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Women, blacks, veterans: Maryland caucus leaders set goals for Maryland's 2019 General Assembly session

The leaders of Maryland’s five General Assembly caucuses are preparing for what they say will be a busy legislative session across the board.

In addition to party caucuses in each chamber of the legislature, there are the caucuses representing the interests of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders, Latinos, veterans, and women. All are drafting and planning bills and votes to meet their missions.

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Here’s what you can expect from the five groups going into the 2019 session that begins Jan. 9:

Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus

Health care, immigration, education and criminal justice will remain the group’s primary focuses in 2019, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk said. The Prince George’s County Democrat will serve as the caucus vice chairwoman.

Founded in December 2014, the caucus was made up of 25 members during the 2018 session.

In addition to working to maintain the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the group will push for an individual mandate down payment bill. It would require people in Maryland to pay a fine if they don’t have health insurance, but it would let them use the fine to make a down payment on a health insurance plan. The caucus also plans to work toward bills that protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and make prescription drugs affordable.

Pena-Melnyk said the caucus will support a “U-Visa” bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for victims of crime who cooperate with local law enforcement. A similiar bill made it to the state Senate floor in 2018, but didn’t pass, she said. The caucus members also plan to bring back a Trust Act, which would prohibit the use of state or local resources to help with immigration enforcement.

The caucus will also support legislation to combat hate crimes, including a bill already filed by Anne Arundel County Democrat Del. Mark Chang that would ban the use of a noose or swastika to threaten or intimidate someone.

Other priorities include banning 3-D printed guns in the state, passing bills to help young people transition from jail or prison to the community, raising the minimum wage to $15, and other civil rights initiatives that could counteract some of the Trump administration’s policies.

“Now more than ever, it’s important to have a caucus that is working to protect its members,” Pena-Melnyk said. “It’s a tough time for the immigrant community because of what’s happening in Washington.”

Women Legislators of Maryland

Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, a Democrat representing Dorchester and Wicomico counties, will serve as the group’s president in 2019.

She said the caucus will have a retreat to determine keystone issues for the coming session.

In 2018, 76 members were part of the group, but Sample-Hughes expects that number to grow with the influx of more women to the Maryland legislature.

Sample-Hughes said the caucus wants to place a larger focus on the needs of female veterans and the elderly, which might include conducting assessments to determine where there are gaps in state services.

The group also plans to continue its work in rooting out and preventing workplace harassment, Sample-Hughes said.

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“We were successful on a lot of bills last year. We were at the helm,” Sample-Hughes said of the 2018 session.

Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland

The caucus, among the largest black legislative groups in the country, is focusing on raising the age threshold required to purchase tobacco to 21 years old, increasing the hourly minimum wage in the state to $15, and promoting initiatives aimed at enhancing reading and financial literacy among youths, said Prince George’s County Democrat Del. Darryl Barnes.

Barnes, who chairs the caucus, said economic development and growth of small businesses will be important, as well, especially as they relate to the federal opportunity zones being implemented throughout the state.

He added that the group “is willing to work with anyone with the same ideology.”

In 2018, 59 members were active in the caucus.

Barnes said he’s proud of the caucus’ efforts supporting Maryland’s new medical marijuana industry and looks forward to discussions to further address issues regarding the growth of such businesses.

Del. Dereck Davis, of Prince George’s County, said he plans to introduce the legislation that would raise the minimum age to buy cigarettes to 21.

“We all know cigarettes are harmful,” Davis said. “The question is: Do we have the will to take on the tobacco industry?”

Maryland Veterans Caucus

Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, chairs the caucus, which he said aims to make Maryland the most veteran-friendly state in the nation.

In November 2017, the caucus held a daylong summit in Annapolis, inviting speakers from various advocacy groups to share their ideas. The group hopes to hold another summit in 2019.

Smith said a priority is having the caucus get successfully reconstituted and getting new members up to speed. Made up of 87 active members in 2018, the caucus was founded in 2004.

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He said the group made strides in 2018 in getting veterans exempted from paying certain taxes.

In the 2019 session, Smith also said caucus members hope to pass a bill to help military spouses who move to Maryland transfer their professional licenses to the state.

The group also wants to increase suicide prevention and awareness efforts within their community.

“There are ways we can help with counseling, making information available to them, and making our government a place where information and assistance is available,” Smith said.

Maryland Legislative Asian-American & Pacific-Islander Caucus

As Maryland’s newest caucus, the group’s members say they’re encouraged by growing membership numbers and feedback from the various minority communities they serve. In 2018, the group had eight members.

Michael Lore, executive director, said the caucus tends to focus on socio-economic issues related to small business, since there exists a “disproportionate amount” of Asian-led businesses in the state.

Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the caucus, said the group has previously partnered with the Legislative Black and Latino caucuses on issues such as bail reform and health care, and hopes to continue working with them.

She said while her caucus does not have a specific priorities list drafted yet, she wants to partner with the other caucuses on moving the Trust Act forward.

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