Maryland General Assembly session ends with criminal justice reforms, no income tax breaks

The Maryland General Assembly ended its annual session by approving criminal justice reforms.

The General Assembly agreed Monday to sweeping changes in Maryland's criminal justice policies, but failed to reach a deal that would have given residents their first major income tax break in nearly two decades.

"We wish we had come to an agreement, but we didn't," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said.

The tax negotiations unraveled in the hours before the Assembly's midnight deadline to adjourn, prompting Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to suggest the "remote possibility" the legislature hold a special session to approve what was once a widely supported plan to reduce taxes by roughly $250 million.

Democrats negotiating the cuts got stuck over how far up the income scale the breaks should go.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Democratic leaders "dropped the ball" and questioned the value of recalling lawmakers to Annapolis, which would cost roughly $20,000 each day the legislature is convened.

"These guys can't seem to get their act together," Hogan said. "I'm not sure that would change with a special session."

The legislature did approve a $37.5 million tax break for aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, a deal Hogan had pushed for the company.

Earlier in the day, the governor celebrated the fact that the tax cut discussion was happening at all. "Today is the first time that I can remember, in at least a decade, we're ending the session with an argument over which taxes to cut," he said. "We're going to keep coming back for tax relief every session."

Lawmakers found common ground on criminal justice reforms that will steer drug offenders toward treatment instead of prison and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. Approval of the measure came during the last hours of the annual 90-day marathon of lawmaking.

The legislation was backed by Hogan and leading Democrats. It is expected to save millions of dollars annually and represents a landmark policy shift in a year where bipartisan agreement was uncommon.

"It is as big of an undertaking as I've seen down here in 18 years," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who led Senate negotiators.

The sprawling Justice Reinvestment Act is designed to spend less money on prisons and more on drug treatment and programs to keep offenders from landing back in jail.

In Maryland, drug offenders have been languishing in prisons for months waiting for beds in treatment centers that can cost roughly half the price of housing someone in a prison cell. The model of reducing prison populations and channeling the savings into more effective crime-fighting methods has fueled reforms in other states.

The vast bill includes changes to sentencing, parole decisions and probation violations, touching so many areas of the criminal justice system that few lawmakers and stakeholders liked everything in the legislation.

"It is a much-needed step forward, but it really is only a first step in a long road," said Toni Holness, public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maryland.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who acts as a spokesman for prosecutors statewide, called the final agreement a "very balanced approach."

"It does a lot to get drug and mental health treatment for the people that need it," he said.

A year after a riot and unrest in Baltimore, lawmakers responded with two hefty proposals to address the urban decay and mistrust of police that Freddie Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody came to symbolize.

Late Monday, negotiators ironed out details in a police accountability package that would let citizens participate in officer disciplinary boards, set tougher training standards and encourage law enforcement agencies across the state to develop better relationships with the communities they police.

Advocates wanted the laws to go further but considered the measure an incremental improvement. The police union resisted many of the changes to police discipline, and it was unclear whether Hogan would sign the bill.

The legislature also passed a package of laws that will deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to Baltimore and other impoverished areas of the state, including money to keep libraries open longer, demolish hundreds of vacant houses, build parks and develop mentorship programs to help poor children earn full-ride scholarships to Maryland colleges, among other provisions. Those bills passed before the final day and became law without the governor's signature.

Most of Hogan's legislative agenda was watered down, killed in committee or stuck in a drawer, including his proposals to grant retirees and small businesses tax cuts, create incentives to lure more manufacturing firms to depressed areas and change how Maryland draws its legislative districts.

Hogan sparred frequently with the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. The governor had compared lawmakers to college kids on spring break and said he couldn't wait for them to leave town. Lawmakers accused Hogan of making racially motivated budget decisions and inciting a flood of hate mail over policy votes.

The session began with the legislature overriding all six of the policy vetoes the governor issued last year — in the process assuring that an estimated 40,000 felons out of prison but still on parole or probation would be eligible to vote in this month's primary election. The session ended with the reversal of two more of Hogan's vetoes.

The bickering continued Monday as Democrats from the state's largest jurisdictions gathered in Annapolis and accused Hogan of partisanship. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the aid to Baltimore was passed by lawmakers in spite of Hogan's partisan attitude.

"Democrats were criticizing me?" Hogan said jokingly at a news conference Monday afternoon. "The two biggest winners in the budget are Baltimore City and Prince George's County. … I'd prefer they just say, 'Thank you.'"

As the clock ticked down, efforts failed to resurrect a bill that would have required Maryland businesses to let employees earn paid sick time.

The proposal had been opposed by business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Restaurant Association of Maryland. Senators canceled a late-night meeting scheduled to advance the bill.

Since January, lawmakers have passed bills to regulate pub crawls and limit profiling of motorcyclists by police. They considered whether to change the official state duck, state seal and state song but did none of those things. They considered limiting the parental rights of rapists and whether Maryland voters should decide whether to legalize daily fantasy sports betting. Those bills failed, too.

Lawmakers passed a bill to dramatically scale back how many kindergartners take standardized tests, as well as one that would require more drunk drivers to get ignition interlock systems that prevent drivers who have been drinking from starting a car.

The bill had been pushed for years, but this year gathered momentum after the parents of a Montgomery County police officer killed while conducting a drunk-driving stop joined the lobbying effort. Hogan has promised to sign the bill, named for Noah Leotta.

Del. Benjamin Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the legislation, looked at Leotta's parents after the measure was passed 30 minutes before midnight.

"You will always know that Noah is still on the job" he said.

ecox@baltsun.com

pwood@baltsun.com

mdresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
68°