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Maryland’s House speaker crafts ambitious ‘Black Agenda’ to close equity gaps | COMMENTARY

From left, Sens. Stephen Hershey, Jr. (R- Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne's Counties) and J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County and Harford County) The Maryland General Assembly convenes at the State House with changes in the House and Senate Chamber due to the COVID-19 pandemic. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson will deal with issues such as economic relief during the pandemic, public education, police reform and the state song. (Kim Hairston, The Baltimore Sun)
From left, Sens. Stephen Hershey, Jr. (R- Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne's Counties) and J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County and Harford County) The Maryland General Assembly convenes at the State House with changes in the House and Senate Chamber due to the COVID-19 pandemic. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson will deal with issues such as economic relief during the pandemic, public education, police reform and the state song. (Kim Hairston, The Baltimore Sun) (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

After watching images of George Floyd take his last breaths as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck last spring, it seemed just about everyone jumped on the social justice bandwagon. Multiracial groups took to the streets in major cities in protest. Corporations, restaurants, suburban moms and government entities declared their allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement. The BLM acronym was suddenly ubiquitous, plastered on yard and window signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts. But those who had fought in the trenches for years were skeptical — based on past experience — that this would be followed by meaningful action to truly put African Americans on equal footing. And they had every right to be doubtful.

But Maryland lawmakers appear ready to do more than talk this General Assembly session — State House Speaker Adrienne Jones in particular. On Tuesday, she rolled out an ambitious “Black agenda” and racial equity plan aimed at closing the race gap in areas such as homeownership, health and wealth. As Maryland’s first Black person and the first women of any race to lead the House, Speaker Jones is seeking to use her powerful position to dismantle the institutional racism that has existed since the end of slavery and kept African Americans steps behind white citizens in most areas of life by creating an unceasing cycle of poverty.

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Developed with input from more than three dozen thought leaders, Speaker Jones’ plan includes 30 policy recommendations along with nine pieces of legislation to help African Americans build wealth, better compete for state contracts and buy homes by erasing unfair credit criteria and down payment barriers. It would also throw more resources at addressing health gaps that result in African Americans dying on average at younger ages than white Marylanders, a disparity further highlighted by COVID-19.

Among some of her recommendations that make solid sense:

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  • Requiring the state to devote 50% of its spending on goods and services with small businesses and requiring businesses who want state capital funding over $1 million to prove racial diversity in their leadership ranks and mission.
  • Declaring racism a public health crisis and requiring doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners to undergo healthy equity and bias training to get licensed and accredited.
  • Allowing people applying for home loans to use something other than credit scores for approval, such as rent or utility payment history, so that mistakes made in youth, or because someone fell on hard financial times, don’t haunt someone over the long haul.
  • Bringing back health opportunity zones created under the O’Malley administration, but disbanded under the leadership of Gov. Larry Hogan and using a one penny per dollar increase in the alcohol tax to fund initiatives in these zones to reduce health disparities. (There is both a Senate and House bill on this issue).
  • Conducting a disparity study to look at the amount insurers are charging per square foot of homes by county to see if appraisers are undervaluing homes in African American neighborhoods.

A work group formed by Senate President Bill Ferguson also recently released worthwhile equity recommendations, some of which dovetail with Speaker Jones’ agenda, but others include fresh recommendations and address environmental justice as well.

Some Senate recommendations worth pursuing include: better tracking of why waivers are granted to companies who don’t use minority subcontractors as required on state-funded projects; increasing the minority doctor ranks by expanding access to state scholarships; creating an inclusion fund through TEDCO, the state agency that funds startups, to help economically disadvantaged firms; and launching a state pilot program for mold remediation in schools and public housing.

We’re glad to see both chambers trying to answer the calls for social justice that have reverberated across the country in recent months and hope lawmakers have the courage to pass the legislation necessary to put some of these ideas into practice. But we’ve seen good intentions fall apart before, allowing injustice to persist. That can’t happen again; now is the time to begin righting the wrongs of the past.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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