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New Maryland laws target issues ranging from policing to special education to flooding

Despite a General Assembly session that was shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers passed more than 600 bills. Many become effective Wednesday.
Despite a General Assembly session that was shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers passed more than 600 bills. Many become effective Wednesday. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Even though the Maryland General Assembly ended its annual session weeks early back in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers passed more than 600 bills this year.

Most of the new laws go into effect Oct. 1, but dozens take effect Wednesday, as the state begins a new fiscal year. Some of the new laws are routine, such as tweaks to local liquor regulations and technical adjustments to state programs.

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But others aim to increase oversight and resolve problems facing Marylanders. Here’s a look at a few of the bills that go into effect July 1.

Police body cameras

Many police departments equip officers with body-worn cameras, and more are considering them in light of national concerns about policing practices.

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Lawmakers created a Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force, which must issue a report by Dec. 1 on the best ways for storing audio and video recordings from police body cameras.

Task force members are to include two state senators, two state delegates, the state’s secretary of information technology, four local government representatives and four law enforcement and corrections representatives.

The bill was sponsored by Del. Jazz Lewis, a Prince George’s County Democrat, and Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Baltimore Police Department audits

The state already conducts audits of the Baltimore Police Department, but a law sponsored by Sen. Cory McCray aims to make sure the audits uncover important information.

Existing law requires the state’s Office of Legislative Audits to perform an audit on the “effectiveness and efficiency of the financial management practices” of the department in 2020 and then at least once every six years after that.

The law from McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, clarifies that multiple audits can be performed. The new law also expressly requires city and police officials to provide access to employees and documents that state auditors need for their investigations.

The Baltimore Police Department is technically a state agency, although the selection of the police commissioner and management of the department’s operations are done by the city. The city also conducts periodic audits of the department.

Special education ombudsman

Parents who are frustrated with the quality of special education services for their children will be able to turn to an ombudsman for help.

A bill from Sen. Paul Pinsky and several other Democratic senators creates the position of a special education ombudsman in the Office of the Attorney General. The ombudsman’s charge is to “serve as a resource to provide information and support to parents, students and educators regarding special education rights and services.”

The ombudsman’s office is required to set up a toll-free phone number, which will be provided to families of special education students. The ombudsman also must submit an annual report to the legislature on the complaints handled and services provided to families.

Flood and climate control

In light of two deadly floods in Old Ellicott City, repeated nuisance flooding in downtown Annapolis and concerns about climate change, lawmakers passed two laws to help pay for flood prevention.

One law, sponsored by Democratic Del. Courtney Watson of Howard County, makes it easier to use money for the Bay Restoration Fund — better known as the “flush fee” — on projects that will help combat flooding and other climate problems.

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The Bay Restoration Fund fee is charged on water and sewer bills and was created to pay for upgrading sewage plants and replacing old septic systems to reduce pollution flowing into the streams and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. The new law adds climate resilience and flood control to the list of factors that the state considers when picking which pollution projects to fund.

Another law allows city and county governments to create resilience authorities, which could be used to borrow money and manage projects that would improve infrastructure to withstand a changing climate.

Its chief sponsor was Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Annapolis Democrat who had her town’s flood-prone City Dock in mind. The bill also was sponsored by Watson and Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat.

Tuition help for the National Guard

Members of the Maryland National Guard currently can be reimbursed up to 50% of the cost of college tuition. A law requested by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan allows for 100% percent reimbursement for college classes.

The Maryland National Guard’s policy requires members to pay for the tuition upfront, then apply for reimbursement after they pass the course.

The Guard reimburses tuition based on how much money is in the state budget for the program, prioritizing lower-ranked soldiers and airmen working on their first degree. Trade school courses also can be reimbursed.

Several public and private colleges and trade schools offer discounted tuition for Guard members, and some members qualify for federal education assistance.

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