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One week to go: Policing reform, sports betting top agenda for closing days of the Maryland General Assembly

Only in 2021, perhaps, could approval of a massive state budget fattened by federal aid to help struggling businesses and families go by with barely a remark in the Maryland General Assembly.

“It’s been like ‘small ball’ this year to pass the budget,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said as his chamber voted Friday to put the finishing touches on the $52 billion spending plan, up from a $49 billion proposal made in January.

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Small ball, as baseball fans know, is the strategy of stringing together less-glamorous actions — bunts, walks, stolen bases — to score runs and win a game. The budget isn’t the only low-key victory already in the books this session, now heading into its final full week.

Lawmakers front-loaded the annual 90-day session with a focus on the coronavirus pandemic, quickly passing a $1 billion RELIEF Act proposed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The financial aid package combined direct payments to low-income families, an expansion of a tax credit for the working poor, tax breaks and business aid.

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They also passed a bill guaranteeing hundreds of millions of dollars to historically Black colleges, repealed the pro-Confederacy state song and approved changes to the state unemployment system that vexed Marylanders thrown out of work in the pandemic.

Now, lawmakers are trying to swing for the fences on several major policy ideas, including an attempt to overhaul policing practices.

Here’s a look at what remains on the agenda for lawmakers before they adjourn April 12.

Policing changes

Following mass protests against racism and police brutality nationwide last summer, top Maryland lawmakers pledged the General Assembly would pass landmark policing legislation.

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It’s the No. 1 priority remaining on the agenda — and the subject of some acrimonious exchanges between state delegates and senators over the weekend on social media, casting blame for delays.

Big majorities in both chambers have backed major changes to how officers are trained and disciplined and how use-of-force incidents are investigated and prosecuted.

But meaningful unresolved differences remain between the House of Delegates and the Senate. There’s broad agreement on the outlines of a package — but the details in such far-reaching legislation can have major implications, putting intense pressure on negotiators.

Policing bills will require much of the General Assembly’s attention until a final package is sent to the governor. That could determine how much time remains to tackle other outstanding issues.

Sports betting

In November’s election, voters approved legalizing gambling on sports. Now, state lawmakers are working out the details.

The House has approved a plan that would guarantee in-person sports betting licenses at casinos; at the stadiums for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens and the Washington Football Team; at the Maryland State Fair; at thoroughbred racetracks, and at Riverboat on the Potomac off Charles County. Several other in-person betting licenses would be up for bid, as well as licenses for online and mobile betting.

The companies licensed to run sports betting operations would have to pay a tax of at least 15% on their revenues, with most of the money going to public schools.

The proposal is pending in the Senate, which has not voted on it yet nor proposed a different plan.

Preventing evictions

The pandemic brought new attention and urgency to the long-standing plight of tenants in Maryland facing evictions.

Lawmakers responded with a raft of bills that would provide relief to renters and homeowners facing foreclosure, overhaul eviction courts, grant tenants additional protections, and potentially guarantee legal representation to families threatened with eviction.

Many of those proposals have garnered enough support to pass at least one chamber, but few have made it to Hogan’s desk yet.

Transit funding

Even before the pandemic, more investment in mass transit was a priority for some lawmakers as a measure to combat climate change and boost economic prospects in communities with limited current access to reliable transportation.

Then the pandemic walloped transit agencies, sending ridership figures and revenue from fares plummeting.

Legislation to require the state to fully fund a billion-dollar backlog of maintenance work at the Maryland Transit Administration passed both chambers earlier in the session, despite opposition from the Hogan administration. Each chamber is now considering the other’s bill.

Tying up loose ends

The final days of the session will feature lawmakers ironing out the details on scores of other bills, reconciling the differences between House and Senate versions.

Some of the proposals to be worked out include allowing bars and restaurants to offer alcoholic drinks for takeout even after the coronavirus state of emergency ends; strengthening the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change; and providing additional job benefits to essential workers during this — and any future — pandemic.

The 90-day session will end by midnight April 12.

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