Looking Back on the Maryland General Assembly

MD state flag: ©iStockphoto.com/Matt Trommer; Disability icon: ©iStockphoto.com/Alex Belomlinsky
MD state flag: ©iStockphoto.com/Matt Trommer; Disability icon: ©iStockphoto.com/Alex Belomlinsky

Maryland’s Jewish community came out on top in a General Assembly session that saw criminal justice reforms, debates about paid sick leave and end-of-life options and a number of projects funded, according to officials at the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

Both the BJC and JCRC had a number of successful capital and budget requests as well as policy priorities pass or advance in the legislature.

The ABLE Act (Achieving a Better Life Experience), which both organizations supported, establishes a tax-advantaged savings program to help Marylanders with disabilities save for disability-related expenses including medical care, housing and transportation. The passage of the federal ABLE Act in 2014 mandated that state adopt their own legislation. Those aided by the legislation, which is akin to a 529 College Savings plan, will not lose other benefits from programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income or private insurance.

The JCRC and BJC also supported a bill that expanded the state’s stalking statute to include malicious behavior, where the person intends to cause harm or knows, or should know, that the behavior would cause serious emotional distress to another person.

“It’s going to put a little more teeth to some of the stalking harassment issues,” said Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland government and community relations at the JCRC. “It basically gives the victim more protection under the law.”

Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.

While another BJC priority, the paid sick leave bill, did not pass, it made it out of committee on the House side for the first time in four years and got a floor vote. In the Senate, it got out of one committee but got stuck in another, so there was no floor vote. Jews United for Justice also supported paid sick leave.

The JCRC is waiting to see if the Universal Voter Registration Act will be signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan. The law would automatically register eligible voters. While the Senate bill did not pass, the House bill did on the last day of the session.

While the organizations were prepared to work together on a bill against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, research showed it was not necessary this year. Similar to current laws related to companies who do business with Iran, the bill would have prevented pension divestment, ensured that state pensions could not be invested in companies that support the BDS movement, and would have changed the state’s procurement contract process so that companies who support BDS could not earn state contracts. BJC officials researched both issues and found that while there is pressure on some companies, none have divested.

The End-of-Life Option Act, which would have allowed terminally ill individuals with six-month prognoses to obtain a prescription for a lethal drug, did not pass. While a number of Jewish advocates from the Baltimore area and Montgomery County rallied for the bill and its House sponsor, Del. Shane Pendergrass, is Jewish, the BJC and JCRC both opposed the bill based on traditional interpretations of Jewish law, and the BJC provided written testimony in opposition.

An issue the BJC has long supported, financial assistance for students in private schools, got some traction this year. While the Maryland Education Credit, which would have set up mechanisms to assist students in public and nonpublic schools, has struggled to pass in Maryland, the Fiscal Year 2017 budget includes a $5 million grant for nonpublic school students who are eligible for the federal Free and Reduced-Price Meals (FARM) program.

The money would be applied using the state’s per-pupil average for tuition and students who are FARM eligible will be ranked by highest need. Sarah Mersky, the BJC’s director of government relations, said Baltimore’s Jewish day schools have populations that are approximately 20 to 50 percent FARM eligible.

“This bill has been around 10 years and the BJC has worked on it for six or seven years. It’s huge, huge win and it’s a huge shift in how the Democratic majority uses these types of programs in our state,” she said. “I think that it will definitely help a lot of our Jewish students, but it’s also really great because it helps low-income individuals in our city.”

The BJC received level funding for all of its operational requests, which include the Diabetes Medical Home Extender Program, the elder abuse program, domestic violence prevention program, the Maryland/Israel Development Center and funding for Holocaust survivors. The organization also received its capital request for a community primary- and specialty-care complex at Sinai Hospital for $2 million in FY17 and $4 million in future allocations. The two-building complex will serve the uninsured and underinsured as part of an overall focus on keeping people out of emergency rooms.

In conjunction with the District 11 team — Dels. Dan Morhaim, Shelly Hettleman and Dana Stein and Sen. Bobby Zirkin — a bond bill passed allocating $100,000 to the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, located at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, to upgrade its hearing accessibility systems and lighting.

Talmudical Academy will receive $250,000 for repairs, renovations and the construction of a new gym for the high school.

Zirkin highlighted the $16 million going to Stevenson University to clean up and take over the Rosewood property in Owings Mills, which has significant environmental issues.

The legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which Zirkin said was the biggest of any issues he’s worked on in his 18 years in Annapolis. The legislation helps low-level nonviolent drug offenders seek treatment, makes it easier for nonviolent misdemeanors to be expunged — Zirkin noted it was the single largest expansion of expungement law in the state’s history — and increased sentences for second-degree murder and child abuse murder.

“It was an extremely important piece of legislation to right-size our criminal justice system and do it in a way that, most importantly, protected public safety and actually enhanced public safety,” Zirkin said.

Morhaim added: “Understanding the long history of the failure of the war on drugs, I think that was very significant.”

JUFJ, which has been pushing for reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, highlighted law enforcement-related reforms that allow for anonymous reporting of police misconduct, require most police trial board hearings to be open to the public, remove the notarization requirement for police misconduct complaints, extend the brutality complaint filing period from 90 days to one year and a day and allow a third party with first-hand knowledge of misconduct, such as a video recording, to file a complaint. The package also allows police chiefs and commissioners to appoint up to two civilians to their jurisdictions’ police trial boards.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) highlighted the nearly $290 million legislative package to aide Baltimore City. Initiatives in the package include keeping libraries open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, more money to demolish vacant housing, money for after-school programs, adult education and job training and mentoring, among others. Rosenberg highlighted incentives for non-custodial parents to make child support payments and strides in enforcement of lead poisoning laws and effort to get record-keeping organizations to link records.

Rosenberg also passed a new bill relating to “right to travel,” which has implications for travel to Israel. A previously passed bill said life insurance companies cannot arbitrarily deny someone coverage and make it more expensive based on past travel to Israel and other places with travel advisories. This year, he got a bill passed applying that same idea to future travel.

“The bill says that a state department travel advisory by itself is insufficient for life insurance companies to deny or increase rates, they need something else,” he said.

Morhaim, the deputy majority leader, got two end-of-life care bills passed. One has Maryland recognize National Healthcare Decisions Day on April 16, which will help educate state residents on advance directives. Another bill brings the state closer to having an electronic advance directives service, on which he is working with the Department of Health.

Another one of Morhaim’s bills that passed will allow dentists, podiatrists and advanced practice nurses became medical cannabis certifiers, which will allow them to recommend the drug to patients.

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