On the final, marathon day of their 90-day session Monday, Maryland lawmakers hope to resolve several thorny issues — chief among them the future of the state’s thoroughbred racing tracks.
They’ve already passed legislation to increase the minimum wage, raise the age to buy tobacco to 21, allow the private Johns Hopkins University to have a police force, and permanently protect oyster sanctuaries. And delegates and senators in Annapolis have defeated bills that would have cut taxes, enabled terminally ill patients to end their lives with a prescription from a doctor, and allowed Baltimore school police officers to carry guns inside schools.
Lawmakers will enter their final day of the session with a heavy heart following Sunday’s death of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who had been hospitalized with pneumonia. But they have many issues left to resolve, even as they work through their grief.
There’s been whiplash in the past few days over whether The Stronach Group — the Canadian-based company that owns training and racing facilities in Baltimore, Bowie and Laurel — will get further aid from the state in upgrading its tracks. A bill would grant The Stronach Group’s main request: allowing the state to issue bonds that would be used to accelerate $120 million worth of improvements at the Laurel Park race course and the Bowie Training Center. The bonds would be paid back using state subsidies from slot machines in the state’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account.
The Stronach Group plans to redevelop Laurel into a “super track” capable of hosing high-profile races such as the Breeders’ Cup.
Baltimore lawmakers and boosters balked at the bill, fearing that would spell the eventual demise of Northwest Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, host of the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in the Triple Crown.
An amended plan emerged Friday that would allow Stronach to get the state bonds provided the company shows progress toward redeveloping Pimlico. But Baltimore’s delegates voted 16-0 Saturday not to go along with the new proposal, which would not require that Pimlico remain a racetrack. The city delegates said that whatever the redevelopment, they don’t want the track to lose the historic Preakness, which will be run May 18 for the 144th time.
While that move doesn’t officially defeat the bill — and bills can take unexpected turns on the legislature’s final day — it significantly hinders the bill’s prospects as the General Assembly nears adjournment (known as “Sine Die”) at midnight. The Senate is scheduled to give the bill a final vote in the morning. If approved, it would move to the House for consideration.
Democratic Del. Nick Mosby said Saturday that he felt rushed and “forced in the eleventh hour” to support the plan. He suggested that a better path would have been to require The Stronach Group to use state bonds to upgrade all of its facilities.
Bill Hecht, a Stronach Group executive, said the bill would provide a “road map for constructive dialog” between the city and his company.
“With the city not supporting the bill, we must only conclude that what they’d prefer is status quo, which is significant negative implications to the Maryland racing industry and, as well, to the community surrounding Pimlico,” Hecht said.
The Stronach Group has only committed to running the race at Pimlico through 2020, although a state law requires it to be held at Pimlico except in case of an emergency or a disaster.
Democratic Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, who helped craft the proposal, which he describes as a compromise, said he respects the position of his House colleagues. He said he didn’t see a need to include a provision to keep the Preakness in Baltimore because “that’s already the law.” The compromise, he argued, would ensure development at both Laurel and Pimlico.
“At the end of the day, it’s still state law that the Preakness has to stay in Baltimore,” Ferguson said. “Any effort to move the Preakness would require a legislative fight, and we feel confident we can win that fight. In the meantime, something has to happen to improve Pimlico. It’s been allowed to waste away for 16 years. At some point, someone has to act.”
Here’s a look at what’s else is on the agenda for a day of work that will start at 10 a.m.
For weeks, a bill to increase the state’s requirements for renewable energy appeared to be all but dead. But after being stuck in a House committee, the Clean Energy Jobs Act emerged Friday and moved forward on Saturday.
It would require the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, up from the current requirement of 25 percent by 2022.
There’s a key difference between the House version of the bill and a version approved by the Senate. The Senate’s version would remove trash incineration as a source of renewable energy.
The House is scheduled to take a final vote Monday, sending the measure back to the Senate.
Opponents of trash incineration argue it contributes to air pollution, while supporters say the industry provides jobs while getting rid of a significant portion of the Baltimore region’s trash.
Background checks for long guns
The Senate is on track to approve requiring background checks for private sales of rifles and shotguns. Current law only requires background checks when those types of guns are bought from licensed dealers.
But the Senate version has significant differences from a version the House passed. While members of both chambers have the same goal — requiring more people to get background checks — they’ll have to agree on the details if they want to send the measure to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Another gun control bill would ban guns created with materials printed on 3D printers, a process that creates firearms without serial numbers. That measure passed the House but has not seen action in the Senate.
Hogan vetoed a bill that would permanently protect five no-harvest oyster sanctuaries in Maryland’s waterways.
The House overrode Hogan’s veto, and the Senate is expected to follow suit.
Watermen pressed Hogan to veto the bill. They want to leave open the possibility of periodically harvesting in the sanctuaries in the future. Some lawmakers and environmentalists argued that the areas are necessary to protect the filter-feeding bivalves so they can reproduce and boost their population.
It’s expected to be the fourth successful veto override of the session, following overrides on bills increasing the hourly minimum wage to $15, allowing school districts to decide when to start the academic year and removing the state comptroller’s oversight of alcohol and liquor inspectors.
University of Maryland Medical System board reforms
Lawmakers are expected to give the final signoffs on legislation that would reform the University of Maryland Medical System’s board of directors.
The legislation is in response to revelations that multiple board members — including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh — benefited from contracts with the hospital system.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.