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Maryland governor, lawmakers, battle over crime and taxes

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Maryland Governor-Crime Debate

Del. Eric Luedtke, a Democrat, talks to reporters on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 in Annapolis, Md., about legislation to expand the state’s sales tax to cover professional services to pay for a sweeping education measure. (AP Photo/Brian Witte.

ANNAPOLIS — While Democrats who control the Maryland General Assembly are keeping focused on education, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan criticized them Thursday for failing to act on his proposals to fight crime in Baltimore.

The governor said a committee chairman should step down if he doesn’t take up his proposals. Hogan also condemned a sales tax proposal that would raise $2.6 billion for a sweeping education plan by fiscal year 2025.

Maryland already has some of the best and most highly funded schools in the nation, Hogan said, adding that he said he remains committed to improving education.

“But, I’m sorry, no. That is not the top priority of Marylanders,” Hogan said at a news conference, citing polling data. “That is not a crisis, and it is not a matter of life and death.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the governor’s comments about Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Will Smith “went over the line.”

“This is a crisis, we all agree,” Ferguson said. “There’s no question no one feels comfortable with where things are when it comes to the status of violence across the state. The only solutions will be when we come to the table together and solve it. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s not about blaming. It’s about solving problems.”

Baltimore had 348 homicides last year, the fifth straight year with more than 300 slayings in the city.

Hogan is highlighting a measure he has proposed to increase penalties for those who use guns to commit violent crimes. He’s calling for stronger penalties for people who possess stolen firearms and guns with obliterated serial numbers. He’s also proposing tougher penalties for witness intimidation.

But those and other measures have not progressed as the legislative session reaches its halfway point. Democrats point out the state increased penalties in 2018 for repeat violent offenders, and they express skepticism that raising penalties will be enough to drive down crime.

Democrats also have criticized the Hogan administration for staffing cuts at agencies that supervise parole and probation and correctional services.

“We cannot just add more criminal laws on the books if the ones we have aren’t being used effectively,” said House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

Hogan stood by his earlier comments to The Baltimore Sun about Smith during the news conference, though he said had a productive conversation with him earlier in the day.

“We had a very, I think, positive, productive conversation, and I don’t want to share the details of that, but I think we made some progress,” Hogan said. “I think some of our bills are going to find a way to be heard,” Hogan said.

Smith said he hasn’t seen data to suggest mandatory minimum sentences will make Baltimore or the state safer.

“I would ask the governor if this is such a priority and if he has data to support implementing new mandatory minimums, then please come down to this committee and give it to us and present it to us, and then we can wrestle with it and have an intellectually honest conversation,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Democrats introduced a measure to expand the state’s sales tax to include most professional services in the state to raise revenue that could pay for the sweeping recommendations from the Kirwan Commission.

While the bill would take effect next year and cut the sales tax rate from 6 percent to 5 percent, it would raise an estimated $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2025 by broadening it to apply to nearly all services. Some exemptions would be kept for food, medicine, medical services, educational and social services and nonprofits.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of conversation about this but, again, it’s just another option on the table,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat. “Leadership hasn’t committed to moving it, but we want to make sure that we have the opportunity to discuss all options.”

Hogan, who has vowed to oppose tax increases to support the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, described the sales tax proposal as “the largest tax increase ever in the history of the state.”

“It’s not ever going to happen while I’m governor,” Hogan said. “I can promise you.”

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