UMMS board reform, education funding, racetracks: major issues loom in Maryland General Assembly's final days

As Maryland’s lawmakers head into the final days of their annual session, they have plenty of items left on their to-do list. The House of Delegates is shown in this March 16, 2019, file photo.
As Maryland’s lawmakers head into the final days of their annual session, they have plenty of items left on their to-do list. The House of Delegates is shown in this March 16, 2019, file photo. (Paul W. Gillespie / BSMG)

As Maryland’s lawmakers head into the final days of their annual session, they have plenty of items left on their to-do list: reforming the University of Maryland Medical System board, settling how to pay for increased education spending and deciding whether to issue bonds to improve the Laurel Park racetrack.

Those issues are expected to be among the most hotly debated before the General Assembly adjourns its 90-day session at midnight April 8.


“A lot of the work gets done right here at the end,” Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters Friday. “There’s a whole lot of work left to be done.”

Hogan has found himself on the short end of many decisions by the legislature. Few of the Republican governor’s priority bills have moved forward and lawmakers have voted to override the three vetoes he’s made so far.

A House of Delegates committee has voted unanimously to advance sweeping legislation that would reform the University of Maryland Medical System’s board of directors as accusations of “self-dealing” rock the hospital network. The bill would bar no-bid contracts with board members.

But he struck an optimistic tone, hoping for “common ground” with legislators in the final days.

Democratic leaders believe they’ve already accomplished a lot this session. They point to successful bills such as one that gradually increases the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour and others moving forward that will review prescription drug prices for state employees and retirees, and use tax returns to identify people eligible for free or low-cost health insurance.

“This has been an incredibly productive session,” said Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.

But lawmakers still have plenty to resolve in the final days of the session.


One of the biggest outstanding matters is one with bipartisan support within the legislature and from the governor: Addressing a self-dealing scandal at the University of Maryland Medical System.

“Certainly, the scandal that came to light demanded action,” said Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the House minority leader. “Many of us were just disgusted with what we saw. We’ve quickly worked at developing a plan that will shed light on the system there, requiring transparency and accountability.”

Emergency legislation was introduced late in the session after The Baltimore Sun reported that several board members had contracts with the medical system, including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. The medical system bought self-published children’s books from the mayor, and there’s been an incomplete accounting of how many books were produced and where they were distributed.

Others board members also had lucrative contracts for themselves or their businesses, and some were sole-source deals reached without a competitive bidding process.

House Speaker Michael Busch introduced the bill that’s scheduled for a House vote this week. It would require all board members to resign, ban no-bid contracts for board members and mandate an audit of the medical system’s contracting practices.

The Senate is expected to act on its version of reform legislation, sponsored by Baltimore Sen. Jill P. Carter.

Baltimore continued its full-court press to preserve Pimlico Race Course and keep the Preakness Stakes in the city on Thursday, lobbying the state’s black lawmakers to join the cause.

Also left unresolved is how much more to spend on public education and where to get the money.

A group that’s been examining the state’s education system, nicknamed the Kirwan Commission for its chairman, William “Brit” Kirwan, has recommended significant increases in funding.

A bill inspired by the commission’s work calls for $325 million in additional spending next year and $750 million the year after that. Lawmakers have already passed a budget for next year with only $255 million for Kirwan-related initiatives, so the bill is likely to be tweaked to match the budget.

The money would pay for increased teacher salaries, expanding pre-kindergarten and creating more “community schools” that offer extra services to students’ families, such as health care.

“It starts us off with implementing some of the most pressing Kirwan recommendations,” Luedtke said. “And the hope is we continue to ramp up our investments in schools in future years.”

Making Maryland "foam free" and curbing the cost of prescriptions are among the priorities Democrats in the General Assembly say they've agreed in principle to push for this session. Under their proposals, Maryland could become the first state to ban polytyrene packaging, better known as Styrofoam.

Steven Hershkowitz, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, said union members are hopeful lawmakers will pass the bill and work to create “a path” to figuring out by next year how to pay for the improvements suggested by the commission.

“Educators continue to work with legislators to figure out a fiscally responsible way to make the Kirwan Commission recommendations a reality,” he said.

There’s also a school construction bill in limbo in the final days of the 2019 session. Dubbed the “Build to Learn Act,” it would use $125 million per year from the state lottery’s profits for bonds to pay for construction projects.

It passed the House on a 133-3 vote and a group of county executives — eager for more money to build and renovate schools — made a pitch last week to the Senate to follow suit.

Lawmakers also face the thorny issue of whether to help accelerate the modernization of the Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County.

The Stronach Group, which owns Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, came this year to Annapolis with a request to issue bonds to speed up the Laurel renovation to turn it into a “super track” capable of attracting big-name races, such as the Breeders’ Cup. The bonds would be paid back using a share of slot-machine proceeds that are set aside to help pay for racetrack renovations.

Republican leaders in Maryland’s House of Delegates released their legislative priorities for 2019, including an state income tax cut, a registry for violent repeat offenders, and single-member districts in the General Assembly. They also plan to push for greater school safety.

But Baltimore lawmakers and boosters fear that accelerating improvements at Laurel will contribute to the eventual demise of the rundown Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes.

The Baltimore mayor is pushing to block the bill and save Pimlico. Pugh filed a lawsuit attempting to, among other things, block the legislation from being carried out if it becomes law.

Baltimore’s lawmakers, meanwhile, have tried other tactics: Sen. Bill Ferguson is pushing to require Stronach to submit a redevelopment plan for Pimlico if it’s to get assistance for Laurel, while Del. Nick Mosby has highlighted subpar living conditions for racing workers at Laurel Park as a reason why Stronach shouldn’t get more help from the state.

The Stronach Group issued a statement saying the company is hopeful that its bill will pass before the legislature adjourns.


“We do not support kicking the can down the road another year,” the company said.


There are other bills pending that are likely to be successful, but need final votes or differences worked out between each chamber’s versions, including measures that: require background checks for private sales of rifles and shotguns, raise the minimum age for buying tobacco and nicotine to 21 and ban foam food and drink packaging.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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