More than 200 Jews from across Maryland gathered in Annapolis Tuesday for the state’s annual Jewish Advocacy Day — a day where constituents from the Jewish community meet with legislators to lobby for the legislation they hope to see passed in the current session, which runs through April 11. This included several members of the Baltimore Jewish Council who were pushing for legislation dealing with disability rights, harassment and universal voter registration.
Throughout the day, constituents had a chance to meet with their elected officials from delegations across the state. In the District 11 meeting, delegates Shelly Hettleman and Dan Morhaim made brief appearances.
“Your being here is helpful. Your writing to us, your calling us, your letting us know about what is important is incredibly important,” Hettleman said.
Morhaim echoed those sentiments and directed part of his encouragement toward a young boy sitting in the front of the room.
“If you’d like to come down to testify in Annapolis you don’t have to be 18, you don’t have to be a citizen, you don’t have to be a lobbyist, all you have to be is patient and wait your turn but we will listen to you,” he said.
BJC director of public affairs Madeline Suggs said constituent meetings are a critical component of advocacy day.
“Even though a lot of our constituents are meeting with their local legislators while they’re at home, there’s a huge power in numbers in Annapolis, and to get a huge group coming down to Annapolis, talking about what’s important to them really has a powerful effect to make sure the legislation gets passed,” she said.
Among the legislation the BJC pushed for was a bill that would increase widening the definition of stalking and harassment to anything intended to cause “serious emotional distress to another.” The law currently only considers this stalking when there is “malicious,” intent.
Members of CHANA were on hand in the District 11 delegation meeting during the afternoon to make their case for the bill, which they feel would help some of their clients that are struggling with issues — such as when they received 100 texts in quick succession from their former spouses.
“The key part of the stalking bill that really has been of most importance has really been to add a component of seeing serious emotional distress as harm that would elevate this to a crime,” said Lauren Shavitz who serves as the program director of CHANA. “So what we see is that oftentimes people who are victims of stalking might not have issues that rise to the level of what the current law has said.”
Shavitz said that the bill is important because it seeks to dispel the notion that a victim of stalking or harassment must have a serious injury or constantly be living in fear in order to receive protection under the law.
“It’s not always the typical stalking behavior that people think of where there’s someone lurking behind the bushes and then jumps out and might attack or scare them,” she said.
BJC director of government relations Sarah Mersky added that this bill is a priority since CHANA and BJC are both agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
“That bill is specifically important to us because we represent CHANA,” she said.
The BJC also advocated for the ABLE Act, which allows states to establish a tax-advantaged savings program that would allow eligible people with disabilities to set up a separate account earmarked for qualified health-related expenses such as medical or dental care, transportation and housing, without losing Medicaid or Social Security benefits. Currently if a person with disabilities holds more than $2,000 in assets they would not qualify. The ABLE Act is similar to the college savings program some families participate in. BJC board member Elizabeth Green, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, said creating a savings fund is key to the success of this population.
“The biggest piece of what those with disabilities need is health insurance,” she said. “If they could get health insurance without paying for other things that they need to pay for then they could put aside savings for other things. But unfortunately they’re all tied together.”
The ABLE Act will provide funding for people with disabilities who receive assistance from agencies of the Associated including SHEMESH and CHAI, Mersky said.
The BJC also was able to successfully secure funding for a number of budget items including $2 million for fiscal year 2017 and $4 million over the course of 2018 and 2019 that will go toward the construction of a primary and specialty care complex at Sinai Hospital.