Unknowns hang over upcoming legislative session

Del. Mike McKay (R-Allegany, Washington) speaks during the Chamber of Commerce pre-legislative breakfast Friday morning at the Cumberland Country Club.

CUMBERLAND — Many unknowns await lawmakers as they prepare for the upcoming legislative session in Annapolis.

The District 1 Legislative Delegation — Sen. George Edwards and Dels. Wendell Beitzel, Mike McKay and Jason Buckel — will join lawmakers at the 441st gathering of the Maryland General Assembly on Jan. 8. Delegation members gave a preview of the upcoming session at the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce's annual pre-legislative breakfast held Friday at the Cumberland Country Club.

The House of Delegates will be under new leadership, as Del. Adrienne Jones of Baltimore County takes over as speaker. Jones is the first female and first African American to serve in that role. She became interim-speaker in April following the death of Speaker Michael Busch and was elected in May by unanimous House vote.

Beitzel said he and other lawmakers had "grown close" to Busch over the years. However, a new leader will bring a different style of governance.

"There has been a tremendous change in leadership in the Maryland General Assembly," Beitzel said. "Fortunately, I know Adrienne Jones fairly well. I served on the same committee she served on, which is appropriations. ... Mike (McKay) and I know her pretty well because she served on our committee as the chair of the capital budget subcommittee. We worked with her and she was really helpful to us on some of our capital projects approved and bond issues approved. We think we will be able to work fairly well with her and I have no reason to believe she won't treat us fairly."

McKay said he was looking forward to new leadership. "As Wendell said, we have a good relationship with Speaker Jones and we are looking forward to working with her."

Edwards said new leaders are on the Senate side as well.

"In the Senate there are a lot of changes, more so than in the House," he said. "We will have a new president and two new chairmen of committees and two new vice chairmen. So, there will be quite a bit of change in leadership of the Senate as well."

The lawmakers said changes in education will likely be the dominant topic during the upcoming session. Lawmakers will be debating the merits of proposals by the Kirwan Commission, which spent over two years compiling a comprehensive education reform plan. The plan includes large increases in spending on teacher salaries, programs and curriculum.

"The big thing coming this year is going to be Kirwan," Edwards said. "It's going to suck the air out of everything. ... it's going to take a lot of looking and we need to make sure we are not getting the short end of the stick."

Beitzel said local lawmakers hope to address the issue of schools with declining enrollment.

"In Garrett, we are worse than Allegany, but both counties are losing enrollment and therefore losing funding from the state and are struggling to make ends meet," he said.

Beitzel said Kirwan Commission proposals will add $4.2 billion more in education spending over the next 10 years.

"That is a 30-some percent increase over what they are currently spending and a big chunk of that is being pushed back on the counties," he said.

Buckel also raised concerns over Kirwan costs.

"There are some fundamental issues," he said. "Is just spending more money really going to improve results?" he said. "Everyone, no matter what your political affiliation, wants our students to get a world-class education. There is no debate about that.

"The questions is how do we get there? Will there be more productivity in their (school) day? ... Mainly we will be spending a whole heck of lot more money in the same system we have now .... and we hope it will all work out and be better."

Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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