.4 percent and natural gas for 16.3 percent. Much of its electricity is imported from surrounding states.
If the bill is passed, Kipke estimates that taxpayers would see their BGE utility bills doubled.
“I’m supportive of growing the clean energy portfolio as technologies come online that are cost-effective, but simply passing a bill that sounds good without taking into account the people that it will ultimately hurt, I can’t support that,” he said.
Chisholm added, “There’s going to be new mechanisms coming online to provide us with clean energy … You can’t eliminate the free market because it will always provide the best product.”
A federal court ruled the drawing of lines in the 6th district to be unconstitutional, but Attorney General Brian Frosh appealed the ruling. While the legislature awaits a final decision from the Supreme Court regarding gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina, Hogan has tasked a commission with redrawing the maps so they better represent the public instead of manipulating the lines for political gain.
Kipke is also advocating single-member House of Delegates districts since some people currently have one Delegate representing them while other constituents have two or three.
“Marylanders do not have equal representation, which is a cornerstone to our republic,” Kipke said. “I think you would have greater accountability to the people with head-to-head competitions.”
TAXES AND CRIME
Last year, Republicans sought to modify the state tax code to ensure all Marylanders received the same tax cuts from which people nationwide are benefitting. Kipke expects that debate to return this session.
“When the federal government cut taxes, the Democratic leadership refused to modernize our code to accommodate and it was sort of a backhanded way of increasing taxes on Marylanders by about $200 million a year,” he said.
He is also focusing on legislation to create a violent criminals registry online, much like the sex offender registry, but to notify people of any neighbors who were convicted of carjacking, armed robbery and other crimes.
“We’ve seen sorrowful stories of innocent people who have been murdered or hurt because of those criminals,” Kipke said, “and while we still struggle to solve the crime problems in our state, I want to make to easier for law-abiding citizens to know where these dangerous people live.”
After successfully passing a service dog program to help veterans, Simonaire now wants to extend the program to include horse therapy. Simonaire visited Maryland Therapeutic Riding in Crownsville where he saw the horses’ impact on veterans, children and individuals with special needs.
The senator also wants Maryland to adopt an Election Day program similar to one implemented in Montgomery County.
“It allows middle schoolers and high schoolers who are not eligible to vote yet to come participate in the election process to get them interested while they are young, because we always talk about young people not voting,” Simonaire said. “They will be an assistant to the election chief judge, so they will get credits for volunteer service.”
UNIFIED OR DIVIDED?
With 60 legislators being elected for the first time or moving to the Senate from the House, and with a record 72 women serving in the state legislature, the General Assembly has a new look. Uncertainty looms over Annapolis. Will lawmakers hold firm in their requests or will they cross the aisle to find compromise?
“In the Senate, we have 40 percent new membership, which is a huge turnover not only in numbers but also in knowledge,” Simonaire said. “Of the eight chairmen and vice chairmen from last term, we have seven new names. You lose a lot of institutional knowledge.”
Kipke has noticed a change, with the legislature shifting more to the left. “Many people on the left are political activists and their experience in the private sector is limited, and as a result of that, they are pushing for bills that in many cases might sound good but would actually be detrimental to our economy,” Kipke said.
Chisholm, who met many of those new legislators during a three-day bus tour, agreed with Kipke but said the new legislators are all good people who he’s excited to work with.
“One of the best pieces of advice I got was to form relationships and work with everybody,” Chisholm said. “And I agree that as Republicans in the minority, if we can just slow down some of the bills and speak to the other legislators that are trying to push the laws, maybe we can amend the bills and give them our side of what the real impact of the bills will be.”