Despite plenty of sniping back and forth between Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly, this year's legislative session has gone pretty smoothly. The legislature passed Mr. Hogan's budget quickly and with little debate, and Mr. Hogan decided to allow into law the vast majority of the bills the legislature sent his way early enough to set up a potential veto fight. Still, there are a number of important pieces of legislation whose fates are left to be decided before the General Assembly adjourns Monday night. Here are a few that ought to be top priorities:
A bi-partisan group representing all three branches of government teamed up with researchers from the Pew Charitable Trust to examine Maryland's criminal justice system last year in an effort to find practices that don't meaningfully improve public safety. It's something Pew has done in dozens of states. The idea was then to enact reforms and dedicate the savings to proven efforts to reduce crime and prevent recidivism. The group came up with a list of consensus recommendations, but they were substantially weakened in the Senate. A House version of the bill comes closer to the mark on the parole process for eligible non-violent offenders and geriatric parole and even goes beyond the consensus on reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses. It's still not quite as good as the original bill, but it's certainly an improvement over what the Senate passed.
Legislation to increase accountability for those few police officers who are accused of misconduct could be in trouble despite strong support for reform both in the public and in the General Assembly. The version that passed the House was strong. It included, among other things, new training standards for officers and lower barriers to filing brutality complaints, which would no longer have to be notarized and which could be filed up to a year after an incident rather than the current 90 days. It opens trial board proceedings to the public and reduces the amount of time officers have to retain a lawyer before being required to answer questions in an administrative investigation into alleged misconduct. The measure is hung up in the Senate, though, over the question of whether new civilian members of trial boards should be allowed to vote or merely to observe. We believe they should have full voting rights, and we support a compromise proposal that would leave that question up to each local jurisdiction.
Protecting domestic abuse victims
Legislation passed the Senate unanimously and 90-43 in the House to set up a procedure for those convicted of domestic abuse to surrender any guns they might own. It's a commonsense piece of legislation that could help prevent tragedies that are now all too frequent. The catch is an amendment adopted in the Senate version that treats rifles and shotguns differently from handguns. Under the bill, those convicted of certain crimes would be required to turn over their guns to a law enforcement agency or to a federally licensed firearms dealer within two days, and to send proof to the courts within five. But the Senate version allows offenders to give their long guns to any third party who doesn't live in the same residence. Shotguns and rifles are just as deadly as handguns, and according to the Violence Policy Center, they are used in about a quarter of fatal domestic shootings. They should be treated the same as handguns.
Legislation to require broad use of ignition interlock devices for first-time drunk drivers has passed both chambers unanimously this year, inspired in part by the death of Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, who was killed by a drunk driver during a traffic stop in December. But the versions differ slightly in how the penalties are structured for repeat offenders. Either version would be a substantial step forward for public safety.
The House passed legislation requiring that all passengers in the rear seats of a moving vehicle wear seat belts just as it's currently required in the front seats (and for those under age 16 riding in all seats). Further, the requirement would be subject to "primary enforcement" which means police could pull over a car if rear seat passengers are observed riding without restraint. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have similar laws. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, 96 people died in Maryland highway collisions who were not wearing seat belts, which represents more than 40 percent of all highway fatalities. This law would save lives, and evidence suggests it would not increase racial profiling. The Senate needs to pass it.
Northrop Grumman incentives
Nobody likes handing out millions to big corporations, but in the case of proposed incentives for aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, we conclude that it's worth it. At the very least, the $37.5 million over five years a Senate panel approved is a much better deal than the millions Maryland showered on film production companies over the years, an activity that state analysts estimated produced a return to the state treasury of 10 cents on the dollar. In this case, the aid is predicated on the company maintaining at least 10,000 high-paying jobs here. Other states would be happy to throw money at a company like Northrop, and we can't afford to take chances with a pillar of Maryland's high-tech economy.
Governor Hogan has already signed into law legislation to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and both chambers have approved similar approaches to strengthening Maryland's investment in solar, wind and other forms of green energy within the next four years. Lawmakers need to make sure time doesn't run out before a compromise over the mechanics and cost of the proposal are reached.
The loss of Maryland's once-thriving oyster industry ought to be of great concern to legislators who have an opportunity to put science ahead of politics by approving a bill that would require the state to determine how many oysters are in the Chesapeake Bay — and how many watermen can safely harvest without putting the species at risk. Watermen are generally opposed to the measure, but lawmakers need to look at the broader public interest as the humble oyster is a highly effective filter, cleansing as much as 50 gallons of water per day, which makes them far more valuable than the average restaurant appetizer.
Is there anything more Governor Hogan can do to try to embarrass Democrats in the General Assembly into passing — or, heck, even voting — on his plan to take the task of redrawing legislative and congressional districts out of the hands of partisan politicians? Sending a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to intervene was a nice move, but at this point, we don't think it would even matter of Mr. Obama personally came to testify. Nonetheless, Democrats ought to start asking themselves: Do they want to enact reform now, or do they want to get hammered by Governor Hogan in his re-election effort over their unwillingness to even allow a floor vote on an idea that's even more popular in Maryland than he is?
Live-streaming floor sessions
We can't quite fathom how it is that legislation sponsored by Del. Kathy Szeliga, the minority whip, and Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, to require the House and Senate to live-stream floor debates hasn't even gotten a committee vote. Both chambers now live-stream (and archive) every committee hearing, and the kind of grandstanding critics of this measure say they fear has not come to pass. We suspect that the cost estimate for this measure is higher than necessary — $1.2 million for start-up costs in the first year and about $400,000 a year after that — but it would be worth it even at that price. People shouldn't have to drive to Annapolis to find out what their elected representatives are saying as they decide whether to pass or reject legislation.