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A Primer to the 2017 Maryland General Assembly

It’s worth your while to catch this show

What will you be watching in 2017? The new Homeland series on Showtime? The Young Pope? The Good Fight? Perhaps the Maryland General Assembly?
    The legislature may get few votes. Yet between now and April 10, the Maryland General Assembly will wrangle with the governor to decide how to spend billions of your dollars.
    One hundred eighty-eight men and women convened January 11 to make an array of decisions that shape your life. The air we breathe, the earth that supports us, the waters that flow around us, the food we eat, the schools that teach our kids, health care — all these issues and more are shaped by laws made by the General Assembly.
    For the next three months, the Assembly, where Democrats dominate, will wrestle with how much Republican Gov. Larry Hogan wants to spend. Or how little. Everybody brings their own ideas, making for plenty of drama.
    All that drama happens beneath the radar for most of us. But you can catch up and even catch some of it live at http://tinyurl.com/BW-assembly.
    Here’s the least you need to know as the Assembly revises its laws and plans its Fiscal Year 2018 spending.

How Much Money?
    $40 billion-plus is probable. Last year, the General Assembly approved a $40.4 billion budget. Many years, the budget goes up by about six percent. Will 2017 change that? Maryland is $500 million poorer than anticipated as the governor sets about balancing the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
    “He’ll have to make cuts somewhere,” says Senate President Thomas V. ‘Mike’ Miller, a Democrat. “Where will be the issue. We’ll be trying to protect areas like education that people depend on.”
    Hogan delivers the full proposed operating and capital budgets on January 18, the third Wednesday in January, as required by law.
    Over 40 percent of those billions will come from state income taxes. Billions more come from sales tax, special fund fees like the Flush Tax and federal income taxes passed onto the state.

Who Are These People?
    Elected for four-year terms in general elections in non-presidential years, our 47 senators and 141 delegates are accountants, actors, chauffeurs, cigar store owners, lawyers, mayors, ministers, pilots, restaurateurs, retirees, teachers. Each delegate represents an average 37,564 of us, each senator about three times as many.
    We elected most, but not all. Federal and Baltimore 2016 elections rippled down many changes in the Maryland General Assembly. Many of these changes also ripple out to powerful leadership positions.
    Catherine E. Pugh not only left the state senate to become mayor of Baltimore but also hired for her administration several delegates, leaving their House seats open, plus another seat as a delegate moved up to the senate in Pugh’s place.
    Closer to home, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties also have new delegates due to promotions. Long-time Calvert County Commissioner Jerry Clark fills the term of Tony O’Donnell, appointed by Gov. Hogan in June to the Maryland Public Service Commission.
    Replacements in the General Assembly are selected by the County Central Committee of their party and appointed by the governor until the next election.

How Can You Reach Them?
    You can find your delegate and senator at http://mdelect.net. Click on a name to find contact information, a photo and biography.
    During session, legislators are on the go. Letters and emails get their attention without breaking their stride. Expect phone calls to be answered by a legislative aide. By mail or phone, opinions — especially on controversial issues — are logged and reported for the legislator. If you want a personal response, ask, persistently and politely.
    Don’t plan a personal visit without calling ahead to schedule a time. Arrive prepared to wait, as much of their day is spent in committee meetings and legislative hearings and votes. You’ll go through security screening to enter the legislative buildings.

The State of Our State
    To fill the legislators in, annual Issue Papers are compiled by the Department of Legislative Services. The Issue Paper for 2017 summarizes Maryland’s state of the state in 300 surprisingly readable pages. Topics range from state income sources — including Fantasy Sports, Sports Betting and Online Gaming  — to automatic voter registration to drones to oyster restoration: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/Pubs/legislegal/2017rs-Issue-Papers.pdf.

What’s On the Agenda?
    2017’s legislative and budget session will touch you where you live. Gov. Hogan has announced his intentions early in four big issues: business and jobs growth, environment, transportation and — the big surprise — family leave. Yes, Hogan, a Republican, is proposing what he calls a  “common sense measure to expand paid sick leave while taking steps to protect small business.”
    An environmental tussle will open the session as Democrats try to reverse Hogan’s last session veto of raising Maryland’s next clear-energy goal to 25 percent — in part at our expense. Meanwhile, his own $65 million environmental proposal includes renewable energy and job training. Fracking is likely to return as an issue, perhaps even a ban.
    On transportation, a Republican-to-Democrat fight is also likely as the two parties disagree on how projects and spending should be prioritized. Rhetoric is already hot, with Hogan vowing to overturn last year’s legislation that he calls the “road kill bill.”
    The $500 million hole in the state’s pocketbook this year may demand finessing spending levels now set by law.
    Early-bird legislators filed close to 200 bills before the opening day of the General Assembly. Bills are very precise things, tooled to fit into the workings of the vast machinery of the Code of Maryland Statutes.
    Early bills range from animal abuse … to maintaining cemetery memorials … to hunter safety … to allowing therapy dogs to accompany child witnesses testifying in court … to adding Farmers’ Day to Maryland’s roster of commemorative days.
    To keep up on environmental bills, email Sign me up for the Hotlist! to info@mdlcv.org.
    Follow any bill at legiscan.com/MD/legislation.
    Learn more with the online users guide to the 2017 General Assembly: mgaleg.maryland.gov/pubs-current/current-about.pdf.


Strength in Numbers

The Chambers of Anne Arundel County Legislative Breakfast

Learn about budget, tax, transportation, land-use economic development, education and regulatory issues with state, county and city elected officials. Thurs., Jan. 19, 7:30-9:30am: Crowne Plaza Annapolis. $65: 410-867-3129; southcounty@toad.net.


Compassion and Choices Lobby Day

Add your presence in support of the Maryland End of Life Options Act, which would legalize medical aid in dying. Wed., Jan. 25, 9:30am: House Office Building, 6 Bladen St., Annapolis: Ellen Dinerman, 301-261-9696; ellendinerman7@gmail.com.
United Seniors of Maryland Legislative/AARP Forum
Wed., Jan. 25, 8am-1pm: Miller Senate Building, 11 Bladen St., Annapolis. $15: unitedseniorsmd.com.


Environmental ­Legislative Summit

Legislators, environmentalists and leaders discuss the top 2017 environmental issues for this legislative session. Thurs., Jan. 26, 4-6pm: Miller Senate Building, 11 Bladen St., Annapolis. Free: #MDEnviroSummit.


Maryland Arts Day

Hear from the lawmakers who control funding for the arts. Tues., Feb. 14, 9am-1pm: Key Auditorium, St. John’s College, Annapolis: $40: mdarts.org/newsevents/maryland-arts-day-2016.