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From the pandemic to policing to placing sports bets, Maryland lawmakers broke new ground in session that stayed busy

In a frantic rush Monday, Maryland’s lawmakers capped a legislative session in which they spent billions of dollars to help the state rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, enacted sweeping reforms to policing practices and expanded options for voting by mail in the state.

Members of the Maryland General Assembly pushed green and red buttons — mostly green — for hours at a stretch as hundreds of bills crossed the legislative finish line on a day known in Annapolis by the Latin term “Sine Die.”

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In one of their most significant final day actions, lawmakers reached agreement on a plan to establish legalized gambling on sports, passing a bill to permit nearly 100 in-person and online venues. The move was made possible after voters last fall gave their blessing to the concept of sports betting in Maryland.

The measure goes now to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration. Legislators hope to get the new arm of the gambling industry up and running in time for the NFL season.

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A campaign by immigration activists and lawmakers in the session’s final week succeeded Monday night with the passage of a bill that would ban jails from leasing beds to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for its detainees. It would also prohibit local law enforcement from cooperating or sharing information with immigration agents beyond what is required by federal law. Hogan vowed earlier in the day to veto the Dignity Not Detention Act, which he derided as “sanctuary legislation.”

The Assembly also passed legislation in its final hours that would end the governor’s authority over the Maryland Parole Commission’s decisions for inmates serving life sentences. Currently, the governor’s approval is necessary for those inmates to be granted parole. That bill could face a veto from Hogan, who weighed in against the measure, saying he’s agreed to parole more than two dozen inmates during his tenure.

Democratic leaders heralded the session as both productive and progressive, one they say attacked problems that have plagued Marylanders for years as well as others brought to light by the pandemic.

Lawmakers started this year’s 90-day session with unusual urgency, and within the first two months sent major legislation to Hogan to provide pandemic relief and increase funding to the state’s historically Black colleges and universities.

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“We’ve worked hard to focus on our priorities and to make sure those got done,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “We’ve done the best we could in a really extraordinary situation.”

Chief among what Democrats count as their accomplishments is a series of bills known collectively as the Maryland Police Accountability Act. It sets new limits on when police officers are allowed to use force, creates penalties for officers who violate those standards, establishes a new disciplinary procedure for officers accused of wrongdoing that gives civilians a significant role in the process and forms an independent investigative unit for cases in which civilians die in police custody. It also allows the public release of complaints against officers and disciplinary records, currently kept confidential.

Hogan vetoed some of those measures last week, but Democratic majorities in the state Senate and House of Delegates voted to overturn those vetoes less than 24 hours later.

“This was the best product that the legislative process could pass and implement,” said Ferguson, who allowed that it’s likely the law will be tweaked in future years.

Many who had a stake in the policing bills walked away disappointed.

The Fraternal Order of Police and many Republicans said the result would be officers leaving their jobs, and departments struggling to recruit new ones.

Advocates for reforms, including groups that have pushed for change for years, said the act doesn’t go far enough in holding bad officers accountable. The Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability issued a statement Monday saying the package “does not meet the moment” because there’s not enough civilian oversight of discipline and it does not ban officers from working in public schools.

Early in the session, lawmakers took steps they hope will help people and businesses emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. They worked with Hogan to craft the RELIEF Act, which sent checks to certain workers with low and moderate incomes, expanded a tax credit benefiting such workers, gave a tax break to those receiving unemployment benefits, and provided tax breaks and other aid to businesses.

Meanwhile, it took until the session’s final days for lawmakers to reach an agreement to establish a legal sports betting system in Maryland. The bill approved Monday would set aside licenses for some businesses to offer in-person wagering on sports. In the deal struck over the weekend, those sites include casinos, thoroughbred racetracks, certain off-track betting and bingo facilities and the Baltimore Orioles, Baltimore Ravens and Washington Football Team stadiums.

The legislation also would allow about 30 more in-person betting locations and up to 60 licenses for mobile and online betting. On Monday, the Senate approved the deal unanimously, while the House voted 122-16 to approve it, sending the measure to the governor.

Lawmakers put the finishing touches Monday on an array of initiatives, ranging from allowing restaurants to continue selling takeout alcoholic drinks to restructuring leadership of the Maryland Environmental Service after a six-figure payout to its ex-director. A bill requiring the state to develop a two-year plan for handling the coronavirus pandemic, including a road map for vaccinating residents and studying how to modernize the state’s public health system, also will head to the governor’s desk.

The administration of Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott of Baltimore won permission in the session’s closing hours to place a pair of traffic cameras on the city’s stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway/Interstate 83 to slap fines on speeders, a safety measure that’s also forecast to bring in millions of dollars.

Another bill passed by lawmakers Monday afternoon would bar courts from charging monitoring fees to poor Marylanders placed on home detention while awaiting trial on criminal charges.

At a Monday afternoon news conference on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion, Hogan declared the session to be the best of the seven held since he’s been in office. He praised the General Assembly for working in a bipartisan fashion on the RELIEF Act, which he trumpeted in particular for its tax cuts, and the state budget.

“We’ve really set an example for the rest of the country and folks in Washington,” Hogan said of the passage of those bills.

But Democrats dealt the governor plenty of defeats during the session, as well. Lawmakers all but ignored several of Hogan’s stated priorities — a violent crime bill, tax cuts for retirees and redistricting reform to end gerrymandering.

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They also voted to override dozens of his vetoes on everything from pay rates on state-funded construction projects to an ambitious and costly overhaul of state education funding.

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Inside the State House, tempers sometimes flared as lawmakers got tied up in debates over procedure during hourslong floor sessions in both the House and the Senate.

The Senate stalled for a while on a bill to increase the fees that landlords pay when they file court papers to evict tenants, with Democrats shooting down a last-minute attempt by Republicans to rewrite the legislation.

Negotiations broke down Monday night on a bill to make the state’s goals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions more ambitious, ending prospects for Sen. Paul Pinsky’s Climate Solutions Now Act to pass this year. His bill sought to bump the state’s goal from a 40% reduction in emissions compared to 2006 levels to a 60% reduction; the House approved a 50% reduction, which matches an emissions-reduction goal that the Maryland Department of the Environment says is achievable.

“I offered a compromise on the climate bill and they turned it down,” Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs an environmental committee, said of delegates. “Unfortunately, they feel no urgency and prefer to support the Hogan administration’s and the builders’ approach to climate change.”

Senators and delegates were, perhaps, worn down by 89 days of work that started much more quickly and seriously than most sessions. Instead of a gradual ramp-up of work, they dove in on key issues and never let up, with the threat of the virus sickening lawmakers or staff a constant concern.

Lawmakers also struggled through changes to their work necessitated by the pandemic, including holding bill hearings via Zoom. The House sent half its members to an “annex chamber” down the street from the State House to allow for social distancing, while the Senate chamber was a maze of clear plastic partitions around desks that made it difficult for senators to see and hear each other.

House Minority Leader Del. Nic Kipke said flatly: “This is the worst session I’ve experienced in 15 years.” The lack of personal interaction hindered collaboration and compromise, the Anne Arundel County Republican said.

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