In Annapolis, lawmakers set up fights on taxes, violence | WYPR

In Annapolis, lawmakers set up fights on taxes, violence

Jan 9, 2018

House Speaker Michael Busch suggests some of Maryland's unexpected tax revenue support the Children's Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP.
Credit Rachel Baye

As lawmakers prepare to return to Annapolis Wednesday for the start of the General Assembly’s annual 90-day session, they are gearing up for fights on topics such as taxes, health insurance and Baltimore’s record-level of violence.

One of the biggest fights may be over taxes.

“The top my list is we have to first of all sit down and dissect the federal tax bill and how it affects the state of Maryland,” said House Speaker Michael Busch.

The Comptroller’s office is crunching the numbers to determine exactly what the new tax law looks like for Maryland. At a Board of Public Works meeting last month, Gov. Larry Hogan said some residents will see higher taxes, others will see lower taxes.

“One thing is clear is that due to the loss of several long-standing federal tax deductions and exemptions that are tied to Maryland taxes, that Maryland state revenue is likely to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.

At the meeting, he announced plans to introduce legislation returning money to taxpayers.

“Our goal will be to leave all of that money in the pockets of hardworking Marylanders,” Hogan said.

But Busch said the state should also consider allocating some of that money to certain programs that need it.

“Right now, the federal government has not renewed the money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which insures 142,000 kids in the state of Maryland,” Busch said. “Now, I don’t think there’s anybody out there who wants to drop health insurance for 142,000 kids.”

When Congress passed the changes to the tax code, it also ended enforcement of the penalty for not buying health insurance. CareFirst, Maryland’s largest health insurer, has warned that the change will lead to rising premiums and the collapse of Maryland’s individual insurance market.

A state commission is expected to release a report in the coming weeks detailing different options for strengthening the market, and lawmakers plan to take up the issue during the session.

Stemming record levels of violence in Baltimore could be another sticking point.

Hogan has said he will introduce legislation preventing repeat violent offenders from qualifying for early release or parole, and increasing minimum sentences for offenders who use guns in violent crimes.

“There is a rotating door of people who go through the criminal justice system, even violent criminals who are allowed back out on the street,” said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke. “The bottom line is if we're afraid of people, they need to be in jail. People that hurt and kill and rape and pillage — we don't want them out on the streets.”

Across the political aisle, Senate President Mike Miller said tough-on-crime policies like those Hogan has proposed aren’t the right approach.

“What the issue is, plain and simple, is they need more police on the streets,” Miller said. “There’s 500 less police on the streets in Baltimore City than there were a few years ago. There’s 50 percent less arrests in Baltimore City than there were a few years ago.”

On Monday, Hogan laid the groundwork for a fight on education. He announced legislation that would make test scores account for 80 percent of a school’s rating, which is used to classify schools as “failing.” It’s something the Maryland State Education Association teachers union vehemently opposes.

“Now, this isn’t about politics,” Hogan said as he announced the legislation. “This is about our children and their future.”

The move would effectively reverse a contentious law that passed last year. Hogan vetoed that legislation last year, but the General Assembly voted to override the veto.

Legislative leaders also plan to overturn two other vetoes Hogan issued last year. One vetoed bill would require businesses to offer their workers paid sick leave. The other would remove questions about criminal history from Maryland college applications.