Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on thedailyrecord.com on December 20, 2018.
In three weeks, the 2019 session of the Maryland General Assembly will convene and with that will come many newly elected faces — 43 new members of the House of Delegates and 17 new state senators. The incoming crop of new legislators will comprise one of the largest freshman classes in years.
Like all newly elected legislators these new faces will need to transition from the campaign/election mindset to governing. They will need to refocus their passion and energy toward several major policy issues that are expected to dominate the 90-day session, which kicks off January 9.
Some of this freshman drive and enthusiasm was on display earlier this week at a Newsmaker Breakfast event hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee, featuring four incoming legislators.
These new faces, all members of the House of Delegates, will represent legislative districts in Baltimore city. They included Dalya Attar, an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore, Regina Boyce, a director at Strong City Baltimore, Tony Bridges, the assistant director for SOURCE at Johns Hopkins University and Melissa Wells, regional director for Baltimore-D.C. Building Trades.
Although they come from different professions and backgrounds there was agreement on some of the big issues they expect to find themselves in the middle during the General Assembly session.
These included: the future of Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness, the crime rate and public safety in Baltimore and what will be the final recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (a.k.a. Kirwan Commission) and what state legislators should do with the report.
One of the first lessons for a newly elected legislator – “to expect the unexpected” – landed late Wednesday afternoon, when the two presiding officers, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and Speaker of the House Michael Busch, instructed the Kirwan Commission to keep working as its report was not ready for major legislative action in the 2019 session. This unexpected decision effectively removed one of the most highly anticipated legislative policy discussions from the upcoming agenda.
The GBC, a leading voice for the business community and other private-sector employers in the Baltimore region, agrees that these are the issues to watch as the 2019 session unfolds. The GBC will be involved in these and many more business issues as the inaugural session of Gov. Larry Hogan’s second term begins.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the big issues, their complexity and the GBC’s take on each:
Crime and public safety in Baltimore
While homicides and other crime categories in Baltimore City have declined incrementally in 2018, crime and public safety remain the No. 1 issue for the business community.
As several legislators at the GBC Newsmaker Breakfast noted, the city’s crime problem is layered with issues of poverty, illegal gun trafficking, judicial sentencing discretion and more. With this in mind, the GBC will continue to urge legislators to pursue a two-pronged approach that reduces violent crime in the short-term while simultaneously addressing the long term root causes.
One anticipated crime-reduction legislation that would help in the short term: Changing the statute regarding multiple convictions of illegal possession of a firearm from a misdemeanor to a felony conviction.
Another criminal justice matter that was introduced in the 2018 session but withdrawn in the waning days of the session will be a focus of attention to many. The legislation would permit Johns Hopkins University to establish its own police force. The legislation, supported by Mayor Catherine Pugh, GBC, and others, received a boost with Miller recently announcing his support. It will be critically important to galvanize the support of a majority of both the Baltimore City House and Senate delegations to gain passage.
The legislation seeks to provide Johns Hopkins with the same police powers that are currently held by all Maryland public higher education institutions, including Morgan State University, University of Maryland, Baltimore, University of Baltimore and Coppin State University, all located in Baltimore city. Allowing a police force on the property owned by and immediately adjacent to Johns Hopkins will provide added protection to students, staff and employees at one of the most significant institutional assets and economic engines of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. The passage of the legislation will also assist in addressing the shortage of police officers in Baltimore City.
After two years of work, the commission was expected to issue its final report and recommendations to legislators in late January. The lofty goal of the body, chaired by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, is to provide recommendations to transform Maryland’s public schools into a system that produce’s graduates who can compete with the best globally. The recent announcement by the presiding officers that the report does not contain legislative proposals that are ready for the 2019 session casts a level of uncertainty on its path to future passage and will cause the advocates to regroup and re-strategize.
The GBC supports many of the Kirwan concepts that have been made public.
One thing is clear: Maryland’s future economy and business climate absolutely will need a pipeline of well-prepared graduating students to stay competitive. For the business community, the Kirwan Commission represents an opportunity to improve competitiveness. But these types of transformational policy changes are complex, have significant costs, and require tough choices. Seasoned political players such as the Senate president and House speaker recognized those challenges were even more complicated with a large crop on new legislators.
Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness
With the Maryland Stadium Authority’s recent recommendation that the existing aging facilities at Pimlico be razed and new structures built, it will be imperative for the governor and legislators to begin a dialogue in 2019 on laying out how and when adequate funding can be secured.
The GBC believes the MSA’s recommendation that Pimlico be transformed into a venue that can offer horse racing, entertainment, and other attractions year-round will ensure greater financial stability for the facility and neighborhood while ensuring that the Preakness remains in Baltimore. Hopefully in 2019, legislators statewide will join behind a funding plan for the $424 million proposal as a long-term solution to a pressing issue.
As is true every year when the General Assembly goes into high gear, other issues may bubble to the surface and be headline grabbers. This year these may include a bill to raise Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, debate over gerrymandering and redistricting, and measures to address the recent decisions by the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents.
But one thing I learned while serving in the House and the Senate is that once the opening bell rings, all bets are off. No one can predict what issue may dominate the 90-day session.
Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.