By Suzanne Pollak
The recently completed Maryland General Assembly session began under the haze of the pandemic, with many residents and businesses suffering financially and legislators having to social distance from their peers.
But despite COVID-19, many in the Jewish community lauded what Maryland was able to accomplish, partly thanks to large infusions of federal dollars.
“It was really an historic session. A lot of issues we’ve been working on for years finally passed,” noted Molly Amster, director of Jews United for Justice’s Baltimore branch. “In summary, without question, incredible and historic wins that we are celebrating.”
Rob Halber, director of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, agreed. “It was a very productive session,” he said.
Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director Howard Libit said he had expected much of the budget to focus on helping those hurt by the pandemic and was pleased the state was able to do that as well as allocate money for needy Jewish agencies. “Overall, we were pleased how the budget came out,” he said.
During the 90-day session, 2,347 bills were introduced and 817 passed.
The state’s capital budget included $1 million for the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown for its campus expansion and $1 million for the Center for Hope’s new building on Sinai Hospital’s expanded campus next to the Pimlico Race Course.
Funding for BOOST, which provides scholarships for needy students attending private schools, was increased from $7.5 million to $10 million, both Libit and Halber pointed out. They noted that $3 million was set aside to improve security at places of worship.
The BJC and JCRC lobbied for a bill that was not enacted that would have banned clothing worn in schools that featured Confederate flags and swastikas.
An anti-bias bill, which would have required those convicted of hate crimes to undergo an education program created by the University of Maryland, passed the House and Senate and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Halber praised legislators for their increased attention to equity, racial justice and diversity and inclusion programs. He noted that JCRC testified on more than 40 pieces of legislation and succeeded in obtaining $150,000 for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, $350,000 for Holocaust survivors, $250,000 for senior adults and $75,000 for ElderSafe at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities. Allocations for other Jewish agencies remained constant.
He also praised action on voter access laws and police reform, but was disappointed the state didn’t pass a provision to set aside funding for health care professionals serving in private schools.
The legislature included funds to provide legal services for needy people in danger of being evicted and also expanded telehealth, in which patients can speak with their doctors online rather than having to go to the office.
JUFJ’s Amster said her agency was “thrilled” that undocumented residents will have personal information that they submitted in order to receive a driver’s license protected from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She also praised efforts to end local jurisdictions from entering into agreements with ICE.
She called it “a big win” that the governor will no longer have a voice in the parole process, noting that had politicized a process that shouldn’t have been politicized.
JUJF also was pleased with efforts to help renters facing eviction, although Amster noted that the program “will have a slow roll out” of about four years. Amster said it was unfortunate that the paid medical leave and family act didn’t pass, nor did a measure that would have forced a landlord to accept federal money for rental assistance and not turn it down so they could evict a tenant.
Maryland Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-17), who is Jewish and represents Gaithersburg and Rockville, was pleased that “at long last, my bill to repeal Maryland’s Confederate-themed song has passed.” While disappointed more work wasn’t accomplished to help the environment, she did point out that more green buses will be used and five million trees will be planted.
Kagan said the session was “stressful and productive.”
“It was challenging,” she said. “We couldn’t interact. We couldn’t see and hear each other well on the Senate floor.”
Update (5/4/2021): This article has been updated to correct the status of the anti-bias bill.