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Building schools, banning coal and protecting vulnerable adults: Towson legislators outline their 2020 priorities

State Sen. Chris West, a Republican, and Del. Cathi Forbes, a Democrat, represent the Towson area in Annapolis.
State Sen. Chris West, a Republican, and Del. Cathi Forbes, a Democrat, represent the Towson area in Annapolis. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Cathi Forbes has been a citizen activist for years, volunteering in schools, advocating for education and co-founding Towson Families United, a group dedicated to fighting school overcrowding. Because of her activism, advocacy and citizen lobbying, she’s been to Annapolis plenty of times, she said.

This year, she’ll be viewing the General Assembly from a different perspective: as a full-term member of the House of Delegates when the legislative session begins on Jan. 8. She was appointed to the House of Delegates in early October, filling a vacancy left by Stephen Lafferty, who resigned from his seat in District 42A to serve as Baltimore County’s first chief sustainability officer.

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To get ready for her first legislative session as a lawmaker, Forbes said she’s been talking with her constituents in Towson and checking in with current and former legislators for advice. She said she wants to learn what’s important to people, and to learn from concerned residents.

“I can’t be an expert on everything,” Forbes said. “But I can certainly be informed by people who are passionate.”

Forbes, a West Towson resident, said her two priorities this year will be education related. She wants to pass the Built to Learn Act to fund school construction; the legislation has been pre-filed in the House and the Senate. Forbes also supports the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” another recommendation from the Kirwan Commission that would fund additional teacher pay and expanding pre-kindergarten. Estimates put the total cost of implementing the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission at around $2.8 billion in state money plus another $1.2 billion from local governments.

“In Annapolis, education is always a priority. In this session, I think it’s going to be the top of the list,” Forbes said.

The freshman Democratic lawmaker is also bringing to Annapolis a more esoteric priority: She wants to re-implement a piece of legislation that would allow homeowners to strike restrictive covenants from their deeds. Marylanders could do so until September 2019, when, Forbes said, for some reason that she’s still trying to determine, the law expired.

Late last May, the Towson community of Rodgers Forge collected 85 deeds and the requisite paperwork to strike language, written 70 years ago, that forbade any non-white person from living in the neighborhood. The deeds and covenants are unenforceable because of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. But Forbes said it sends an important message for communities that want to scrub that language from their deeds.

“It says something, it’s important to people to move beyond them and get them out of their deeds,” she said.

Forbes represents the Towson area, from I-695 to the city line. She’s joined in the legislature by Sen. Chris West, a Republican who represents all of District 42, from the city line to the state line in the northern part of Baltimore County. The part of the district that’s north of I-695, District 42B, is represented in the House of Delegates by Michele Guyton, a Democrat, and Republican Nino Mangione, both of whom first served in 2019.

Mangione did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

West served in the House of Delegates from 2015 to 2019, and this will be his second year in the Senate. Outside of working on Kirwan funding,West said he has three priorities in the new session.

The first, he said, is proposing a constitutional amendment, which would go to the population of Maryland for a vote, to allow sports betting at certain locations in the state, like at racetracks and video lottery terminals, but not from a personal device or online. West said he thinks, if legalized, sports betting could bring in $40 million to $50 million a year to the state.

Another of his priorities is a bill that would prohibit the burning of coal to generate electricity in Maryland after Jan. 1, 2025.

“It’s clear, global warming, it’s not a figment of people’s imaginations, it is happening. Maryland needs to do its share," West said. “The dirtiest and most polluting way of generating electricity is by burning coal. We need to get away from it.”

Maryland has six coal-fired power plants, and three other power plants that use a mix of fuel sources, including coal. The six coal-only plants account for about 26% of Maryland’s total energy generation, according to calculations from data provided by the Maryland Energy Administration.

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Eventually, West said, Maryland and the rest of the world will have to move to more renewable energy, like wind and solar, while using natural gas as a “transition” from coal-fired plants.

West said he also wants to introduce a bill that discourages putting solar panels on agricultural land and encourages placing them on rooftops. The bill, as described by West, , would require all public buildings at the state or county level to be engineered so solar panels could be safely installed on the roofs, including of new schools built through money provided by the Built to Learn Act.

“Ultimately, we’d look at requiring private industry to do the same. But the state is in no position to require the state to do it” if Maryland doesn’t mandate solar panels on its own buildings, West said.

West’s bill pushing for a referendum on sports gambling has been pre-filed, according to the Maryland General Assembly website, but bills for his other two stated priorities have not.

Guyton, a developmental psychologist by trade, said she’s feeling “a thousand times” more confident and ready to start the session in 2020 than last year, because of all she learned in Annapolis.

“Personally, I am so much more comfortable that I understand the process and what to do. I am much less nervous about the situation,” Guyton said.

Kirwan will be at the top of her list, too, Guyton said, but she’s also going to be looking at some more specialized issues. She wants to criminalize intentional psychological abuse directed toward vulnerable adults, increase early developmental screenings for children in child-care centers and create a state governmental that focuses on better serving individuals on the autism spectrum.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 50 children in Maryland is on the autism spectrum. Nationally, the rate is around one in 59.

“That is something that I believe families and advocates who are dealing with autism in Maryland are really, really clamoring for," Guyton said. "We are woefully under-prepared to deal with this population as they age. The supports are not in place to allow families to feel comfortable that their children [with autism spectrum disorder] are going to be taken care of when they’re no longer here.”

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While District 42 is divided — both along party and geographic lines — West, the state senator for all of District 42, doesn’t mind straddling the parties and the boundary line between 42A and 42B.

In fact, while he and Mangione are both Republicans and Forbes and Guyton are Democrats, West said he “loves” representing a district that isn’t deep red or deep blue.

“I am so sick, especially after the last three years with Donald Trump, I am so sick of aggressive partisanship and aggressive ideology that I could scream,” West said. “My feeling is, I’m not going to be around very long, and I intend to do what I think is right.”

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