Political News

Md. lawmakers to grapple with budget, sick leave, fracking

Posted January 8

— A budget shortfall will be a top concern for Maryland lawmakers during their annual 90-day legislative session, which begins this week.

Lawmakers also will be weighing proposals to require paid sick leave and to either extend a moratorium on the hydraulic oil and gas drilling process known as fracking in western Maryland or ban it.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will submit a proposal to address the projected budget shortfall of about $544 million in the coming fiscal year, and then lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled legislature will wrestle over these numbers for much of the rest of the session. Less-than-expected revenues have worsened Maryland's fiscal outlook and left the state with shortfall of about $209 million in the current fiscal year. Leading lawmakers already have warned of budget cuts.

It could be a contentious session, as the governor and lawmakers look toward next year's elections. Hogan already has said the repeal of a transportation-scoring system approved by the legislature last year is his top priority — and Democrats who control the General Assembly have shown no signs of budging, after having overridden the governor's veto of the legislation last year before adjourning.

Still, Hogan, who is entering his third year in office and enjoying high approval ratings, sounded optimistic Friday.

"Obviously, we don't always agree on everything, but I think we're going to be able to accomplish some things," Hogan said.

House Speaker Michael Busch, however, said he has yet to have a meeting with the governor or his staff since the last session.

"When there's no communication, I mean, it's not strained. Just, there is no there, there," said Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller complained of recent posts on a Facebook page connected to the governor that have been critical of him. "That's certainly not the way that political allies conduct business, and so it's, you know, disconcerting to say the least," Miller, D-Calvert, said in a recent interview.

State officials also will be keeping a close eye on developments on Washington, where potential changes to the Affordable Care Act could have a major impact in Maryland.

"We're going to be playing defense in terms of what's happening on Capitol Hill," Miller said.

On paid sick leave, Hogan has pitched his own proposal, but the governor's plan is substantially scaled back from a plan Democrats have pushed for. Last year, legislation to require employers with 10 or more employees to provide seven days of paid leave a year passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

Hogan is proposing businesses with 50 or more employees provide paid sick leave of at least five days a year, but Democrats note that advocates are reluctant to raise the threshold even to 15 employees.

An environmental battle also is brewing. Supporters of fracking say it will create jobs, but opponents say the pollution risks are too great. The issue has bubbled in Annapolis for years, but this year is critical, because the state could grant a permit for drilling in October unless lawmakers either ban it altogether or extend a moratorium.

"I think the best the two sides can hope for is an extended moratorium, not a ban but not allowing it to go forward," Miller said.

Here's a look at some other issues:

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

To address the rising costs of prescription drugs, one initiative would require companies to disclose the basis for high-cost drugs. Another would require companies to notify the public about steep price increases. Legislation also would give the state's attorney general authority to take action against price gouging.

OPIOID ADDICTION

Lawmakers plan to take up legislation to help address opioid addiction in the state.

SCHOOL TESTING LIMITS

Legislation to limit time spent on standardized testing in public schools is expected. The state's largest teachers union wants to limit testing to about 22 hours for elementary schools and 24 hours for high schools, or about 2 percent of the school year.

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