PROGRESSIVE PRIORITIES WILL BATTLE FOR GENERAL ASSEMBLY’S ATTENTION

The Maryland General Assembly formally gets under way today (Wednesday, Jan. 13) and progressive bills and policies -- in which Progressive Maryland has a big stake -- are on the line. Here's a look at the contests ahead.

By Woody Woodruff/ Maryland progressives will start the legislative year working through the burden of a botched election in 2014 that put a Republican governor in charge of the state budget. Gov. Larry Hogan, who snuck into office because a lackluster Democratic candidate was complemented by a lackluster campaign and a turnout crash, gets to set the ceiling for state spending and the Democratic-dominated General Assembly can largely just tinker with the parts of the budget but not change the bottom line.

But the upcoming January-to-April legislative tilt is near-guaranteed to be full of drama, starting with attempted overrides of a half-dozen of Hogan’s vetoes after last year’s session. Progressive legislation will be on the docket, including an earned sick leave proposal that will be before the Assembly for the fourth year in a row. But there will almost certainly be major defensive moves needed, as well, against Hogan’s attempts to wrench the state’s course into a business-friendly groove at the cost of workers’ and consumers’ interests.

Progressive Maryland’s legislative priorities for the 2016 session are:

  • Clean Energy Jobs: We will support legislation to raise Maryland’s clan energy use standard to 25% and help to train Marylanders for the clean energy jobs of the future.
  • Ending Police Brutality: Progressive Maryland will support efforts to ensure that we end police brutality in Maryland by supporting legislation that will restore trust between communities and law enforcement and assure that corrupt police are held accountable for their actions.
  • EITC: In 2016 we hope to put more money in the pockets of working Marylanders by expanding the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to include more working adults and young people.
  • Retirement Security: We support making a secure retirement possible for all Marylanders with legislation that will create a public option for retirement plans for residents of our state.
  • Paid Sick Leave: We will continue our efforts to push for legislation that requires employers to offer an opportunity for their employees to earn paid sick leave.
  • Fighting for a Fair Budget: We support stopping corporate tax giveaways and creating a state budget that prioritizes the lives of working Marylanders.
  • Fair Scheduling: Ensuring that employers in our state offer workers consistent and fair schedules.
  • Voting Rights for Returning Citizens: Allowing formerly incarcerated people who have served their time to have their right to vote restored.

 

Hogan won’t set a formal budget until he has to – Jan. 20, a week after the Assembly convenes on Jan. 13 – but early indications are that he is “lowballing” the top number, as Del. Tawanna Gaines, a Dist. 22 (Prince George’s) Democrat, said in early December.

In fact the Spending Affordability panel said Dec. 15 that state revenue would be up 3.2 percent for the next fiscal year, a pretty big number in a $16-plus billion revenue picture. That despite the fact that “the state continues to underperform the national economy” because of the effect of sequestration on the greater DC region, said Warren Deschenaux, the Assembly’s longtime budgetmeister, recently elevated to chief of the Department of Legislative Services.

Whether Hogan will include any of the half-billion-dollar surprise in his spending plan is another question. He has roiled the legislators – even his sometime ally, Democratic Senate President Mike Miller – by first withholding budgeted money from the state’s most expensive school systems in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore City and then shipping some of the extra cash to Republican counties where he got many of the votes that put him over the top in 2014. The Assembly had put $68 million on the table in front of Hogan to fully fund the three districts that were forced to make equivalent cuts, but he has made no move to release it.

An irate Assembly, with large Democratic majorities, passed a bill that requires Hogan’s budget to include full funding for the geographic disparities in schooling expenses. Hogan persists, however, in cutting taxes and fees wherever he is able, including highway tolls. “The bill is coming due,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-22nd) at a meeting with constituents in early December. Revenues for transportation are flagging. And Hogan gained another formal set of opponents when two civil rights organizations sued the administration for blatant discrimination in zeroing-out funds for the Red Line light rail system in Baltimore while shipping extra roads money to rural districts – again, where his electoral support is.

And speaking of electoral support (following paragraph is from Jon Shurberg’s Maryland Scramble blog on Dec. 26):

The candidates going to Annapolis for [around 90] days starting on January 13: Kumar Barve, Ana Sol Gutierrez, Jamie Raskin, Dereck Davis, and Joseline Pena-Melnyk. Barve and Davis are committee chairs. How will they and the others manage the competing demands of session and a primary that is now 123 days away? Striking a balance is critical: too much Annapolis means you lose the primary, but too much campaign means you get criticized for not doing your job, which means you lose the primary. See Cardin, Jon, 2014.

But much of the interesting activity in the three-month Assembly session, besides tinkering with the budget, will pit progressive against pro-business forces within the Democratic majorities. This would be a perennial conflict no matter what party controlled the governor’s mansion. But the fact is that Hogan, in part because of his feisty and apparently successful battle with cancer while in office, is remarkably popular. He does not exhibit the hard-edged, overt conservatism that kept Bob Ehrlich, the last GOP governor, from similar popularity. But many of the central actors in his administration are revenants from the Ehrlich era and what’s happening on the killing floor of state agencies is not pretty.

So the general public’s sense of the value of public provision is being eroded by Hogan’s highly visible reductions of fees even as the less-noticed consequences to the state’s revenue lower the potential for public provision.

The Republican emphasis on cuts will likely extend to taxes, particularly on lower taxes for business as well as ordinary taxpayers. A GOP mantra has been that Maryland is seen as too expensive for business compared to other states – a point strongly contested by Democrats, who argue that the state’s high marks for education, infrastructure and amenities overcome any tax concerns. A commission initiated by the legislature’s Democratic leadership is about to uncork some much-anticipated – or dreaded – recommendations on the state’s tax structure. The commission has already made suggestions that griped many Democrats but have been welcomed by Hogan and his minions. Progressive Maryland will instead work for a broadened Earned Income Tax Credit and a “Fair Budget” that addresses peoples’ priorities by closing corporate loopholes.

The beleaguered earned sick leave measure both gained and lost momentum in the session interim – a solid county-level measure was passed in Montgomery County but a failure of nerve in the Prince George’s County Council saw a similar version tabled with a call for a statewide bill. Over 700,000 Maryland workers have no ability to earn sick leave on the job, leaving many facing the choice of going to work sick or risking job loss – and certainly loss of a day’s pay – by staying home for personal health or a sick child. It becomes a public health issue when food service workers go to work sick or children go to school or day care with a communicable illness.

House and Senate money committees have bottled the measure up for three years without a floor vote. The House Economic Matters Committee’s chairman, Prince George’s Delegate Dereck Davis, is running for the open District 4 Congressional seat and suddenly shows signs of “getting it” on the sick leave issue, so hopes have risen. The Working Matters coalition of dozens of Maryland groups including Progressive Maryland, which was deeply involved in the successful Montgomery County effort, continues to make earned sick leave a top priority. Other major issues in the environment, workplace, social and economic justice and provision of services have plenty of advocates.

Progressive Maryland will continue to advocate for workers and future retirees with a bill to restrain employers’ arbitrary, last-minute schedules (badly damaging their family lives and opportunities for education), and a visionary proposal for a state=level retirement system for all Marylanders.

Environmental organizations are backing renewal of the state’s umbrella Greenhouse Gas Reduction initiative and an increase in the “Renewable Portfolio Standards” that will require the renewable-source portion of state power generation to increase to 40 percent by 2030. Turning the ban on fracking for natural gas from temporary to permanent in the state, stopping development of a compressed natural gas shipping facility at Cove Point on the Chesapeake, bills to control plastic bottles and bags, putting the brakes on manure pollution and antibiotics abuse in the state’s poultry industry, and banning neonicotinoid pesticides – linked to colony collapse in bees – are also part of the environmental priority list. Progressive Maryland’s priorities include that big shift to renewable energy linked to a focus on the jobs that shift creates – and the training the Maryland workers need to get and excel in those jobs.

Social justice and criminal justice issues likely to get Assembly action include additional safeguards on police abuse and excessive force. The Maryland Association of Counties has prioritized state help with a vexing by-product of the increased use of body cameras by officers – the cost of storing and managing the imagery. MACO will ask the state for help on the cost, meaning money will be a big issue on the justice front, as often happens. House Speaker Mike Busch, a Baltimore-area legislator, will promote a package of bills to remedy the chronic social ills of Baltimore in “jobs, housing and food,” as the city’s delegation chair, Del. Curt Anderson, summarized it.

“Separately, a panel of lawmakers has been examining ways to increase police accountability,” said a local AP report on Baltimore’s CBS affiliate. “The workgroup, which was formed several days after the rioting in Baltimore, is considering shortening the time stipulated in a rule that prevents a police officer suspected of a crime from being interrogated for up to 10 days after an alleged incident. Police reform advocates also have been critical of a rule requiring claims against police to be filed within 90 days.

“The panel is scheduled to release its recommendations two days before the session officially begins on Jan. 13. [Senate President] Miller said while the panel will make recommendations regarding police discipline, he also wants to create provisions to reward police who do a good job.”

Overriding one of the vetoes bills from last session – giving voting rights to returning citizens, those who have completed their incarceration – is a Progressive Maryland priority. As the blog Maryland Scramble indicates, only a few more votes are needed for that override.

Both Maryland’s school boards and its unionized teachers go into the session seeking full funding according to the so-called “Thornton” formula agreed on a decade or more ago, that boosts funding to hard-pressed (mostly urban) jurisdictions like Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to equalize resources around the state. Hogan’s method of playing rural school systems against the urban centers may divide the school boards, but the legislators seem particularly exercised about school funding and the governor may have little room for maneuver. The Maryland State Education Association is wary of Hogan’s efforts so far to give wider latitude to for-profit charter schools and afford state aid to private schools through tax breaks for private donations to them.

Most of the state’s labor unions, without an array of specific bills to be for or against yet, argue simply in favor of fewer tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. Efforts to trim the advantages of big business will come up against several recent commission reports – including one commissioned by Miller and Busch – that focus on making the state more “business-friendly.” Reduction of taxes on business has been a mantra of the Hogan forces since he began his campaign for governor and he will have the recommendations of panels stacked with his allies to help him sell those ideas.

Legislators will have until the first week of February, almost three weeks after the session begins and two weeks after the administration’s deadline for submitting a budget, before the deadline for filing their own bills. It is at that point that many of the real battles will be joined.

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