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General Assembly prepares for a contentious 90 days

Rachel Baye

The opening day of the General Assembly session is always filled with platitudes about bipartisanship and displays of camaraderie. Along these lines, Gov. Larry Hogan urged cooperation in his opening remarks to legislators on Wednesday, the first day of the 2018 legislative session.

“Over the next 90 days, our goal is going to be to try to put the politics aside, push the pause button,” Hogan said. “Let’s have our disagreements but let’s do it agreeably, and let’s try to find ways to find common ground.”

But the legislature is set to take on some politically divisive issues — many in response to actions taken by Congress or President Trump in Washington — in a session also fraught with election-year political fights.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin addressed the legislators shortly after Hogan.

“What we did in Washington is making your jobs more difficult in this legislative session,” he said.

For example, he said, take the recent changes to federal taxes and the Affordable Care Act.

“Now, I opposed the tax bill, but the manner in which it was done, I would hope all of us would recognize was wrong,” Cardin said. “There was no attention given to the impact it has on state and local government, and it’s going to have a major impact on state and local government.”

Senate President Mike Miller warned the lawmakers in his chamber that those changes politicians in Washington made to taxes and healthcare are going to mean tough choices in Annapolis.

“The shoes haven’t finished falling on Capitol Hill,” Miller said. “This is going to be one of the most contentious sessions you’re ever going to have to deal with because we have 90 days to deal with these very weighty issues that have been passed down from the federal government on us.”

To add to the tension, every legislative seat is on the ballot in November, as are all statewide offices.

On Wednesday morning, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous revved the crowd at a rally for clean energy in front of the State House.

“So what do we want? Clean energy!” the crowd chanted. “What do we need? Clean Jobs!”

And a discussion of policy priorities with Sen. Richard Madaleno, another Democrat running to unseat Hogan, quickly turned into campaign rhetoric.

“And that is why Hogan has to go,” he said at the end of a pitch about the best way to fix Baltimore City Public Schools’ recent heating issues.

During the Senate’s floor session Wednesday, Miller called attention to the senators who are retiring or leaving the body to seek other offices.

“Well actually, some of us aren’t coming back but don’t know it yet,” he joked.

The opening of the session was also colored by pending corruption charges against state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks. Oaks is accused of accepting bribes from an FBI informant in exchange for using his position as a state legislator to advance a business deal.

At a press conference Tuesday, Hogan criticized the fact that Oaks would be returning to the Senate for the session.

Miller said he will refer the issue to the legislature’s Ethics Committee.

“The governor wants me to oust a senator,” he said. “I don’t have that authority. The people elected him.”

Miller promised to follow the Ethics Committee’s recommendation. The result could be a public reprimand, or it could be a vote to remove Oaks from office.

Even in this contentious year, there are a few issues that have bipartisan support. One is a bill that would allow women who get pregnant after being raped to strip their attackers of parental rights. It’s supported by the governor and the leaders of both legislative chambers and is expected to proceed quickly, beginning with a hearing before a Senate committee Thursday afternoon.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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