ANNAPOLIS – The pace of the 2023 Maryland General Assembly session may seem likely different than in recent years. The vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions and changes are gone, as is an eight-year era of divided government.
The legislature will have a new Democratic governor in Wes Moore, the first black man to lead Maryland and only the third elected governor of the country. The Democrat-controlled assembly will also have a new budgetary authority.
There will also be dozens of new lawmakers in the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Adrienne Jones, and in the Senate, led by Senate President Bill Ferguson.
Excluding appointments that Moore may announce, the 141-member House will have at least 29 new members. The 41-seat Senate will have nine freshmen.
“This is a different year as we are now (not) just in a new term, a new governor and many other new members, we have several new members and others who are in the positions that we need to deal with regarding our priority,” Jones said.
With all these changes, the pace and priorities seem more modest than usual, at least initially.
Both Ferguson and Jones expressed optimism and believed that under Moore there would be improved communications with the governor’s office. Still, Ferguson said the work of the General Assembly will continue even as the new government, led by a leader with no government experience, takes root.
“You know, look at the end of the day, and I’m thinking about the last three years in particular. You know, I think as Senate-led Marylanders benefited, and I think that will be the case regardless of who the executive branch is, and that we’ll use other tools at times, but we’ll continue to lead.” said Ferguson. “And that’s an important value that the Senate has championed and demonstrated for many, many years. I think we proved it in the last three years and the Marylanders agreed and added two members to our supermajority. So we are the stabilizing force. And I think that’s what Marylanders are going to expect and that’s what we’re going to deliver with a new governor.”
One priority Moore has identified is an acceleration of the state’s $15 minimum wage law.
The state minimum wage rose to $13.25 an hour on Jan. 1. And while many companies are paying more than the current rate, the state will not require $15 an hour for most employers by 2025.
Jones called it a priority.
“Yes, that has to be done,” she said. “I think it’s doable.”
Another key priority for Jones and many Democrats is passing an amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would ensure access to abortion.
Jones and her predecessor, Speaker Michael Busch, both proposed such an amendment, only to see the Senate block it under two different leaders. Last year Ferguson declared the proposal dead and said he would not come to the vote.
But a ruling by the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. calf The decision increased Democrats’ desire to make the change — even if it’s as symbolic as it needs to be.
In an interview that year, Ferguson promised a different fate for the change.
“We will have the constitutional amendment on the ground. I think it will pass,” Ferguson said.
Jones said she was optimistic it would pass and be on the ballot for voter approval in 2024.
“I think the mere fact that (Ferguson) disclosed this to a member of the press (is an indication) that it’s going to happen,” Jones said. “We talked. It will happen.”
Legalization of cannabis
The House and Senate are also on guard as they negotiate how to license, regulate, and tax a new recreational cannabis market.
Leading politicians on the issue are emphasizing the need to get the industry up and running by July 1st to prevent illegal traders from establishing a foothold in a post-cannabis-prohibition era.
“I think it’s definitely going to be that we’re going to pass legislation and put it on the governor’s desk by the end of the session that’s going to deal with the key aspects of cannabis, the cannabis market and adult market implementation,” Ferguson said.
However, Jones suggested that more time might be needed.
“They want to do something right,” Jones said. “I don’t like to say ‘okay, on this date,’ because sometimes little mistakes can happen, but the only thing I can say is that our desire is to get it done and do it right, not just rush it Say OK, we have to get this done.”
Lawmakers will deal with another recent US Supreme Court decision that ended the state’s requirement for good and substantive cause to obtain a handgun wear-and-carry permit.
As a result of the decision, the number of permits issued is expected to increase. A report by legislative analysts found that more than 54,000 applications had been made to the Maryland State Police as of September.
“I don’t know what the right number is,” Ferguson said. “What I do know is that there should be criteria for when people are allowed to carry a gun. You know, I’m thinking about it, with my own, with my own kids, you know, sending them to amusement parks and when they go to church, well, you know, I just think that having that free access worries me a lot Guns are not a solution to gun violence.”
Revival of the Red Line
Moore made a campaign pledge to revive the 14.1-mile Red Line light rail project that would connect Woodlawn to Bayview Hospital in east Baltimore.
Outgoing Republican Governor Larry Hogan scrapped the project in 2015, calling it a candy. Moore and the Democrats see this as necessary to close the income gap in Baltimore.
Jones said access to jobs would have had a greater impact on public safety in a city that has recorded 300 or more homicides for the eighth straight year.
“I firmly believe that if this had been able to take hold than it should have, our crime rate would have gone down,” she said.
But what a revived transport plan will look like is unknown. Moore and Democrats now use the East-West transportation system interchangeably with Red Line. They also say that the original plans need to be revised and perhaps rethought.
“I think there’s tremendous potential in the new technology surrounding bus rapid transit,” Ferguson said. “That means you get a lot more miles per dollar and you can get it done faster. And it’s not just east-west. And I think what we need is a system. We don’t just need one line. And I think that’s going to be key, that any place that has a metropolitan area, where there’s an effective transit system, are the ones that will benefit the most.”
Jones said the transit line could be even larger than originally planned.
“It can be something that’s either expanded because we’re talking about something at the time,” Jones said. “And then we’re in 2023. So it might be something more applicable in terms of the time we were in. So maybe it’s a modification of that (original plan).”