After months of living amid a coronavirus pandemic that has laid bare societal inequities, Maryland state lawmakers return Wednesday to Annapolis to take up a litany of proposals to address them.
Leaders of the Democrat-dominated Maryland General Assembly say they want to protect tenants at risk of eviction and expand access to high-speed internet, especially for disadvantaged communities.
They’ll look for ways to improve the state’s unemployment system, which left many out-of-work Marylanders waiting months for benefits.
They’ll debate whether essential workers should have more protections, such as enhanced pay and the right to refuse dangerous work, in health emergencies.
And they’ll take up some significant old business, overriding the governor’s veto of last year’s sweeping education reform bill designed to restore the state’s public schools to among the best in the nation.
“We are in a once-in-a-hundred-year moment in time,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “We are in an emergency that has been extraordinary in every sense of the word and has been incredibly painful.”
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones agreed lawmakers would focus on legislation “that was promulgated as a result of what we’ve experienced during the pandemic.”
Even the Assembly’s examination of policing practices — including proposals to repeal a Law Enforcement Bill of Rights that affords broad protections to officers accused of misconduct — was made more urgent by the pandemic, on top of pressure from protests against police violence that swept the nation last summer, Ferguson said.
“In those moments when you hunker down and think of what is the most important, safety and security is fundamental,” he said, noting that many feel unsafe with what they experience as an unequal justice system.
The pandemic will not only shape the issues debated in Annapolis, but also how that debate happens. To minimize risk from the virus, the State House complex will largely be off-limits to the public and most legislative business will be conducted over video. Clear plastic shields surround desks in the Senate; the House will split between two locations for floor sessions.
Focus on education
A priority for Democrats will be to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a funding plan for the so-called Kirwan Commission education reforms. The programs include expanded access to prekindergarten, more emphasis on preparing students for careers and college, improved teacher standards and training, and establishing more “community schools” with services such as health care and social workers for families.
Hogan said the legislation is just too expensive. The programs carry an eventual cost of nearly $4 billion per year at full implementation in 2030, which would be split between the state and local governments.
Democrats and education advocates say the pandemic made clear that public education needs more investment. Too many children, they say, struggle in the e-learning environment and are falling behind.
“People who oppose funding schools will say, ‘We don’t have money for it,’ when the economy is good. And they’ll also say, ‘We don’t have money for it,’ when the economy is bad,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, a teacher and House majority leader from Montgomery County.
Cheryl Bost, a Baltimore County teacher who heads the state teachers union, said the programs envisioned under Kirwan will help children catch up when they return to in-person learning. And community schools will help struggling families.
“We can not only address the students, but we can address the needs of the community,” Bost said.
After overturning that veto, supporters of the Kirwan plan say lawmakers should address further needs, such as funding for computers and broadband internet access.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, who chairs a committee that oversees education issues, is a former teacher and Prince George’s County Democrat. He wants to consider expanding summer school and tutoring opportunities for struggling students. He also wants to make sure public schools that saw a dip in enrollment this school year don’t see their state funding cut.
Calls for policing reform renewed
Police reforms, a long-simmering issue in the State House, were given impetus after nationwide protests last year over the death of George Floyd and are high on the agenda of General Assembly leaders.
Among the proposals: repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a sweeping set of job protections enacted in the 1970s that critics say hampers oversight of police and holding officers accountable.
Scrapping the law was among recommendations of a House work group that met into the fall. The group also endorsed mandating body cameras at all agencies by 2025, creating statewide use-of-force standards — with criminal penalties for violations — and curtailing the use of no-knock warrants. A Senate committee heard testimony on the same reforms but has not taken a position on them.
“There is not just an appetite but there’s a political will to get something done on police transparency and accountability,” said Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat who was part of the House group. “Now, whether what we do is far-reaching, comprehensive and meaningful is another question and remains to be seen.”
Acevero and others also are pushing changes to the state’s public records law that would give the public greater access to police disciplinary records and information about civilian complaints.
The proposals have been opposed for years by groups representing law enforcement who have influence in Annapolis. Acevero thinks the tide is shifting in favor of policing reforms.
But Republican Sen. Mike Hough said Maryland has already debated policing reforms, particularly after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured in Baltimore Police custody.
“Almost all of these ideas were brought up before and they were rejected,” said Hough, who sits on the Judicial Proceedings Committee. He represents areas of Carroll and Frederick counties.
Hough said Republicans are concerned about eliminating the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights without having a replacement.
“You have to have something that covers the rules of the road … It sounds catchy, but I don’t know how it functionally would work,” he said.
Republicans also are worried about proposals that would lift caps on damages for people who successfully sue departments for police brutality, fearful that could cause small towns to eliminate their police forces.
Sports betting and equity
Other thorny issues will consume lawmakers, including how to set up legal sports betting after an overwhelming vote of support from Marylanders during the fall election.
Chief among the concerns is how to establish the industry in a way that gives a fair shot to minority businesses. One requirement of the legislation that led to the referendum was a disparity study to determine whether minority- and women-owned businesses face a competitive disadvantage. Ferguson and Jones said they’ve received data to justify including provisions to ensure minority businesses will have a chance at winning sports gambling licenses.
The lobbying could be fierce among those who want a stake in the lucrative industry. Millions of dollars were spent on campaigns to convince voters to support sports betting, including contributions from racetracks and betting sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel.
Democrats also are promising to unveil other equity legislation. Jones said she’ll have a “Black agenda” focused on racial economic justice issues. She declined to provide details, but said: “There’s a lot of things we can do to help the Black and brown communities.”
In the Senate, President Pro Tem Melony Griffith led a work group that did “a deep dive in the areas of health disparities, wealth equity and environmental justice.” The group’s recommendations will be announced Monday, said Griffith, a Prince George’s County Democrat.
There’s also a proposal to raise the alcohol tax from 9% to 10% and use the money to revive a program to improve access to health care in underserved communities. The dormant program previously paid for initiatives such as mobile health clinics and doctors’ hours in public housing complexes.
Republicans, while significantly outnumbered, will work to make their mark.
In past years, Hogan would have started rolling out his legislative agenda by this point, often featuring proposed tax breaks and tough-on-crime measures. He said Thursday that his announcements were delayed by the mob attack at the U.S. Capitol and he would begin discussing his priorities early this coming week.
The state Senate selected more conservative Republican leadership going into the session, and the new leaders are pledging to have a stronger voice.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the new minority leader, likes to note that half of Maryland’s population of 6 million are not registered Democrats. (About 55% of Maryland’s 4 million registered voters are Democrats, 25% are Republicans, 19% are unaffiliated and the rest belong to third parties.)
The 2021 session will be successful, Simonaire said, if “we have restored the voice of the people back in Annapolis.”
Republicans understand they often play defense, attempting to fend off proposals such as tax increases.
But they’ll also try to get their bills passed, including allowing a $250 tax credit for families buying supplies for online learning, giving a break on property taxes to businesses forced to close during the pandemic, and requiring signature-matching for ballots cast by mail.
“Our focus is to provide solutions,” said Simonaire, who represents Anne Arundel County. “Thankfully, Annapolis is not as partisan as Washington, D.C. If you have a good idea, you can get it through.”