The Maryland General Assembly approved legislation to help state and local governments to better prepare and protect themselves from cyberattacks late Monday evening as midnight adjournment of its annual 90-day session approached.
Lawmakers also passed bills raising the minimum age for marriage, banning many uses of chemicals known as PFAS, improving transparency in the criminal justice system, protecting crime witnesses and victims in Baltimore and enforcing city bus lane restrictions.
But most of the agenda Democratic leadership marked as priorities wrapped up over the weekend during a flurry of Saturday votes that overrode Friday vetoes from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The push left few high-profile battles, but still some important work for the final hours of the annual 90-day legislative session.
One such item: Legislation investing millions to strengthen the state’s cybersecurity by creating a centralized Maryland network and helping local governments afford cyberattack preparedness passed ahead of Monday’s midnight deadline.
Shortly afterward, the governor put out a list of dozens of bills he plans to sign Tuesday.
Otherwise, Monday passed largely without suspense.
“I would say the vast majority of the big, top issues that we had have already passed the finish line,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said Monday afternoon. “I think this was not only a successful session, it was a historic session.”
Bills are already set to become law expanding abortion access, curtailing the use of fossil fuels, launching a paid family leave program for most workers and sending marijuana legalization to voters to decide. Lawmakers also approved efforts to clamp down on ownership of so-called “ghost guns” that lack serial numbers and to reform the juvenile justice system to update laws on sentencing, incarceration and interrogation.
On top of that, a massive state budget surplus meant lawmakers of both parties could join with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to temporarily suspend the gas tax as fuel prices surged and also to provide nearly $2 billion in tax relief for retirees and parents of young children as economic confidence slumps. The surplus is the product of a surge of federal spending and a faster-than-expected rebound in sales and income tax after the COVID-19-induced recession.
Nearing the end of his second term, Hogan called the past 90 days “our best session yet after eight years,” adding, “We were successful in accomplishing nearly everything that we wanted to accomplish.” He cited the tax cuts and a new and less gerrymandered congressional district map.
With a few hours for lawmaking left Monday, legislators and the governor were hoping to make a final push to secure passage of some of their own unfinished priorities, such as a package of Hogan anti-crime proposals.
Hogan suggested his proposal to impose harsher penalties for crimes involving firearms enjoys widespread support, and criticized Democrats for not advancing it: “I don’t know how they’re going to explain that to voters but that’s for them to figure out.”
Members of the General Assembly will face voters on the ballot this year, with party primaries looming in July. Monday is also the final day to burnish legislative resumes or make floor speeches for those running for reelection or trying to launch themselves into a different political office. And for retiring members, it will be their final chance to soak in the State House as a sitting member.
It remains to be seen how many if any more proposals, out of nearly 2,500 pieces of legislation, make the cut.
A bill that Baltimore officials sought to better protect witnesses and victims of crimes passed with just more than an hour to go in the session. The legislation would require state corrections officials to notify city police when anyone is released on bail, addressing a communications lapse that city officials say has challenged efforts to stem violent crime.
Lawmakers also authorized the city to establish monitoring systems to ticket motorists when they unlawfully drive cars, trucks or other vehicles in dedicated bus lanes.
The marriage age bill is one the legislature has debated many times in previous sessions. A conference committee resolved differences between House and Senate versions to set a minimum marriage age of 17 and require the teens to have permission from their parents to marry; if they don’t, it lays out a series of hurdles before they can tie the knot. Previously, the minimum marriage age was 15, with an exception that allowed marriage without parental permission in the case of pregnancy.
The PFAS ban significantly restricts manufacturing and use of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” imposing a ban on them in firefighting foams, paper products for food packaging and in rugs and carpets. Studies have shown PFAS may be linked to adverse health outcomes, including decreased fertility, low birth weight, immune system impairment, increased cholesterol and obesity, and hormone interference.
Although the legislative session began amid a resurgent coronavirus pandemic in January, nearly all General Assembly work has returned to in-person business — with lobbyists, journalists and the public present and watching. The celebrations in the State House come midnight, when both chambers adjourn “sine die,” a Latin phrase which roughly translates as “without [a] day,” may include more of the festivities typical before the pandemic.
The legislature abruptly adjourned its 2020 session more than two weeks early as the pandemic struck. The 90-day legislative session in 2021 proceeded uninterrupted but featured prominent safety measures, including delegates split between two chambers, linked by video, to spread lawmakers out and a Senate floor turned into a warren of plexiglass phone-booth-like enclosures.
While things weren’t quite back to a pre-pandemic normal, the difference from recent sessions was obvious by Monday, Ferguson said.
“When we came here 90 days ago, the context was very, very different. We were still in a near lockdown-ish mode and it’s pretty remarkable to think about what 90 days later can look like,” he said. “We’ve done some really remarkable work across the board.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
In the House of Delegates, it was the first time all members were present in the chamber for sine die since 2019, when they marked the end of the legislative session with somber remembrances of former House Speaker Michael Busch. The Anne Arundel County Democrat had died a day earlier.
On Monday, they opened an evening floor session with remembrances as they unveiled Busch’s official portrait just to the left of the rostrum from which he led the House’s business for 16 years, the most in state history. D. Bruce Poole, a former delegate who served with Busch, said the oil painting captured well Busch’s energy, approachability and sense of humor, depicting him with an unbuttoned blazer and a soft smile in front of a bright blue background.
“It really personifies him and it gets really to the core of how you succeed in politics,” Poole said.
In the background of the legislative frenzy, there were also nods to the revelry in the state’s largest city some 40 miles away, where the Baltimore Orioles faced the Milwaukee Brewers.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, opened the House’s first session of the day with an opening prayer that drew inspiration from Jackie Robinson and former Oriole Frank Robinson overcoming discrimination in baseball. He ended the prayer with, “It’s opening day, play ball, amen.”
With one minute to midnight, the House closed the session passing legislation known as the Maryland Criminal Justice Data Transparency Act, improving collection and dissemination of data on criminal prosecutions around the state.
Lawmakers closed the session with a confetti celebration for the first time in years.