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Maryland Legislature to Convene With Big Leadership Changes

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Maryland Legislative Hall (Photo: WBOC) Maryland Legislative Hall (Photo: WBOC)

By BRIAN WITTE, Associated Press           

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP)- For the first time in 17 years, the Maryland General Assembly will be led by two presiding officers who aren’t white men over 55 named Mike.           

When this year's legislative session opens on Wednesday, Sen. Bill Ferguson, a 36-year-old Baltimore Democrat, will be elected as the first new Senate president in more than three decades.           

Ferguson will succeed Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, a conservative Democrat who is stepping down from the leadership post due to illness. Miller will keep his seat.           

The vote by the chamber's 47 senators will come after a historic year in the House of Delegates, whose 141 members in May elected Adrienne Jones to be the first black official and first woman to the powerful office. Jones succeeded Michael Busch, who died in April.           

No one in the state's history has held the top jobs in the House and Senate longer than Busch and Miller. The changes, within months of each other in the Democrat-controlled legislature, have lawmakers wondering what to expect during the 90-day legislative session.           

“Everybody has their own style. We knew Mike Miller’s style. I don’t know what Bill Ferguson's style is going to be,” said Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader. “New managers come in, things change. That's kind of where we are.”           

While both chambers have a supermajority of Democrats with the votes to override vetoes from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Ferguson said he's focused on providing a sense of stability and a spirit of bipartisanship.           

“As I’ve been in this transition period, it’s become ever more clear to me that our strength comes from our unity, and that sometimes just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done," Ferguson said.           

Still, Ferguson and Jennings are expecting major debates in the chamber with 32 Democrats and 15 Republicans this year, particularly on recommendations from a commission on improving the state's schools.           

Supporters of the Kirwan Commission's recommendations say they will transform the state's schools. Opponents say the cost, estimated to reach $4 billion annually in 10 years, is excessive.           

Political observers say the Senate has veered left with the appointment of Ferguson, who is known as a liberal, and other changes that have taken place in the chamber. But in a recent interview, the former school teacher insisted that bipartisanship would be his focus.           

”Our strength will be found in the middle," he said. "It’ll be found in having hard conversations that at times will be heated, but that will lead to a better product in the end because we demonstrate a willingness to have the conversation."           

Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, was elected speaker in a one-day special session in May in a chamber with 99 Democrats and 42 Republicans. She said she wouldn't be able to say in what way the political landscape has shifted until she sees "what comes before the committees and ... what actually comes out.”           

Ferguson's ascension has led to leadership changes in key Senate committees. Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, will lead the Senate's budget committee. Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, will head the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee - a change viewed by many as another sign of a leftward shift - after the departure of former chairman Robert Zirkin, a moderate Democrat.           

Jones and Ferguson have worked together in the past on budget matters relating to education. Both say they've had a good working relationship.           

The Kirwan Commission recommendations are expected to be a priority for lawmakers this session. The panel has been working for three years to make sweeping changes to improve the state's public schools and update funding formulas, which was last done in 2002.           

Hogan has expressed support for some ideas in the proposal, but he has criticized the overall package for being too expensive, without a plan to pay for it. He has pledged to fight any major tax increases.           

Lawmakers already have approved a downpayment to start phasing in the plan. Jones and Ferguson both said in recent interviews that they do not expect to push for increases to income, property or sales taxes this session.           

“We cannot fund a 21st century education system on a 19th century tax code, and that's what we're trying to do currently,” Ferguson said. “There's a bigger discussion that'll have to happen so that our tax system matches our modern economy."           

Ferguson said he didn't know whether such conversations would be held this session, "but there are things than can move us in that direction.”

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