In session supporting schools, Bay, ethics reform, Maryland Assembly puts finishing touches on Busch's legacy

Maryland lawmakers put their finishing touches Monday on an ambitious General Assembly session in which they enacted plans aimed at helping working families, public schools and the environment — and in doing so, completed the legislative legacy of the late House Speaker Michael Busch.

On the final day of the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed two of Busch’s priorities — measures creating five permanent oyster sanctuaries around the Chesapeake Bay and replacing the University of Maryland Medical System’s board of directors amid allegations of self-dealing. Legislators acted only hours after they learned of the speaker’s death Sunday from pneumonia.

Just days earlier, the assembly passed Busch’s legislation to pave the way for a plan to invest billions more in Maryland’s public schools.

“We’re going to feel the effects of Mike Busch for the next several decades because of what he’s put in place,” said D. Bruce Poole, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and Busch’s close friend. “Mike has a record that is deeper and broader as a legislator than most people will ever know.”

The final day of session also spelled the end for an effort to finance construction of a so-called “super track” for horseracing at Laurel Park — a step sought by the track’s owners to host more prestigious events at the Anne Arundel County site.

Baltimore lawmakers viewed the bill as a threat to keeping the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in the city. The Senate voted Monday to send the legislation back to committee, effectively killing it, after the city’s members of the House of Delegates voted 16-0 Saturday not to back the plan.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called the failure of the legislation “a major disappointment” of the 90-day session. Miller said the Senate had forged a compromise that would have ensured investment at Laurel Park and Pimlico.

“We're going to kick the can down the road for another year. Something has to be resolved,” Miller said.

At the beginning of the session, Busch and Miller announced a series of priorities that the legislature ended up passing with wide support. They included gradually raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21, banning foam products for packaging most food, and expanding a child care tax credit to help thousands of working families. The legislature swiftly overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of the minimum wage bill; Hogan is still considering the other three bills.

Unexpectedly, lawmakers said Monday, they found that in wrapping up the session’s work, they were carrying out Busch’s final legislative achievements.

“We honor his legacy by continuing to do the work on the issues he cared about,” said Montgomery County Del. Eric Luedtke, who is chairman of the Democratic Caucus. “The man has left an indelible mark on the state. Every single piece of the leadership priorities he laid out, every single piece is going to become law.”

The Senate voted Monday to reject Hogan's veto of an oyster sanctuary bill that was a priority of Busch — and lawmakers said the move was in honor of Busch. The vote put into law permanent protection of five sanctuaries around the Chesapeake Bay. Environmentalists see the move as necessary to protect the dwindling species, while watermen say it creates an economic harm to their profession. That vote meant the General Assembly successfully overrode all four of Hogan’s vetoes so far this year.

The Senate also gave unanimous final approval Monday to emergency legislation to reform the University of Maryland Medical System board of directors after the disclosure that some of the 30 board members held no-bid contracts with the system, including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Legislation sponsored by Busch and Baltimore Democratic Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, would require all the current board members to resign, mandate an independent audit of financial management, and prohibit the practice of no-bid contracts for board members.

Board members also would have to file financial disclosure forms that would be turned over to the leadership of the House, the state Senate and the governor.

The legislation advanced to Hogan’s desk, and Hogan said he planned to sign it.

He also said Monday night in an interview that more, tougher legislation could be needed.

“They did the best they could in the last minutes of the session. Enacting that bill is a great first step, but more is going to have to be done,” he said. “I pushed to make sure we had sweeping changes of the board, eliminate all potential conflicts of interest and that we have a real, independent audit. Those key elements are in this legislation. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to come back next year with further corrections.”

The session opened in January on a high note, as a record 72 women lawmakers took office.

But the atmosphere quickly turned somber after Miller announced he was suffering from an advanced form of prostate cancer and Busch missed time while hospitalized.

As Miller’s and Busch’s health deteriorated, two women — House Speaker Pro tem Adrienne Jones and Senate President Pro Tem Kathy Klausmeier, both Baltimore County Democrats — at times simultaneously presided over the chambers, a first.

As Democratic proposals advanced, the governor pushed his priorities.

Hogan introduced plans for $500 million in tax cuts over five years, but the Democrats stripped those proposals out of his budget plan. They argued the state needed the money to help improve public schools under the recommendations of the so-called Kirwan Commission.

Democrats did agree to several of Hogan’s education ideas — including creating an inspector general for education and funding more P-TECH schools, which blend work experiences into the curriculum — making them part of Busch and Miller’s school funding legislation.

The session also saw Democrats move to get tougher on guns. The legislature passed bills that would put appeals of state police rulings on handgun permit applications in the hands of administrative law judges. Those rulings are currently made by an appointed civilian board that has been criticized as too often overturning police decisions denying gun permits.

At the same time, amid much debate and protest, lawmakers authorized the private Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to create an armed police force of up to 100 officers.

Advocates of legalizing medically assisted suicide came close to winning passage for their bill after years of failure. But the “End of Life Options Act” was defeated in dramatic fashion by a tie vote on the Senate floor.

Late Monday, lawmakers voted to increase how much of Maryland’s electricity must come from renewable sources, as well as to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board that could set limits on how much state and local governments will pay for certain high-priced medications. But the House and Senate could not resolve differences between bills that would have required background checks for private purchases of rifles and shotguns, so the legislation failed Monday night.

Legislation that would have allowed more survivors of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits also failed.

It was a session for discipline of fellow legislators. The House voted to censure Harford County Del. Lisanti after the Washington Post reported she used a racial slur at an after-hours gathering in an Annapolis cigar bar;. And delegates voted to reprimand Baltimore County Del. Jay Jalisi over his harsh treatment of his staff. Both are Democrats.

Maryland’s Senate opened Monday with tearful words of tribune to Busch.

“This is going to be a difficult day for all of us,” Miller said. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk about it. We need to proceed as best we can in his honor.”

In the House, Jones laced up a pair of New Balance sneakers — just as Busch always did — to preside over a long day of floor sessions. The decision was part a practical matter, and part in tribute to Busch, she said.

Jones said the reality of Busch’s death hit her as she opened the day‘s first floor session. Her voice cracked with emotion and she embraced Busch’s chief of staff, Alexandra Hughes, during the opening prayer.

“The realization that he’s not coming physically back into this chamber any more — that just really hits you when you’re going to preside and looking out at the body,” Jones said.

Lawmakers said Busch’s legacy will live past the end of this session. During his 16 years as speaker, Busch presided over a progressive agenda that included ending the death penalty, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, legalizing same-sex marriage and, in this session, raising the minimum wage.

Hogan said he spoke Friday to Busch by phone, and the speaker was focused on the business of the General Assembly.

While Hogan and Busch often had contrasting policy positions, the governor said the late speaker's legacy would be his impact on laws improving education and health care and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

“I think those three things — health care, education and the environment — are probably the things Mike Busch will be most remembered for. But he was involved in just about every single issue,” Hogan said.

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