The Washington Post

In General Assembly

- ROBERT MCCARTNEY

sessions in Virginia and Maryland, Democrats plan to seek structural changes in the economy, schools, policing and race relations.

“Build Back Better” will never achieve the renown — or infamy — of “Make America Great Again.” But President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign slogan does offer a pithy summary of what Democrats hope to accomplish now that they will control both chambers of Congress as well as the White House.

The same is true at the state level in Virginia and Maryland as their general assemblies prepare to convene Wednesday for their regular annual sessions.

Democrats lead both chambers of both legislatur­es, and lawmakers say they aim to provide more than just shortterm relief from the coronaviru­s and the recession it triggered. They also want to make structural changes in the economy, schools, criminal justice system and race relations to address inequities and other shortcomin­gs exposed by the crises of 2020.

It’s not clear how far they can go. The recession has strained budgets. Business interests, police unions and conservati­ve politician­s in both states will push back against some measures that liberal lawmakers are busy drafting. In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to resist anything he views as too expensive or damaging to law enforcemen­t.

But assuming that the newly approved coronaviru­s vaccines lead to economic recovery this year as expected, Democrats in Richmond and Annapolis see a historic opportunit­y to strengthen the safety net for workers living paycheck to paycheck, widen educationa­l opportunit­y and rectify racial injustices. They are energized because, for the first time in a decade, they will have like-minded partisans fully in charge of the executive and legislativ­e branches in

Washington.

“We have a chance to do things very differentl­y … [by] building a green economy with good jobs and labor unions at the table,” said Maryland Del. Lorig Charkoudia­n (D-montgomery), a member of the Economic Matters Committee. “This is the moment to put that on the table, to have the major restructur­ing of our economy to be done in a way that’s grounded in equity.”

Here are highlights of what Democrats in both state capitals would like to achieve:

Narrow the economic gap. The legislator­s will devote much of their time to finding money for immediate aid for the jobless, renters facing eviction, people needing health insurance and small businesses shuttered by pandemic restrictio­ns.

In addition, some Virginia Democrats hope to give workers permanent help by requiring employers to provide paid sick leave or family leave. Such programs failed to win approval last year, because opponents said a recession was no time to burden businesses with new costs.

“It’s essential that folks have access to paid leave,” Commonweal­th Institute President Michael Cassidy said. “The pandemic has revealed how critical that is.”

The pandemic has aggravated the divide between profession­al employees, for whom it has been easier to telework, and bluecollar workers who have to be present at their jobs.

“The K-shaped recovery pattern is very real,” Cassidy said, referring to economic charts showing one group on the rise and the other trending downward. “Working people who have lost their jobs can’t pay the rent.”

Virginia Democrats will push to expand both tax credits and trust funds for low-income housing. Legislator­s said one goal that probably won’t pass this year is ending Virginia’s probusines­s “right-to-work” law. It bars employees from being required to join a union, or pay union dues or fees, as a condition of employment.

In Maryland, House

Democrats will aim to put more cash directly in the pockets of low-income families by expanding the earned income tax credit. They want to discourage evictions by raising filing fees that landlords must pay to oust tenants.

Maryland Comptrolle­r Peter Franchot (D), who is running for governor in 2022, is urging other Democrats to tap the state’s rainy-day fund to give $1,000 to any individual with income of less than $50,000. Democratic critics said they preferred to apply the money to more targeted programs and to avoid depleting the reserves too much.

A high priority is overhaulin­g the state’s unemployme­nt insurance system, which has drawn widespread criticism for delays that have kept tens of thousands of residents from receiving money they were owed.

“People are making huge life decisions such as ‘How am I going to survive the next few weeks?’ and they have no idea when they’re going to get that check,” Charkoudia­n said.

Education. Maryland Democrats say they have the votes to overturn Hogan’s veto last year of the ambitious but expensive Kirwan Commission plan, which would add billions of dollars for K-12 schools.

They also expect to approve new legislatio­n, over Hogan’s opposition, to inject more than $500 million into the state’s historical­ly Black colleges and universiti­es (HBCUS). That would satisfy twin desires to support education and redress racial disparitie­s.

In Virginia, the legislatur­e is expected to restore funding for early-childhood education and expand workforce retraining at community colleges.

Both states plan to invest in extending broadband service in rural communitie­s, where some children have faced additional challenges doing remote learning because of lack of Internet access.

Criminal justice reform. Some Virginia Democrats think they have a good chance of abolishing the death penalty this year. (Maryland did so in 2013.)

“I’m very optimistic,” Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-fairfax) said. “There are only two people on death row now. It’s clearly an antiquated process.”

They also expect to approve expungemen­t of certain criminal conviction­s, particular­ly misdemeano­r marijuana-related crimes.

“The existence of old conviction­s can be a hindrance to getting employment so you can better support your family,” Surovell said.

Maryland Democrats are weighing the repeal of a 1973 police “bill of rights,” which makes it difficult to hold officers accountabl­e for wrongdoing. They are set to approve other changes, such as requiring use of body cameras, banning chokeholds and restrictin­g noknock warrants.

Hogan is expected to push back on some bills.

“I would be shocked if at some point Hogan didn’t start accusing us of defunding the police,” said a senior Democratic legislativ­e staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the topic is politicall­y sensitive.

Race relations. Democrats view many of their proposed economic and police proposals as helping African Americans and other racial minorities, who are disproport­ionately less affluent and more vulnerable to police abuse.

In addition, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (DBaltimore County), the first Black person (and woman) to hold the powerful position, is preparing a “racial and economic justice agenda.” It includes bills to aid Black people’s access to credit to build businesses and expand homeowners­hip, increase corporate diversity and reduce health disparitie­s.

Democrats also plan new steps to eliminate vestiges of the Confederac­y. Maryland lawmakers say they will repeal the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” written in 1861 to urge the state to secede.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has asked lawmakers for $11 million to propose new public art to replace the statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Confederat­e figures that lined Richmond’s Monument Avenue for decades.

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