January 9, 2019

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP/WBOC)- Leading Maryland lawmakers expressed strong support for making prescription drugs more affordable, starting a major push to improve education and paving the way for potentially legalizing recreational marijuana – perhaps in a referendum next year – as the Maryland General Assembly began a new term Wednesday.

With 60 new legislators, nearly one-third of the 188-member legislature, lawmakers kicked off their annual legislative session with 72 women legislators: the most ever in Maryland. While Democrats held a strong 99-42 majority in the House and a 32-15 advantage in the Senate, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan greeted them as the first GOP governor to win a second term in Maryland since 1954.

In addition to many new members, the General Assembly also has had significant leadership changes on committees that decide what legislation moves forward. In the Senate, two committee heads lost primary races and another retired. In the House, the Judiciary Committee also has a new leader, after the primary defeat of its long-term former chairman.

Health care was at the top of a list of issues lawmakers will be grappling with this year. House Speaker Michael Busch, a Democrat, said lawmakers will pass a bill to create a state panel to review prescription drug costs. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, agreed something must be done to lower costs.

“Everybody should have an opportunity to have health insurance, and everybody should have an opportunity to have affordable prescription drugs,” Miller told reporters. “We’re going to find a way this year to make it happen.”

Lawmakers are proposing a measure to restore a mandate requiring people to have health insurance, though instead of forcing those who remain uninsured to pay a penalty, they would be allowed to make a down payment on health insurance. Hogan, who worked with Democrats last year to reach a bipartisan agreement to lower insurance rates on the state’s health care exchange, said he was willing to discuss the proposal, but he was wary of supporting a new mandate.

“It’s forcing people and charging them a fine, basically, and it’s not my way to go, but, look, we’ll have discussions with the legislature about the best way to try to cover more people,” Hogan said during an appearance at the Annapolis Summit, which is sponsored by The Daily Record and the Marc Steiner Show.

Busch said lawmakers will study how to best prepare to implement recreational marijuana, if Maryland voters decide to legalize it in a ballot question as soon as next year.

“Whether you support it or whether you don’t support it personally, I think that’s the future,” the speaker said during the Annapolis Summit. “I think you’re going to see the country go to legalizing recreational marijuana and, you know, it’ll be much like overturning prohibition.”

The legislative leaders said they both plan to move forward with recommendations from a state commission to improve K-12 education in the state, even if plans to rewrite state and local spending formulas will be postponed for a year. Education funding has created tension between the presiding officers and Hogan, who likes to say he’s funded record spending on education while Miller and Busch say it’s only because of spending mandates Democrats have supported. Miller derided the governor’s comments on school funding as “nonsense personified.”

Democrats have expressed support to raise the state’s minimum wage from $10.10 to $15 and potentially looking at indexing it to automatically rise with inflation, as the state did in 2013 with the gas tax.

Hogan said a minimum wage increase “sounds really good,” but he noted it just increased to $10.10 last year. The governor who ran on improving Maryland’s economic climate questioned how another increase could cause businesses to leave the state.

“I think that’s the discussion we’ll be having with the legislature on topics like this one,” Hogan said. “Is it helping our hurting our economy? And is it helping or hurting the people that need the help the most.”

Meanwhile, the health of the long-serving presiding officers has raised questions. Miller, who is entering his 33rd year as Senate president and is the longest serving state Senate president in the nation, told reporters he will have an announcement about his health Thursday.

“I plan to be president of the Senate for quite some time, and my health is very challenged, but we’re going to work through it, and it’s going to be a good productive session, I promise you,” Miller, who is 76 and used a cane Wednesday, said, declining further comment.

Busch, who is 72 and is the longest-serving speaker in Maryland’s history, had bypass surgery last year. In 2017, the speaker had a liver transplant.

Last modified: January 9, 2019