Freshmen Begin Session


012315_legislator1After hearing speeches from Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, state House Speaker Michael Busch (D-District 30) and U.S. Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and signing in her first day as delegate for Maryland’s 11th District, Shelly Hettleman was navigating the halls of the State House to get her computer. It was one of many orientation rituals she and the other 57 freshman delegates took part in.

“It feels like finally the culmination of a long road,” said the Baltimore County Democrat.

Hettleman and her fellow newcomers enter the General Assembly at a crucial time with a new governor beginning his term and a budget deficit in excess of $600 million. Experts expect taxes and fees passed during the outgoing O’Malley administration to come under fire and lively debates about what programs and services will be on the chopping block. The impact of the new legislators on these debates remains to be seen.

“Some of the newer legislators, especially if you think about from jurisdictions like Baltimore City or Baltimore County, who maybe can get different infrastructure projects or even education, I’m sure they’re going to push hard to prevent cuts in some of those areas,” said John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University.

Hettleman expects the Appropriations Committee, which she sits on and has a new chairwoman in Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-District 43), to hear a lot of debate about issues this session will face, including the budget. But she doesn’t seem phased about entering her freshman term during a large fiscal deficit.

“It’s not something that is totally out of the ordinary,” she said. “Gov. O’Malley came into the office with some budget challenges, and prior administrations did as well.”

Hettleman and the other newcomers received briefings from the Department of Legislative Services on the budget, education, health and a variety of other issues. They also took part in a three-day bus trip to various parts of Maryland. On the day they went to Baltimore County and City, legislators visited the headquarters of Under Armour to learn about how the company has expanded and created jobs, toured the Henderson-Hopkins School at Johns Hopkins University, stopped at the University of Maryland Medical System to learn about shock trauma, attended a presentation about the University of Maryland, Baltimore County BioPark and walked through the Maryland Food Bank.

On the first day of this year’s session, Wednesday, Jan. 14, Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) gave the opening prayer in the House of Delegates, which carried a theme of bipartisanship. He said the Shehechiyanu blessing and also quoted Jesus.

“When Jesus preached in the Galilee, he said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,’” said Rosenberg. “Whatever our theology, whatever our ideology, today is a special occasion; our task in the days ahead is to seek consensus, to make peace.”

The opening session’s speakers focused on a variety of issues, and all touched on bipartisanship and the economy. Busch highlighted the need to work on criminal justice, the need to protect the Chesapeake Bay, the opportunity for manufacturing in Sparrows Point, continuing to make Maryland a hub for cyber-technology and his desire to work with Hogan to bring the FBI headquarters to Greenbelt, a priority echoed by Mikulski.

Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress, implored state lawmakers to work together and keep jobs at the top of the budget agenda.

“We are both looking at big issues, particularly the budget. You’re looking at yours, we’re looking at ours,” she said. “But as we look at the budget, we have to look at what the budget needs and what the budget needs should be. How do we create jobs? How do we create jobs that are worthwhile? How do we create jobs that have a living wage and how do we create opportunity?”

Hogan, who was greeted by thunderous applause from the delegates, underscored budget concerns.

“The only way that we’re going to solve the serious problems facing our state is if we do so in a bipartisan fashion, if we sit down together, reach across the aisle and come up with real common-sense, bipartisan solutions,” Hogan said. “And I pledge to you, that’s exactly the way I intend to lead as governor.”

The Maryland legislature is still heavily democratic, and the new group includes 32 Democrats and 26 Republicans in the House and four Democrats and seven Republicans in the Senate. How involved they will be in lawmaking depends on their strategy.

012315_legislator_chart“Some may take a step back and just try to observe the process as they’re getting their feet wet,” said Hogan. “Some may want to jump in and have ideas about legislation they’d like to pursue, but I think, again, that it will be interesting given the budget climate, given the changeover in the governor’s office and then looking at the new legislature.”

As for Hettleman, she’s already eyeing a couple of issues she’d like to work on, including sexual assault on college campuses.

“The system we have right now isn’t working, clearly. So I have interesting thoughts about how to approach making specifically women’s lives on campuses safer,” she said. “I’m really interested in talking to advocates out there as well as the university system to figure out how we can better provide services to people who need them on campus and work with law enforcement to make sure that offenders are held accountable.”

She is also looking into issues dealing with animal shelters. The state does not currently have standards for shelters, she said, a point stressed by constituents of hers concerned about Baltimore County Animal Services. Three county residents filed a suit against BCAS on Dec. 30 alleging that the shelter failed to meet basic needs of the animals and failed to abide by certain county code requirements.

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