'Anything can happen' as southwest Baltimore County delegates prepare for start of legislature

When the Maryland General Assembly opens next Wednesday, legislators representing southwest Baltimore County — all Democrats — are preparing to confront a variety of issues, including education, healthcare and criminal justice reform.

Their to-do lists will be undertaken as debate swirls over contentious issues in the three-month legislative session – from a long-running struggle around regulation of alcohol sales, to the Democrat-controlled legislature’s reactions to Republican-led federal government legislation, such as the recently passed tax reform bill. Gov. Larry Hogan recently promised to submit legislation to protect Marylanders from paying higher taxes.

During last year’s session, 2,861 bills were introduced in the House of Delegates and Senate combined. Of those, about a third passed, according to the state’s website. As of mid-December, 70 House bills and 114 Senate bills have already been pre-filed — ranging from a bill stripping parental rights from rapists, to one requiring Baltimore County schools to hold active assailant training, to a bill creating a task force to study cellphone use in classrooms.

Amid the many bills and initiatives, “it’s also an election year,” said Del. Clarence Lam, who represents District 12, which includes Arbutus, Halethorpe, Lansdowne and parts of Catonsville. “So anything can happen.”

“Odds are it’s going to be a pretty acrimonious session,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College and a veteran observer of state and local politics.

On statewide issues, debate is already being rekindled on mandates for private employers to offer paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage, highway and transportation projects, including Hogan’s plans to ease gridlock on the Baltimore Beltway in the Catonsville, Woodlawn and Arbutus areas.

Eberly said that because every lawmaker is up for re-election at the same time as the governor, the Democrats controlling the General Assembly are likely to clash with Hogan, a Republican, as each side tries to fire up its base with hot-ticket items such as education funding or gun control.

Health and safety

With two physicians who represent the area — Lam and Del. Terri Hill — in the District 12 delegation, health and healthcare weighs heavily their minds.

Out of about a dozen bills Hill could introduce this year, she said her top priority is a one that would boost the requirements for concussion training for youth sports programs.

Under her proposal, programs such as football or soccer outside the school system that use public facilities or funds would have the same concussion prevention training standards that school programs require.

“I want to protect kids while allowing them to have these kinds of programs, which are so important for their development” Hill said.

Natalie Powell, president of the Catonsville Youth Soccer League, a nonprofit that uses public school fields, expressed concern about Hill’s proposal.

“If you’re requiring more time outside of the scope of [practice], you’re going to have people shy away,” Powell said, adding that imposing training requirements on coaches at volunteer leagues like hers would result in fewer volunteers. Currently, she said, only coaches for travel sports are required to be licensed, a process that involves concussion awareness training.

Catonsville Youth Soccer serves nearly 1,500 children and has about 200 volunteers, Powell said, noting that concussions have never been a major issue for the program.

Lam plans to introduce several healthcare-related bills. One would require that patients discharged from nursing facilities be released by a licensed healthcare provider, a bill he said would prevent people being discharged to inadequate facilities. The bill was inspired by a case brought by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh against a Montgomery County nursing home, alleging it evicted and discharged patients to homeless shelters and unlicensed facilities.

Another bill would allow community health workers, who provide services such as wellness checks and diet recommendations, to become certified by the state Department of Health, he said.

The third District 12 delegate, Eric Ebersole, said he expects that one of the legislature’s first moves will be to override the governor’s veto of a measure that would require businesses to provide employees paid sick leave.

The governor, Ebersole said, “argues about how it effects businesses and workers, but forgets about how it affects consumers.” For example, he pointed to workers coming to jobs in service industries when they are ill. "I don’t want sick people serving me food,” he said.

Hill and Lam are also seeking to improve behavioral healthcare in the state, particularly in facilities such as Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville.

“We’ve got to do a better job of identifying and treating behavioral health issues,” Hill said.

The psychiatric hospital has seen a recent spike in assaults on employees, and a judge ordered the Department of Health, which runs the hospital, to add beds across the state to address shortfalls in care. Attacks on staff at the hospital, in which 80 percent of patients were referred by the court system, nearly doubled in the first six months of 2017 as compared to the previous six months, a problem advocates said is compounded by staffing shortages.

"We as a state really have an obligation to get those who are at greatest risk to be able to receive care they need and deserve,” Lam said. The delegate said he hopes to work with the legislature to increase funding for and oversight of the state’s mental health facilities.

Getting schooled

According to Lam, Ebersole is working on a proposal that would instruct Baltimore County to provide a stipend of close to $10,000 per year for its Board of Education members. The representatives now get a small allowance, Lam said, adding that he would consider co-sponsoring the bill. Ebersole declined to comment.

The change would take place as the 11-member school board transitions from a largely appointed body to a partially elected body. Lam said the stipend would help “attract folks of good quality and character to serve in these positions.”

The legislation would not fund the stipend — that money would come out of Baltimore County’s budget. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz “does not have a position on the legislation being considered at this time,” spokeswoman Stacie Burgess said in an email.

Ebersole, a former teacher, is also planning to introduce legislation that would allow school staff who are not teachers to proctor state exams, freeing up more teachers to continue teaching classes.

Del. Charles Sydnor plans to expand options for parents to defend themselves when they are brought to court because of an older child’s truancy.

Most of Sydnor's constituents in District 44B live in areas served by Woodlawn High School, where according to 2015 state statistics, more than 40 percent of students were absent for more than 20 days in a year, nearly double the county average of 22 percent.

Sydnor’s proposal is based on a rule that allows parents accused of the misdemeanor of failing to ensure their children attend school to show that they made “reasonable and substantial efforts” to get the child to attend but were unable to do so.

Currently, only parents in school districts with a truancy reduction pilot program — Baltimore County does not have one — can use that defense. Sydnor's proposal would let parents in all school districts, including Baltimore County, defend themselves in this manner.

“This is probably not a case where schools and the state should be trying to put parents in prison,” Sydnor said.

Is reform on tap?

Hugh Sisson, owner of Halethorpe craft brewery Heavy Seas Beer, was part of a 40-member task force organized by Comptroller Peter Franchot, charged with discussing ideas for revamping the state’s laws regulating breweries.

As Franchot prepares to push a resulting legislation package, dubbed the “Reform on Tap Act,” through the General Assembly, Sisson is uncertain that it would help the beer industry.

“We need to beware of the law of unintended consequences,” Sisson said of the proposed legislation, saying the problems it is trying to solve are complicated and that if it were to pass, “it’s really tough to get the genie back in the bottle."

Legislation last year increased the amount of beer that breweries such as Heavy Seas can sell in their taprooms fourfold. The measure passed in part because of the opening of a Guinness brewery in Relay, but has been controversial because it maintains and adds limitations on small craft breweries.

Last year's bill was the product of negotiations between brewers, wholesalers and bars and liquor stores, who feared that allowing breweries to sell more beer on-site would cut into sales in the rest of the industry. The “Reform on Tap” legislation would remove many of those restrictions on brewers.

Though Heavy Seas would face fewer restrictions if the bill were to pass, Sisson said he is concerned that it could hurt wholesalers and retailers — and those other segments, he said, are his customers.

"Without a strong retail environment, distributors and suppliers are dead in the water,” Sisson said.

The comptroller plans to request that Gov. Larry Hogan submit “Reform on Tap” as a departmental bill, spokesman Alan Brody said, saying that his office believes there are “a number of legislators on board."

The push has support from some officials, including County Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents the area where Guinness and Heavy Seas are based.

Other area representatives, however, expressed skepticism. Lam said that though he would be open to proposals, the fact that the legislature overhauled alcohol laws last year could hinder this year’s efforts.

“I don’t know whether there’s the appetite to revisit the whole issue,” Lam said.

“It’s not a priority of mine,” said Sydnor, whose district includes northern Catonsville and Woodlawn, and does not include breweries like Guinness or Heavy Seas. “I think there are much more pressing issues going on in the world.”

District 12’s state senator, Edward Kasemeyer, did not respond to requests for an interview.

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