Off to the Races: Maryland General Assembly 2018 Begins

It’s an election year, and everyone knows it. For the next 90-days, the Maryland General Assembly will be in session and, if the lead-up has been any indication, it’s set for fireworks.

There are a few big issues that are going to have to be addressed by Maryland’s leaders: the House of Delegates, the State Senate, and the Governor. However, the issues that make for the biggest political fights are ones that no one is fully prepared for coming into Session.

In addition to the fact that every member of the General Assembly, and the Governor, will face the voters of the State on November 6, you can expect several vicious fights that will be decided far sooner—in the June 26 primary. All of the lawmakers in Annapolis for the next three months understand that they are under scrutiny from the voters, the press, and from potential primary contenders who, unlike the lawmakers, aren’t prohibited from fundraising during the 90 day Session.

So, what’s really at stake here? The national dialogue eats up a lot of the news time, even locally, so much of the drama and intrigue leading up to this year’s Session may have slipped by the average voter. First, let’s remember that a lot of what’s going on is politics. Democrats control a super-majority in both houses of the General Assembly. They would like nothing more than to deny Larry Hogan the opportunity to be the first Republican Governor of Maryland to be re-elected since the 1950s.

However, Democrats have their own problems. Though Maryland is a “solidly blue” state, there are both geographic and demographic divides that strain relations and political power in Annapolis. The biggest of these is the desire of some to adopt a leftward shift in politics that’s opposed to the “moderate Democrat” model that has held firm control on the Maryland Party for decades. Younger, progressive leaders see the “old guard” as embodiments of establishment and corruption while the seasoned politicians see the upstarts as not understanding that the majority of Marylanders are not keen on embracing far-left politics.

With this backdrop, let’s take a look at a few of the issues facing Annapolis this Session:

Gerrymandering: The Big Gamble

Maryland’s political gerrymandering (drawing legislative districts in order to preserve power of one political party) is the stuff of satire. However, Democrats, who are the ones who have held the power and drawn the maps in Maryland (nationally, this accusation actually tilts more against Republicans than Democrats), will, with straight faces, argue that Maryland’s maps are valid and that any changes should be part of a “regional” compact with nearby states to end political gerrymandering (never mind, of course, that individual states control their own elections).

The main issue here is that there is a census in 2020. A census allows for the re-drawing of legislative districts. If Governor Hogan is re-elected, he will have the first crack at re-drawing the maps. Now, because Democrats control both houses of the state legislature by veto-proof majorities, they can stop the Governor from re-gerrymandering in Republicans’ favor.

Here’s where it gets interesting. If Republicans pick up five seats in the State Senate this Fall, they would be able to prevent Democrats from blocking the Governor’s redrawn districts. In effect, even the most conservative (pun not intended) estimates show that Republicans would pick up two seats in Congress (giving Democrats a 5-3 advantage in the delegation versus the 7-1 they have now). This is the “historical” reality map. Since the 1960s, Republicans have averaged three Congressional seats in Maryland (even getting as high as four from 1993 to 2001). There are also speculations that a 4-4 map could be drawn that fits the necessary legal requirements.

If neither the Governor nor the Democrats want to take the gamble on the election, there is a way out: a non-partisan commission. Now, what this commission would mean would be that the Republicans wouldn’t be able to re-gerrymander if they got a filibuster in the State Senate, but it would also mean that the Democrats would almost certainly lose the 6th Congressional District in Western Maryland. Almost any reasonable non-partisan map that’s going to be generated by a commission looks like a 5-2-1 map with five solid-Democrat seats, two solid-Republican seats, and one battleground seat.

Larry Hogan: Corruption Crusader

The Governor is coming into Session with strong approval ratings and riding on several newsworthy press conferences. This week, the Governor announced his intention to put forward legislation that would let Maryland’s voters decide on term limits for members of the General Assembly.

Remember, the General Assembly is overwhelmingly made up of Democrats. The leader of the State Senate, Mike Miller, has been in the Senate since the 1970s. The Speaker of the House of Delegates, Mike Busch, has been in the House since the 1980s. Both have been frequent political sparring partners with the Governor, who has made rooting out corruption a hallmark of his Administration.

While this seems like a political non-starter in that it would appear to be just a political jab at the entrenched Democrats, it comes on the heels of a year of unflattering corruption stories about Democrats. The worst, the Federal indictment of Nathaniel Oaks, is still ongoing. Oaks, who is facing a bribery trial, has not been expelled from the State Senate despite a bipartisan chorus of opposition.

It’s also important to remember that there are a lot of younger Democrats who see their elders as being inflexible dinosaurs, relics of a bygone era of Maryland politics. Hogan may have found a strong wedge issue that younger, change-minded Democrats can embrace and use to oust the old guard. Certainly, this is risky for Hogan. In the event there is a progressive revolt against the establishment Democrats, Hogan would have aided a strong leftward shift in the General Assembly. However, the trade-off would clearly be that putting term limits on the ballot would be a strong driver of turnout for prospective Hogan voters and moderates.

Hogan has also taken it on himself to call for major reforms to Baltimore City Schools. The most recent corruption fiasco featuring City Schools resulted in the City not qualifying for $66 million in State aid. This construction money could have been used to install heaters in schools. Unfortunately, this was not done and has caused a massive problem this winter. Hogan has called for emergency funding to City Schools to deal with the heat issue, but also for a State investigation into the widespread corruption and waste taking place. Coupled with this is the crime wave that has plagued Baltimore City and exposed the inability of City Government to combat the issue.

On both the schools and crime issues, Hogan’s steady hand has won plaudits across the board. While his detractors nitpick, the Governor’s fierce anti-corruption focus, and little tolerance for its abettors, is a strong quality of his first term.

Washington’s Shadow

Last year, Democrats in the General Assembly, afraid that Donald Trump was going to bring about the End Times, made some rash decisions. The most politically baffling was politicizing the role of Maryland’s Attorney General and giving him the mandate to bring suit against the President. Of course, to date, Brian Frosh, Wile E. Coyote-like, has failed in each attempt and wasted taxpayer money.

However, this year, the tangible successes of Trump’s policies in DC do have real ripple effects for the General Assembly to deal with in Annapolis. The most pressing of these is the fact that Washington has dramatically reduced taxes for every American. While this is a huge boon for tax payers and businesses, it exposes Maryland for having some of the highest state taxes in the country (the SALT deduction debate).

We would argue that this is the perfect opportunity for the General Assembly to cut taxes for all Marylanders. This is the easy solution. However, it seems unlikely that the Democrats in Annapolis would see this solution as politically tenable, especially when some are facing challenges from the left in primaries. Rather, they will likely stick to rhetoric linking all Republicans to Trump, rail against big businesses, and make no real progress for relief from tax burdens.

Taxes notwithstanding, there are certainly going to be issues, both real and imaginary, brought up with respect to changes in policy from Washington. The Governor, who has charted a course independent from Trump and the Washington GOP, has announced that he does not support offshore drilling. This will be an area of common ground with Democrats for Hogan, whose record on the environment is likely better than any prominent Republican.

It’s Going to be Fun

Governor Hogan is coming into Session with a full head of steam. He knows that, despite having high approval ratings, he is squarely in the crosshairs of the politicians and national Democrats. Both sides know that if the Governor gets through Session without a scratch, as he has done for three years in a row, that his chances of getting re-elected go up considerably.

Prominent Democrats are also facing challenges from the left in primaries and from strong Republican opposition in the Fall. Expect them to be ready to fight on issues and make politics the top Maryland story.

If there’s one prediction for the 2018 General Assembly, it’s that anything can happen. Stay Tuned!

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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