At the Halfway Point, Little to Write Home About

The third year of a four-year term at the State House is supposed to be the most productive for the legislature and the governor. However, halfway through this session, it’s shaping up as a bit of a dud.

Missing are grand plans and bold new initiatives, or at least none that have stirred up wide enthusiasm or broad support, except for issues recycled from past sessions, such as paid sick leave and a ban on fracking.

The Democratic leaders of the Democrat-dominated legislature have largely focused their attention on President Donald Trump and what his policies might do to Marylanders. That’s why their first big push was to give Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh broad powers to sue the Trump administration — without the permission of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who wants to try to get along with a president he did not support or vote for.

Hogan has offered his most ambitious agenda to date — 31 bills, if you count four budget measures. Some of them are retreads of past legislation that failed, such as tax incentives to boost manufacturing, exemptions for military retirement pay, easier rules for running charter schools and reductions on spending mandates when revenues fall short.

Parts May Pass

Parts of Hogan’s package actually have a good chance of passing. These include exemption on early retirement income for first responders (but without Hogan’s name attached), a wastewater treatment measure, a more stringent law against human sex trafficking, tax incentives for investments in cybersecurity, increasing rebates for electric cars and a major overhaul of the state procurement process.

All of these are small potatoes, and issues legislators mostly like, anyway.

Other Hogan priorities are not likely to get much more than a polite hearing. These include setting up an independent commission to draw legislative and congressional districts, and transferring the enforcement of legislative ethics to the State Ethics Commission, rather than a joint committee of lawmakers.

Hogan’s top priority is a demand that the legislature repeal the transportation scoring law they passed last year, overriding his veto. Senate President Mike Miller says he’s willing to compromise, the governor’s staff says no compromise is possible, and House Speaker Michael Busch has shown zero interest in making any kind of a deal with Hogan.

No New Taxes

Looking at the State House this way presumes that people want government and their elected representatives to be doing things. If you take an opposite viewpoint that government should be doing less and keep its hands off your life and business, then the good news is that Hogan has balanced the budget with no new taxes.

This may seem no big deal, but it is not the legislature’s usual approach. True, Hogan campaigned on the promise to roll back as many of the 40-some tax and fee increases passed in the O’Malley years as he could. He’s done as much of that as he could do on his own, but all his proposed tax cuts in the first two years have not gotten very far with Democratic legislators, even though they were fairly minor. Now that state revenues are again coming in below estimates, there is no sentiment to cut them further.

Hogan has emphasized that Maryland is open for business. That has not stopped liberal legislators from proposing changes that are opposed by significant segments of the business community, such as raising the salary ceiling at which workers are entitled to overtime pay.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, chair of the Howard County delegation this year, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would change the annual corporation filing fee of $300 for all businesses into a sliding scale. Businesses with more personal property assets such as equipment could pay thousands of dollars a year.

Smaller businesses would get a fee cut, but the bill turns the fee into another tax for larger corporations.

Paid Sick Leave

Mandatory paid sick leave is on course to finally win enactment after several attempts. The version popular with Democrats covers all businesses with more than 14 employees. Even the many larger businesses who already offer paid sick leave are likely to have to change their accounting and procedures to conform to the bill, including the state of Maryland, which does not offer paid sick leave to contract employees. Smaller businesses will be forced to provide unpaid sick leave.

Polling shows that paid sick leave is popular among all demographic groups and Republicans too. Hogan has offered his own version that covers employers with 50 or more workers, and offers tax incentives for smaller employers. This approach covers hundreds of thousands fewer employees. Democratic legislators prefer their more expansive approach.

Trump: Uncertainty

The big uncertainty hanging over the state is what will happen with the federal budget and health care. Major changes in health insurance and Medicaid could knock a huge hole in the state budget. Reductions in the federal workforce could cause further loss in state revenues.

Maryland will not know the impact from Washington until after the session is over. A special session later this year to deal with a budget deficit is not inconceivable.

Without a lot of money to play with, few new state programs can be launched. This may be restraining legislative action this year. But putting new burdens on business, such as mandatory paid sick leave, doesn’t cost any money from the state budget.

Firing Foose

The Howard County delegation is again involving itself with school board politics. Atterbeary and Del. Eric Ebersole introduced a measure in late February to allow local school boards to fire the local superintendent.

Under current state law, the local board hires the county superintendent, but only the state superintendent can fire a local superintendent, and only for cause. Those causes are immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency or willful neglect of duty. Atterbeary’s bill would allow local boards of education to fire for the same reasons.

After the election of three new board members in November, who unseated three incumbents, relations have gotten worse with Superintendent Renee Foose. In a preemptive strike, Foose sued the school board she works for in January, alleging that they had stripped her of lawful authority to hire staff, including the staff of the school board.

It’s hard to see this ending well.

The Howard County delegation has also agreed to a compromise on Atterbeary’s bill to elect five of the seven members of the school board by council district. The bill now provides that five members of the school must each live in a different council district, but they will still be elected at large.

The legislation was proposed to make sure that the members of the school board represent all areas of the county. It will now be voted on by the standing committees of the House and Senate that handle education policy.