General Assembly Ends Session With Criminal Justice Reform, But No Tax Cuts

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In a legislative session that began with bickering between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic leadership in the General Assembly, the biggest issue left unresolved at the end — across-the-board income tax reduction — failed because of in-fighting among Democratic leaders.

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, couldn’t agree on who should get cuts.

The House’s version benefited middle- and working-class people, and the Senate’s version focused on higher-income and corporate tax cuts.

“Unfortunately the speaker of the House and Senate president dropped the ball and failed to get it done,” Hogan said Monday night of the tax cuts, which were among his top priorities. “It’s very frustrating and disappointing.”

Perhaps the largest and most-debated issue this session was criminal justice reform.

The omnibus bill steers non-violent drug offenders toward treatment rather than incarceration.

Leadership on both sides of the aisle and in both branches of government have called this bill — the product of intense compromise between the House and Senate — one of the crowning achievements of the session.

“It’s a game changer for the criminal justice system in multiple ways,” said Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore.

Another bill, Noah’s Law, passed the General Assembly with only an hour to go.

The bill, named after a police officer who was killed while on a drunken driving patrol, expands the use of ignition locks on cars of drunken drivers.

“We know we’re saving a lot of lives by doing this,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor.

Busch called it one of the most productive sessions he could remember as Hogan signed more than 100 bills into law Tuesday.

The $42.3 billion operating budget was passed unanimously in both chambers more than two weeks before session ended, and closely resembled Hogan’s original proposal.

“It’s been the best, easiest in terms of levels of stress and differences,” Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chair Edward Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore County, said of negotiations. “Everybody was very accommodating.”

The session saw several other big initiatives become law, including a plan to reduce student loan debt, set new standards to combat climate change and create harsher fines for poachers. The General Assembly also approved a partnership between the University of Maryland’s College Park and Baltimore campuses.

The session also saw the passage of some bills that could be seen as a response to the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest in Baltimore last year, including laws reforming officers’ training, and allowing for residents to anonymously report complaints about police.

Some initially controversial pieces of legislation, like a law allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives after a series of stipulations, never made it to the governor’s desk.

Advocates for a bill requiring businesses to let their employees earn paid sick leave spent weeks in Annapolis lobbying lawmakers, but it never passed.

Mileah Kromer, a political scientist from Goucher College, said this represented a big loss for Democrats.

“It’s an initiative they have been working on for a couple of years now, and they can’t seem to muster enough to get it through,” she said.

The session began with overrides on five bills Hogan vetoed in 2015.

The low-boil of tension during the session also bubbled up when Hogan again tried to thwart legislative action by vetoing bills both chambers passed.

With less than a week before the General Assembly adjourned for the year, Democrats used a constitutional maneuver to force Hogan’s hand early on some bills. This gave them time to override two more of his vetoes, including a Democratic plan requiring all transportation projects to be scored before they receive funding.

An oft-repeated number around the State House this year was “83 percent” — the amount of the state’s operating budget that Hogan’s office said is eaten up by mandates, which require the governor to fund certain projects every year in his budget.

Republicans got a lot of mileage out of that statistic, which appeared represented by a jar of change on the desk of Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings’, R-Baltimore, for weeks.

Hogan introduced legislation to curb this kind of funding, but his proposals got little traction in the General Assembly. He often described himself as a “goalie, just trying to stop a lot of bad things from happening,” when it came to new initiatives that came with future price tags.

“I think any time you have divided government you’ll have a struggle on where money goes because neither side has full control of it,” said Kromer.

Several bills that would require later funding, including for Prince George’s Regional Medical Center and a package of bills aimed at revitalizing Baltimore, received bipartisan support. But Hogan called them “needless political actions” because they required spending “on programs that our administration was already committed to.”

Others, including scholarship programs and extended library hours, also passed, but were opposed by Republicans who opposed creating more funding requirements.

Miller on Monday night indicated that a one-day special session might be necessary to pass both the tax cuts legislation and the earned sick leave bill.

Special sessions are usually for urgent bills that can’t wait until the next year, and while Miller has said he thought the bills merited special circumstances, both Hogan and Busch were less enthusiastic.

“If the governor calls a special session, I’ll be here obviously,” Busch said. “But he has to justify it to the public.”

The tense undercurrent flowing through much of the session would boil up in occasionally odd ways, like in February, when Hogan compared legislators to kids on spring break, coming to Annapolis and causing trouble.

“They come here for a few weeks,” he said on the C4 show on WBAL-AM Radio. “ They start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony.”

It prompted a brief backlash, where Democratic senators and delegates Tweeted pictures of themselves in committee hearings captioned #notspringbreak.

And on the first day lawmakers arrived in Annapolis, before the General Assembly had gaveled in for its first vote, Miller said there was no communication between Hogan’s office and Democratic leadership, a complaint both sides brought up throughout the 90-day session.

Redistricting reform, on the top of the governor’s list, failed. Maryland has been called the “most gerrymandered” state, and Hogan introduced a bill in January that required congressional districts to be contiguous and take into account county and city boundaries.

This is likely in response to Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, which was nicknamed the “praying mantis” district by the Washington Post, and has also been said to resemble a “broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state,” by a federal judge.

Some of Attorney General Brian Frosh’s initiatives, like dealing with fantasy gaming and passing some gun restrictions, didn’t pass either.

By Rachel Bluth
CNS Correspondent Lexie Schapitl contributed to this report

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