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Harford County's key takeaways from the 2019 legislative session

Maryland’s 90-day legislative session came to a conclusion Monday, with several major initiatives gaining approval.

Here are some the key takeaways for Harford County residents from this year’s legislative session.

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Fallout from Del. Lisanti’s slur, censure

Arguably the most discussed development during the 90-day legislative session for Harford County was the saga of Del. Mary Ann Lisanti. The second-term Democrat representing District 34A was censured Feb. 28, after she was overheard using a racial slur to describe a majority black district in Prince George’s County at an after-hours event in January.

The censure was followed by calls for Lisanti to resign from elected officials from both sides of the aisle, in both Annapolis and in Harford County, and other community and political groups. Some questioned how Lisanti could continue to effectively represent them after she was stripped of committee assignment and removed as a sponsor of several bills.

After Lisanti said she would not resign and would continue to serve and accept responsibility, some community members called for her expulsion, holding rallies in Lisanti’s hometown of Havre de Grace and in Annapolis.

Lisanti finished out the session and, despite the controversy, other Harford legislators, like Del. Susan McComas, a Republican, said the incident did not affect “the effectiveness of our delegation.”

“Obviously we were very saddened that the words were uttered and have offended Prince George’s County and the Black Caucus. Also, it has hurt Delegate Lisanti’s constituents and for that I am very sorry,” McComas said. “I believe that Harford’s bills were judged on their own merits.”

Lisanti said the ramifications of her censure in the house were “limited” and had no impact on what she was able to get done this session or on the delegation as a whole.

“Every session is different. Not one delegate or senator is solely responsible for the passage of legislation. It takes a lot of work, partnership and help to pass a bill,” Lisanti said. “This year I filed some complex bills; some passed, some will need work over the interim. Each took a lot of effort, meetings, negotiations, compromise and assistance from other members of the General Assembly.”

School funding

Education funding was a priority for the Harford delegation entering the session, and state lawmakers ultimately approved a plan that will provide more than $850 million in additional funding to Maryland’s public schools over the next two years.

Dubbed the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” the money would go primarily to three areas: increasing teacher pay, expanding pre-kindergarten and creating “community schools” that provide additional services like healthcare to families, in high-poverty areas, according to the Baltimore Sun.

With the “Blueprint” in place, the General Assembly will be able to address long-awaited funding formulas at next year’s session.

For this year, state funding for education in Harford County is slated to increase by approximately $15 million for Fiscal Year 2020, according to McComas.

The school system’s $472.7 million budget request for next year includes 179 eliminated positions — 152 instructional and 26 administrative. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is scheduled to announce his budget Monday, including funding for schools.

Lisanti said she and her partner, Del. Steven Johnson, worked with the appropriations Committee “to ensure Harford received full funding for our public school capital campaign. Job completed!” she said.

Minimum wage increase

Maryland’s Democratic leadership announced a series of priorities at the beginning of the session, including incrementally raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. The first increase will move the minimum wage from its current $10.10 per hour to $11 on Jan. 1, 2020. Increases differ based on the size of the employer moving forward.

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Though Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the minimum wage bill, saying it would make the state less competitive and could cause some low-wage workers to lose their jobs, the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode the Republican governor’s veto the next day.

Harford’s legislators voted along party lines on the minimum wage hike, with Dels. Lauren Arikan, Andrew Cassilly, Richard Impallaria, McComas, Teresa Reilly and Kathy Szeliga, and Sens. Robert Cassilly, Jason Gallion and J.B. Jennings – all Republicans — voting against it. The county’s two Democratic delegates, Johnson and Lisanti, voted in favor.

“I think that this is going to be very difficult for the small business community,” McComas said. “Small businesses are currently faced with the sick leave mandate which was passed last term. Now they must plan for increased wages for their employees with small profit margins. This will hamper small businesses from hiring and training young and older potential employees who do not have the immediate skills that they need.”

As part of the Economic Matters Committee, Lisanti said she worked with several sectors of business community and other stakeholders to introduce and pass 18 amendments to the legislation to make it a reasonable bill and extend the time to implement over the next six years.

“Some of the most important amendments gave more time for small business to implement, provided a lower training wage, exempted tipped wage earners and provided funding for critical care mental health, addition services and other care providers,” Lisanti said.

Maryland Center for Arts funding

McComas and Sen. Robert Cassilly were able to amend the bond bill for the Maryland Center for the Arts in Abingdon to include the site plans as part of the project’s state funds.

“The governor has been very supportive of this project so although they lost some grant funding, I’m hopeful that those funds will eventually be realized,” McComas said.

The Center for the Arts is proposed for a 41.4-acre property at Route 24 and Wheel Road. The site is across the street from Emmorton Elementary School.

Plans presented in February call for an outdoor amphitheater with 500 theater seats and 500 more lawn seats plus three buildings with a combined square footage of 64,250.

“This is a regional center,” said Toby Musser, board president of the nonprofit Maryland Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. “It will be one of the largest arts centers on the East Coast, and it’s designed to draw tourism to Harford County and Maryland.”

The center is being built with a combination of private and public funds — the state and county have contributed funds over the years the project has been in development, such as $625,000 in aggregate funds from the county over 10 years and $200,000 in state bond funds obtained in 2016.

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Parishioner Protection Act fails again

Legislation that would’ve allowed a person to carry a handgun in houses of worship in Harford County to protect congregations against a mass shooting received an unfavorable report from the House’s judiciary committee in March.

The Parishioner Protection Act, introduced by Szeliga and supported by the majority of the Harford County delegation, would have allowed parishioners to carry handguns on church property during certain events, regardless of whether they had a permit so long as they had written consent of a certain church or religious organization to do so.

Szeliga introduced similar legislation during the 2018 session, which also failed. Harford County Sheriff Jeff Gahler had also supported the proposal. “This bill would allow church leaders the opportunity to decide the best way to protect members of their congregation against the unthinkable, an active shooter,” he said in a February statement of support.

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