Maryland's annual legislative session began Wednesday with new leadership, including the first new Senate president in more than three decades and the first black woman to preside as speaker over the House of Delegates at the start of the state's 90-day session.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, was elected unanimously by senators to take Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller's place at the head of the chamber. Ferguson, a former teacher, was quick to highlight the importance of a wide-ranging measure aimed at investing more to improve education. The proposal promises to be a top issue before the General Assembly.
The measure, a result of three years of study by a state commission, aims to bring equality to the state's public schools.
“What we know is that despite the positive examples that we have seen over and over, we have far too many schools where the ZIP code, the race or an individual's tax bracket determine a child's life outcome,” Ferguson said. “In a great state like Maryland, that is not something that we should expect as normal or OK.”
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The proposal focuses on five key policy areas. They include pre-K, teaching and increased teachers' pay, college and career readiness, aid for struggling schools and accountability in implementing the plan. While Gov. Larry Hogan has expressed support for some of the recommendations, he has criticized the $4 billion it's estimated to cost annually by the time the program is fully implemented a decade from now.
“There is no formula for where the money comes from,” Hogan said Wednesday morning during an appearance at the Annapolis Summit, sponsored by The Daily Record. “It's just all make believe at this point.”
Both lawmakers and Gov. Larry Hogan also have plans to boost school construction funding.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones was reelected to lead the chamber of 141 delegates. Jones, of Baltimore County, was first elected in a one-day special session in May, after the death of Michael Busch. This will be her first full session at the helm.
“It's a new year, a new decade, and our House members look more like our state than ever before,” Jones said. “It's such an honor to be part of the significant changes going on here in Maryland, and I thank each and every one of you for your faith in me to lead this House.”
She paid tribute to Busch.
“Too soon, we lost a giant in Maryland government — an ultimate public servant and honorable man in Michael Erin Busch,” she said.
Like Ferguson, Jones also highlighted the importance of education. The speaker said she visited a Maryland school that literally could not open its doors.
“If we can't ensure that every school in our state can open its doors and be ready to provide a world-class education to our children, we are failing,” Jones said. “That's why we are making school construction and educational funding a priority so every child across the state has the opportunity to succeed regardless of their zip code.”
Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader, said Republicans will be offering proposals to reform education and increase accountability.
“It's a lot more money for very few meaningful reforms,” Kipke said of the 10-year plan. “So, without those meaningful reforms, we're going to have to come to the table and work together to do a better job, if we really are serious about improving standards for students in classrooms.”
“If you’re going to have more teachers, you need more classrooms,” Montgomery County Executive Mark Elrich said. “If you’re going to have more classrooms, you need more teachers. These two things go together, and Montgomery County’s needs are both those areas.”
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said better schools are needed but worries that Prince George’s County can’t afford to pay its share.
“It means that the counties and the cities that need it most can least afford it,” she said. “It means this transformative education that we’re talking about is not affordable.”
The elections of Jones and Ferguson have prompted some uncertainty in how new leadership styles will affect the outcome of the next 90 days. Both Miller and Busch held their respective posts longer than anyone in the state's history. Ferguson, 36, is viewed as more liberal than Miller, 77.
“I think you'll see a little bit of an ideological and a generational shift, but I don't think it's going to be as radical as folks think,” said Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the new chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “The main goal is to have some semblance of stability.”
While education is clearly a marquee topic this year, lawmakers also are expected to revisit gun control, sports betting and a proposal to rebuild the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to keep the Preakness Stakes — the second leg of the Triple Crown — in the city.
Hogan announced plans on Tuesday to introduce legislation aimed at tightening ethics laws, after a number of public corruption cases in recent years.