By Elliott Davis, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Reforming Maryland’s public education system. Building new schools. Addressing gun safety. Funding the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. These are some of the issues that Maryland state lawmakers expect to dominate the 2020 General Assembly session.

When legislators return to Annapolis in early January, much will be different.

There will be new committee assignments. With multiple lawmakers having resigned during the fall, there will be new faces at the State House.

Both chambers will also likely have new leaders for the first time in years. The Senate Democratic Caucus unanimously tapped Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, to succeed Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, in 2020. Miller, the Senate president for more than three decades, has been battling cancer and announced in October that he is giving up his gavel next month but remaining in the General Assembly.

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This will also be the first full session as speaker of the House for Delegate Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County. After the death of longtime Speaker Michael Busch in April, Jones emerged as his successor following a scarring fight among House Democrats that nearly saw their Republican counterparts essentially naming the next speaker.

Jones told Capital News Service in an interview that she’s been “all over the state” and in “back-to-back meetings” to prepare for her first full session as speaker. She said she will be a “fair” but “no-nonsense” leader.

Delegate Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford Counties, told Capital News Service that she is “very excited” about Jones leading the House. Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard Counties, said Ferguson will bring a “breath of fresh air” to the Senate. Sen. Arthur Ellis, D-Charles, said both new leaders represent a “generational shift” for the General Assembly.

The General Assembly will have a number of priorities for the three-month session — likely none bigger than determining how to fund recommendations from a special commission that had been studying over the past few years how to transform Maryland’s public education system.

During its final meeting in November, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — referred to as the Kirwan Commission after its chair, William “Brit” Kirwan — voted to advance its plan that would phase in increased education funding over the next 10 fiscal years. In fiscal year 2030, direct state aid would exceed $10.2 billion, which is $2.8 billion “more than would be allocated under current law,” according to the commission’s proposal.

The commission’s recommendations on improving education in the state include increasing teacher salaries and “assisting schools with high concentrations of poverty,” according to the proposal.

Now, the General Assembly will debate how to fund the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has frequently chided the commission; in a November statement released following the final meeting, he said, “After more than three years of meetings, the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission has still failed to produce any plan to pay for its massive spending proposals.”

But Democratic lawmakers are confident that the recommendations will be funded in 2020.

“We’re gonna pass it,” said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery. “… It’s the most important package that we can pass in this upcoming legislative session.”

Jones said she is “firm that we have the funds.” She added that with regard to the discussion around tax increases, the “governor is the only one saying that.”

“We are the ones that sat on this commission,” the speaker of the House added.

Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, told Capital News Service that she has “confidence and hope” that legislators will “secure a veto-proof piece of legislation” to fund the recommendations. Delegate Darryl Barnes, D-Prince George’s, said the debate over Kirwan is “everyone’s concern right now.”

Szeliga, the House minority whip, told Capital News Service that Kirwan is a “huge hurdle with the $4 billion price tag.” She said that her party stands “between taxpayers’ wallet(s) and the teacher’s union,” which has put its strong support behind the plan.

“I hope that the leadership in Annapolis can utilize our reasonable, good math skills to protect taxpayers,” Szeliga added.

Delegate Susan Krebs, R-Carroll, echoed Szeliga’s concerns, saying that while she applauds the work done by the commission, she’s concerned about throwing “money at something to say you’ve done something” and repeating “the mistakes of the past.”

PJ Hogan, a senior vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs in Annapolis, told Capital News Service that the debate over funding the Kirwan recommendations is “going to suck most of the oxygen out of the room.” Delegate Jared Solomon, D-Montgomery, said he’s heard that legislators are being told not to “put bills in with fiscal notes” due to the focus on education funding. Fiscal notes are prepared by the Department of Legislative Services to explain the economic impact of a given bill.

But House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, told Capital News Service that while the Kirwan recommendations will “dominate a lot of the press conversation,” there are many other items on the agenda for 2020.

One major item also has to do with education. Democratic General Assembly leaders announced last month a $2.2 billion plan to build and renovate schools across the state that will be taken up during the session. The plan, called the Built to Learn Act, was referred to as “HB1” and “SB1” at the announcement news conference. It will be funded at least in part by bonds from the Maryland Stadium Authority as well as dollars from the state’s casinos, Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, said at the news conference.

And Hogan announced his own school construction plan this month, called the Building Opportunity Act. The plan would provide $3.8 billion in school construction funding over five years, some of which would “come from a share of casino revenues in the education lockbox,” according to a news release distributed after Hogan’s announcement.

While education will dominate the session from multiple fronts, both Hogan and state lawmakers have plans to address other issues in the state.

On Wednesday, the governor announced a bill aimed at “significantly” increasing sentences for “violent offenders who commit crimes with guns,” as well as other “major crime” legislation, according to a news release.

On the same day, Hogan announced initiatives to address violent crime in Baltimore City, including funding for 25 new prosecutors, $21 million in additional funding for the city and State’s Attorney’s Office and a “comprehensive” strategy to curb youth violence there, according to the release.

Hogan also pledged in a November release that he will reintroduce political redistricting legislation “on the first day of the 2020 legislative session.”

The Republican governor has frequently spoken out against gerrymandering in Maryland without much success; the General Assembly is controlled by Democrats in both chambers. Krebs referred to redistricting as a “fiasco” and said she hopes it is addressed in 2020.

“Let a computer do it if we have to,” she said.

Some lawmakers told Capital News Service that they will fight Hogan on another one of his priorities: a plan to expand major highways in the state in order to relieve traffic congestion.

Solomon, the Montgomery County delegate, said he will bring back a bill requiring an environmental study around the effects of Hogan’s plan. Delegate Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, told Capital News Service that there also will be a bill that would require local consent for toll roads.

“If the Maryland Department of Transportation is going to agree to the largest (public-private partnership) in the country, I think the General Assembly should have a role to play,” she added.

Legislators are also hoping that there will be a resolution to a lawsuit between the state and its Historically Black Colleges and Universities over “illegal program duplication” between the institutions and Maryland’s traditionally white universities, according to November release from the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.

The caucus organized a rally in Annapolis last month aimed at urging Hogan to increase his most recent offer of $200 million to be shared among the state’s four HBCUs over 10 years, according to the release. Jones attended the rally and said she wrote in a letter to Hogan that $577 million “is the amount” needed by the universities. In a written statement after the rally, Hogan defended the $200 million offer as a “500 percent increase” over the final offer from the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley. Multiple legislators told Capital News Service they expect funding for HBCUs to be a big talking point during the session.

Lawmakers also expect crime and health issues to be addressed in 2020.

Luedtke said gun safety bills that passed the House but not the Senate during the last session “will be coming back.” Senate Majority Whip Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, said she plans to re-introduce her bill that would regulate sales of long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, in the state and has a “good feeling” about it passing in 2020.

“Congress hasn’t been able to pass anything,” Lee said. “ … We’ve gotta do something more than thoughts and prayers.”

Waldstreicher has plans of his own. He said that while Maryland has “very strict” gun laws, there are also “loopholes that we have to close,” such as background checks and gun storage-related issues. Waldstreicher also plans to introduce a bill that would ban the AM-15 semi-automatic rifle, which he said is legal under Maryland law. Police say the weapon was used in the Dayton, Ohio, mass shooting in August, according to NBC News.

There are also plans to address the increasing health issues associated with e-cigarettes. Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, formed a task force to examine the “public health and safety implications” of these devices, and the group had its first meeting in December, according to a news release. The goal of the task force is to produce a report and submit related legislation to the General Assembly during the 2020 session, according to the release.

Lam, a physician, announced last month that he will file a bill banning certain flavored vapes, such as bubble gum and mint. He told Capital News Service that he expects pushback from the vaping industry, and said he feels that the devices are “obviously” targeting young people to “get them hooked” with these flavors.

But Lam also sees a “general concern over the state’s budget” to be a “big driver of things” during the session, with major additional funding toward education being considered amid the possibility that the economy will “not be doing as well” in the near future.

It’s a “perfect storm,” Lam said.

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