By BRIAN WITTE – Associated Press
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – Lawmakers in Maryland gathered on Wednesday for the start of their 90-day legislative session with an unprecedented budget surplus, as they also prepared to debate high-profile issues such as the legalization of recreational marijuana and climate change.
Lawmakers will assess how to handle a whopping $ 4.6 billion budget surplus, which is the result of surprisingly high revenues resulting in part from federal pandemic aid.
Democrats, who control the General Assembly, have said they will prioritize improvements to parks, bridges, schools and information technology systems to quickly help get more people back to work.
“I would like it to be used to help our citizens who need it most,” House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said at the Daily Record’s Eye on Annapolis summit. “It’s not something that happens every session.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has proposed what he calls the largest tax relief program in Maryland history. It would provide over $ 4 billion over several years and eliminate state taxes on retirees. The plan also includes $ 650 million in tax relief for working families, making permanent the enhanced working income tax credit that was approved last year in Maryland.
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“We can now afford to do this,” the governor told reporters. This is usually the # 1 criticism we get from our colleagues across the way. They say, ‘Yes, we would like to help our retirees, our families and our small businesses. We just can’t afford it. Well, now we can afford it because we have the largest surplus in the history of the state. ”
Senate Speaker Bill Ferguson, a Democrat from Baltimore, said lawmakers would work with the governor and explore tax cuts, although he said moderation is needed because much of the surplus won’t allow only one-time expenses.
“It’s a unique moment every 100 years, and so we’ll be fiscally responsible and fiscally conservative, frankly, when it comes to the ongoing costs,” Ferguson said in a joint appearance with the speaker on Wednesday morning at the Summit. Daily Record.
Lawmakers will debate whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana, but it is unclear how they will approach it. Jones is backing putting the issue on the ballot for voters to decide in November, although Ferguson would prefer lawmakers to decide the issue this session, as well as how to implement it.
“I’m confident we’ll have some really solid conversations this year and land somewhere effective by the end of the session,” Ferguson said.
Lawmakers will again wonder how to do more to tackle climate change. A drastic stalled measure last year would have forced the state to plan to increase its greenhouse gas reduction targets from 40% from 2006 levels to 60% by 2030.
Ferguson said climate goals include reducing methane emissions, upgrading the state’s electricity grid and finding ways to invest in green technologies.
Senator Paul Pinsky, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, Health and the Environment, said lawmakers in both chambers had approved a couple of basic things, with a few more still under discussion.
“They really want a bill. We want a bill, ”Pinsky said. “Not only is it important for the merits of the climate fight, there are political merits. I mean, there is an election, and I think lawmakers want to be able to run for something and people Should they be responsible Are they supporting the environment and this kind of bold action or not?
Legislation to create a statewide insurance program to provide 12 weeks of family and medical leave is also before lawmakers.
The legislative session takes place in a great election year. The 188 seats in the General Assembly will all be on the ballot. Voters will choose a new governor because Hogan is on a limited term. They will also choose a new attorney general to replace Brian Frosh, who is retiring, and a new comptroller, as Peter Franchot is running for governor.
Lawmakers will finalize the states’ new legislative districts, a 10-year process that takes place after the U.S. census. The governor and the legislature support the dueling proposals, but the Democrats hold a qualified majority in both houses and control the redistribution of the state.
The session also begins as the pandemic spans its third calendar year. As lawmakers hold in-person sessions at Maryland State House, COVID-19 continues to force procedural changes and affect gatherings. Once again, virtual audiences and events are used to limit crowds.
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