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Budget Surplus, Pot, COVID-19, Climate, Top Issues In Maryland Ahead Of Legislative Session

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Maryland lawmakers will be gathering for their annual 90-day legislative session this week with an enormous budget surplus, while legalizing recreational marijuana, battling COVID-19 and measures to address climate change will be among the major issues before them in an election year.

The Maryland General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, will be grappling with how to best manage more than $4.5 billion in surplus for the current and next fiscal years -- the result of massive federal pandemic aid and better-than-expected state revenues.

"I think people have heard this $4.6 billion like it's time that we can fund everything possible, but we've got to be very, very thoughtful and moderate about how we approach it, because we don't want to set ourselves up for a fiscal cliff in two to three years from now," Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones said using the surplus to help put more people back to work will be a top priority. The speaker highlighted upgrades to parks, bridges, schools and information technology systems as areas of emphasis.

"We are going to focus on making critical upgrades rather than creating new long-term spending priorities," Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said. "Essentially, we want to be able to put funds in so we can see more immediate results."

Lawmakers also will be finalizing a new map for state legislative districts for the General Assembly's 188 seats. A panel including lawmakers approved a recommended map last week that they are submitting to the legislature.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday that he is proposing a three-year, $500 million investment in increased support for law enforcement. Hogan said he will reintroduce legislation to address violent crime during the upcoming session. The measures will include stronger penalties for offenders who use and illegally possess firearms.

Hogan, who is entering his last session as governor, also said he will be proposing an increase in the state's Rainy Day Fund as well as tax relief. The governor has been trying to win tax relief for retirees for years.

"Our focus for the whole legislative session, as I mentioned, is going to be on crime, on cutting taxes and on trying to get some fair maps in the redistricting process," Hogan said Monday.

As COVID-19 cases surge, expenditures relating to the pandemic also are expected to be a leading issue.

"I think testing is going to be with us for a while, and so we've got to have the infrastructure in place to restore faith that we can tackle this virus and live life sustainably," Ferguson said.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Senate minority leader, said Republicans will be supporting tax relief, specifically a repeal of a tax on digital downloads that was approved last year and ending an automatic state gas tax increase that has been in effect for years.

"We believe that you should provide tax relief, give some of the money back to the people," Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said.

One high-profile measure also has significant fiscal implications for the state: how to approach legalizing recreational marijuana.

While Ferguson has expressed support for moving forward with a vote this year by the General Assembly to legalize recreational cannabis, Jones has backed putting the matter on the ballot for voters to decide in November.

Lawmakers also will again wrestle with how to do more to address climate change. Last year, a sweeping measure stalled that would have required the state to plan to increase its greenhouse gas reduction goals from 40% of 2006 levels by 2030 to 60% -- though some provisions such as planting 5 million trees by 2031 passed.

Juvenile justice reform also is expected to be a priority. A state commission last summer recommended changes that include ending the policy of automatically charging youths as adults for certain crimes.

Legislation to create a statewide insurance program to provide family and medical leave is also being proposed.

"We're in the process of bringing together the appropriate stakeholders to work with both the employers and employees to see what consensus we can get that makes sense," Jones said.

(© Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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