Progressive agendas take on vested interests in 2017 Assembly session

While legislators play footsy with the Governor over the roads and budget, progressive agendas will challenge the Maryland General Assembly members to help ordinary people -- as they are sworn to do -- despite the lobbyists and donors looking over their shoulders.

 /PM BlogSpace Report/ The Maryland General Assembly opened its 2017 session yesterday (Wed., Jan. 11) with the standard talk of bipartisanship between overwhelmingly Democratic legislative chambers and a crowd-pleasing Republican governor. Fissures began to appear the very first day, though; Senate President Mike Miller appeared to position himself triangulation-style as a bridge between Gov. Larry Hogan and that rascal, Mike Busch, the House of Delegates’ leader – who had the nerve to suggest he might be ready to fight with Hogan right off the bat.

Miller suggested he might be willing to revise a transportation bill that Hogan has complained bitterly (and inaccurately) ties his hands when it comes to prioritizing road and transit spending. What Hogan means is that the bill requires him to justify his priorities, meaning he can’t easily please his base in non-urban Maryland with road projects at the expense of urban roads and transit.

Josh Bollinger in the Easton Star-Democrat is one of several observers who noted Miller’s triangulating: “But Miller looked to the governor Wednesday when he said a road bill will come back up during this legislative session,” Bollinger wrote. “ ‘The House might not be in accord with it, but we’re going to look to you for some ideas ... to make it more palatable for yourself and the administrative,’ Miller said to Hogan.”

Busch, to his credit, has said more directly he is ready to contest Hogan on that transportation bill, leaving it unchanged, and touted several priorities, including lowering the cost of community colleges, with a progressive tinge.

But if Miller, the ol’ deal-maker who at 31 years’ tenure is the national record-holder as leader of a state legislative chamber, continues to play middle-man and keep the state of play confused, progressives’ eyes should not be averted from the way both houses keep their contributors in the business sector happy. Each chamber has a killing floor – the House Economic Matters Committee and the Senate Finance Committee – where pro-worker and pro-family legislation goes to die if it has the least chance of cutting the profits of businesses and development interests. The lobbyists are always busy, as they are well paid to be.

The progressive agenda therefore contains a number of good bills that have died numerous times in recent sessions and are coming back stronger.

Progressive Maryland ’s recently issued Annual Report for 2016 recounted the organization’s growing work in policy formation and change in the areas of police reform, fair elections, economic democracy and strengthening of stable communities. All those aspects will be in play in the 2017 General Assembly legislative session.

Progressive Maryland’s allies in fighting for progressive change have put forward their policy agendas and we’ll be in solidarity with them as they push for change in this session.

The Job Opportunity Task Force released a two-tier action plan as the Assembly session opened Jan. 11. Their top or “signature” priorities include theMaryland Healthy Working Families Act - Earned Sick Days, a longtime objective that fell just short last year. A weak and divisive alternative plan from the Republican governor, Larry Hogan, should not be allowed to confuse the legislators (which is the intention). Some three quarters of a million working Marylanders have no paid sick leave. The JOTF proposed legislation would allow workers to earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of seven days per year for full-time workers.
 
JOTF also prioritizes Criminal Record Expungement – Non-Convictions, a package of several reforms that will make it easier for returning citizens to gain jobs or higher education. Convictions will be expunged or application questions about criminal history will be reduced or eliminated (“Ban the Box”).

To reduce the impact of pretrial conditions on persons and families, JOTF also advocates Pretrial/Bail Reform and elimination of the public benefits (SNAP, etc.) suspension or cancellation for felony drug offenses
 
JOTF will also actively support Post-Secondary Access and Affordability, a move to make community colleges more affordable, and implementation of adult high schools for training and credentials, and broader workforce development and training. JOTF also aims to remedy the poverty of mass transit programs by making auto insurance more affordable. The state’s sometimes-iffy unemployment insurance program will be monitored and proposals to improve it provided.

  The Baltimore Sun reported as the Assembly opened that “A reinvigorated Legislative Black Caucus announced Wednesday it will demand a five-point agenda during this General Assembly session, seeking resolution to unequal funding of historically black colleges and a new medical marijuana commission, among other issues. Caucus chairwoman Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat, said the 48-member bloc of state lawmakers have reorganized, elected new leadership, and plan to aggressively pursue a handful of issues. On education, the caucus wants to limit school suspensions for pre-kindergartners and students under 7 years old, as well as support Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's plan to return control of the city's school board to the mayor's office.

“The caucus supports abolishing Maryland's cash bail system. Its members want to bring more transparency to how police departments use body cameras and aerial footage, and when that information can be released to the public,” the Sun continued.

“The caucus members also back a plan by health care groups and Attorney General Brian Frosh aimed at preventing drug companies from price gouging.”

State environmental organizations have prioritized an override of Hogan’s veto after the 2016 session of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, an omnibus package that would train workers for jobs in renewable energy and raise the state’s goals for the proportion of renewable energy in the mix of electric power sources. A package of other priorities is expected to emerge from a Jan. 26 Environmental Summit in Annapolis including the difficult issue of a hydraulic fracking ban, much desired by the environmental community but contentious in Western Maryland because it promises employment. Ban or not, the Hogan administration’s loophole-filled proposal for regulating the industry will get plenty of scrutiny from skeptical legislators.

Meanwhile, the legislators will be wrestling with a revenue shortfall that will almost certainly require cuts – Hogan must provide a budget by Jan. 18 and they can only move money around within it – but the inadequacy of the state’s unfair tax system seems to be off the table.