ANNAPOLIS — Cecil County movers and shakers converged onto the state capital last Thursday to get a sneak-peek about what’s in store for the legislative session as well as to learn how statewide initiatives would affect their end of the state at the annual Cecil Night.
Organized by the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, scores of prominent citizens and business leaders, were able to meet with top officials in the Maryland General Assembly, including newly minted Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), stepping into the role after previous president Mike Miller (D-Calvert) stepped down due to health issues.
“It’s phenomenal that you’ve turned this into an educational session. I wish more groups took the time to have a regular conversation with their representatives,” Ferguson told the packed room at the Miller Senate Building.
The event used to be a reception where Cecil County officials and business owners could socialize with prominent state leaders, but over the years, it has transformed into an educational forum where county residents gain some more insight on what’s on slate for the people who set policy for Maryland.
Ferguson used his time to comment on how diverse Maryland was and how certain issues, such as funding education and raising the minimum wage, would have different impacts in different sections of the state.
“Our best work is when we can recognize the unique needs of our jurisdictions and account for them,” he said. “The economy and the budget situation looks promising right now but we do have cracks in the system, we have kids in poverty. So we will start laying a path for what the next 10 years will look like and where we can use our dollars more effectively.”
While funding the Kirwan Commission recommendations was his top priority, Ferguson noted that his first priorities during this transitional time were to focus on the fundamentals to get the “important things done first.”
Majority House Leader Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery County) also spoke to Cecil County residents about the bipartisan nature of Annapolis, noting that he has worked successfully alongside the county’s Del. Kevin Hornberger.
“He seems like a pretty OK guy so far,” he joked.
Luedtke outlined various priorities of the session, like funding the reported $3.8 billion in Kirwan Commission recommendations to improve public education and to revamp the system for building new schools.
“We need to find a way to make sure, long-term, that we’re providing what our kids deserve,” Luedtke said. “It’s not just a moral obligation, but an economic obligation. Maryland’s economy rests on the fact that we have a highly educated workforce.”
He stressed that there would be focus on accountability on how the Kirwan Commission funding would be spent, noting that the Governor’s office was looking to create an Office of the Inspector General. That office would allow investigations of local schools and whether the state money was going where it was said to go.
In terms of funding Luedtke said there were avenues like opening up sports gambling and collecting sales tax from online sales to help pay for Kirwan, as well as eliminating some loopholes for tax credits that “aren’t doing what the state wants them to do. Another option could be revisiting the tobacco tax for vapes.
The one bright spot, Luedtke assured, was that there was some money set aside by the legislature in anticipation of Kirwan.
Luedtke also hinted that some of the struggles the medical marijuana industry would be up for more talks this year, specifically concerning the number and locations of licenses, its future tax structure, and how to prevent driving while under the influence.
Andrew Cassilly, a senior advisor to Gov. Larry Hogan, stepped in to throw his support behind his new successor, Del. Mike Griffith (R-Cecil/Harford).
“I will be very honest, I’m not as familiar with Cecil County as I wish I was,” Griffith said. “But I’m a good student and I will work very hard to learn the concerns and how I can be an asset to Cecil County.”
Cassilly served as a delegate for years, but now hopes this his position in the Hogan administration can help carry the local initiatives with a louder voice.
Cassilly also shared some of Hogan’s main priorities within the self-dubbed “accountability session,” like working to lower Baltimore City’s crime rate, creating a plan to reduce recidivism, and holding Pennsylvania accountable for its role in the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. The other key component he mentioned was holding politicians accountable for the people of Maryland.
“The governor said straight out, ‘We need to leave the citizens of Maryland a legacy,’” Cassilly said. “When I’m long gone, we want to look back and say we made great progress under this Republican governor.”
Rounding out the discussion was Minority Whip Steve Hershey (R-Upper Shore) and Hornberger, explaining their cautious optimism for the upcoming three months in session under new leadership.
Hershey noted that while several in Annapolis were excited for the potential of progressive change ushered in by new leadership, Ferguson’s recent actions hint that he’s open to hearing from the Eastern Shore.
The Senate President had asked Hershey and Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, (R-Baltimore/ Harford) to nominate Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) as the new Senate president pro tempore just the day before.
Ferguson also mentioned the struggles facing University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Chestertown, months after he took a tour there with Hershey.
“This isn’t just talk behind the scenes. This is their way of showing that they want to be inclusive of our party and they do value our input, the debates we have and what we bring to Annapolis is important,” Hershey said.
Hornberger took a top-down look of the session, noting that the Cecil County delegation now has “built a reputation of getting things done.”
Both Hershey and Hornberger noted that many of the bills they’ll be presenting were ones that never made it out of subcommittees.
Hornberger’s strategy is to think of every side of a piece of legislation and counteract it.
“Talk to the lobbyists, talk to the advocates, talk to the municipal government, all of those things, that’s the planning that you put in the front end,” he said.
Hershey was a little more cautious and warned that there may be more defense, and capitalized on the relationships formed to get them out of the subcommittees.
“No team walks on the field thinking they’re going to lose. We all think we’re going to be able to compete,” Hershey said. “I don’t know what I’m going to say in nine days from now, but I know we can compete here and continue to influence legislation.”