Lawmakers Look Back on Session


The stakes were high in this year’s General Assembly session in Annapolis. Not only did Maryland have a new governor in Republican Larry Hogan, who ran on a campaign of bipartisanship and trimming government waste, but there were also 58 freshman legislators.

Northwest Baltimore City and County legislators, including freshman Delegate Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), said the session was productive, although it ended with a standoff between Democrats and Hogan over millions of dollars in education funding.

Lawmakers had set aside $68 million in funding that would go to Maryland’s costliest school systems, including $11.6 million to Baltimore City. Last week, Hogan announced that money would be going to the state’s underfunded pension system.

State Capitol building, Annapolis, Maryland, (Photo Newscom)
State Capitol building, Annapolis, Maryland, (Photo Newscom)

“It’s disappointing that the governor’s not releasing that money for education. During the session, he had said, ‘If the people in the legislature can find more money for education we’re willing to do that,’ ” said Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11). “So the legislature did find additional funding and [he’s still] not releasing it, and given all that’s happened in Baltimore — which will lose [$11.6] million because of this — I think it’s especially important to fund education and to provide this additional amount of funding.”

Minus the last two days of the 90-day session and the weeks that followed, dealings between the governor and the legislature transcended party politics.

“For 88 days of the session, it was very much a bipartisan session,” Stein said.

Although budget issues took front and center at the end of the session, legislators from the area passed bills on a variety of issues.

Delegate Dan Morhaim (D-District 11) introduced House Bill 490 to aid in the rollout of legally sanctioned medical cannabis in Maryland. Hogan signed it on Tuesday.

The Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission, a pet cause of Morhaim’s, has been working to get a medical cannabis program up and running in Maryland, and critics have argued that it’s taking too long. The bill eliminates what many see as a barrier for some doctors — a reporting mechanism that will be shifted to dispensaries — and adds licensing for processors, an entity not previously mentioned in legislation, who can turn cannabis into other products.

“It’s basically a series of revisions to the medical cannabis law and the net effect is to really allow the commission to move forward,” Morhaim said of the bill.

During the session, which concluded last month, Morhaim also sponsored a bill that would phase out the manufacture and sale of personal care products and medicines containing microscopic pieces of plastic that are non-biodegradable. As chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee, he also pushed for reform to the Maryland Public Information Act, which would create more oversight and standardize how the public can access government records.

Another bill Morhaim introduced slapped a one-year moratorium on the sale of powdered alcohol to give the state time to review problems and potential uses of the product.

Hettleman championed the cause of combatting sexual assault on college campuses and got a bill she introduced on the subject passed. Hogan signed it on Tuesday.

“I really hope it will go a long way to help people on campus be safer,” said Hettleman.

Her bill would remove at least one barrier to reporting incidents of assault by giving students who come forward as witnesses or victims some immunity from possible student conduct investigations (such as for an alcohol violation), establish formalized agreements between higher education institutions and crisis centers and mandate sexual assault climate surveys on Maryland college campuses.

Stein thought the legislative session was good from an environmental standpoint. He is vice chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee, which successfully got a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — a controversial oil extraction procedure popularly known as fracking — passed in the assembly.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), though, said the moratorium didn’t go far enough.

“My earnest hope is that we do not ever allow fracking in the state of Maryland,” he said.

It was his Zirkin’s first year as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, an 11-member group that included four Republicans new to the state Senate. But Zirkin said they worked together to tackle a variety of issues: His committee passed divorce law reform to make it easier for couples to avoid legal entanglements, passed two major expungement bills that allow low-level, nonviolent offenders to clear their records of certain offenses and passed foster care reform that helps people prepare for life after care.

Zirkin’s committee also helped with efforts to decriminalize marijuana paraphernalia, while raising fines for smoking in public as a deterrent, and passed bills on domestic violence and added protections for victims in the context of protective orders.

District 11 legislators successfully lobbied for several capital projects, including $75,000 for a state-of-the-art educational center at the Greenspring Montessori School, $250,000 for an expansion of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company firehouse, $200,000 for a new nature and environmental educational center at Robert E. Lee Park and $65,000 for the renovation of the Gilead House shelter at St. Mark’s on the Hill.

Across the city line, Delegate. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) saw a near-decade effort conclude with a win. A bill he got passed gives the Maryland attorney general authority to seek a court injunction when presented with evidence of a violation of election law that could change an election outcome.

Previously, only the U.S. attorney general had that power under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Looking from the outside, Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said Hogan made promises to the organization about its priorities and went above and beyond in meeting them. In addition to funding for BJC priorities and programs — everything from the medical home extender program to funding for the Maryland Israel Development Center — additional funding was allotted for Holocaust survivors aging in place.

While issues that don’t get through the complete legislative process in one session often come up the next year, several lawmakers mentioned that questions over assisted suicide and police accountability will certainly reappear in the next session.

Tolle said the BJC lobbied against a bill that would have legalized “physician-assisted suicide.”

“We brought in rabbis representing all parts of the Jewish community,” she said. “That position is unanimous from Reform to Orthodox.”

While there were a variety of police accountability bills, some legislators expect the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to come back up next year.

Jews United for Justice, among other organizations, advocated for reform on LEOBR, which some said is too protective of officers. The reform advocated for this year would have changed the process for filing a complaint against an officer and how police misconduct investigations are handled.

Rosenberg, among others, said recent events in Baltimore surrounding Freddie Gray’s death underscore the importance of examining these issues.

“I think we still need to re-examine [those laws] and see what is appropriate, to see to what extend police get different treatment than other people,” he said.

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