While area Jewish lawmakers admit the state of disunion in Washington concerns them, they said their focus remains on local issues, from mitigating rising crime to continuing aid for low-income private-school students, as the General Assembly kicked off its 90-day session this week in Annapolis.
As a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and its chair since 2015, Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) said his attention will be on the escalating violence in Baltimore as well as more hyper-local issues such as the disposition of the Pikesville Armory property.
“The violence in Baltimore City has a major impact on our Baltimore Jewish community, as well as every community,” Zirkin said. “And I’m tackling this from multiple angles — gun crime, gun trafficking, witness intimidation, witness relocation programs and funding for Safe Streets programs, which LifeBridge is involved in.”
In September, Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Zirkin head of the Commission on the Future of the Pikesville Armory. All of the 11th District legislators are members. The group, along with local civic and business organizations and state agencies, will assess appropriate uses for the 114-year-old historic structure and grounds. The first commission meeting is Jan. 18.
“We’re going to hear from [state agencies] about what we’ve got at that property and the assessments that are necessary. And from there, [we’ll] start having community input meetings,” Zirkin said. “We’ve got a consultant on board, and the governor’s office is going to staff the commission, so it’s pretty exciting. Getting some dollars in the budget is a focus this year for that.”
Zirkin also intends to submit anti-BDS legislation again this year, even though Hogan signed an executive order in October prohibiting state agencies from doing business with entities supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
“I believe it needs to be codified, otherwise, we need to keep fighting,” Zirkin said about the possibility of a new administration overturning the order. “It’s much harder to take something out of a law than an executive order.”
For 11th District Del. Dan Morhaim, crime also is at the top of his list, specifically substance-abuse-related crime that he says accounts for about 85 percent of overall crime.
“I think the issue that needs to be emphasized is how much crime is related to the opioid crisis,” Morhaim said. “And crime is an issue in the community and the Jewish community.”
Morhaim said that an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 daily users spend about $1.5 million a day on drugs in the Baltimore area.
“That doesn’t count social costs, crime, health care, everything else,” he said. “And as people get more desperate, they attack people or are breaking and entering or are trying to deal drugs. That’s a public safety issue.”
A physician, Morhaim plans to work on legislation to consolidate health-care insurance buying across state and county systems to help lower costs and improve coverage for government workers.
Morhaim predicts that “everything this year is going to be colored by what’s going on in Washington and the election.” But he hopes cooler heads will prevail and that the focus remains on the best policy and “checking politics at the door.”
Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11) is concerned that Congress’s proposed reduced federal budget will impact funding to Maryland, including for health-care, housing and environmental programs. Locally, Stein said he in in discussion with the Alvin S. Mintzes Hatzalah of Baltimore about a bond bill to enhance the emergency medical services provided by the organization.
Stein will also be submitting a bill, similar to one of his 2016 bills, to increase penalties when a vulnerable or elderly adult is the victim of a financial scam.
“Also, the Pearlstone Sustainability Coalition will be advocating for environmental matters in the upcoming session, and climate change is one of the coalition’s concerns,” Stein said.
He has pre-filed a bill this session that would require the governor to make Maryland a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, aligning Maryland with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, an international agreement to help reduce global warming from which President Trump has announced the U.S.’s withdrawal.
Stein, like other 11th District lawmakers, is hopeful that state funding of area Jewish institutions remains level or increases, including money for the BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) program that provides scholarships for eligible low-income students to attend nonpublic schools.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11) will be keeping an eye on funding issues important to the Jewish community, including programs for older adults aging in place and a bond initiative for a new Hillel building at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“One of the areas that I have focused on is campus sexual assault,” she said. “I’m going to be looking at legislation to mandate training of personnel who are involved in campus sexual assault issues.”
Hettleman said during research she found out that state employees are not required to attend sexual harassment sensitivity training, so she is working on a bill to make that training mandatory.
As for the disharmony in Washington, Hettleman said that only serves to place more emphasis on the importance of state government as a “good line of defense.” She said, for example, state legislation could help mitigate Congress’ attempts to weaken the Affordable Care Act.
Hettleman is also wants to see a statewide hike in the minimum wage and is introducing a bill to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2024.
The future of Pimlico Race Course and its surrounding neighborhoods is a focus for Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat representing Baltimore’s 41st District. Rosenberg said the Stadium Authority’s Phase I study on the best use of the sprawling facility that hosts the historic Preakness Stakes concluded that the Preakness should stay at Pimlico. A delayed Phase II study may begin within the next year.
“What we hope to do during the 90-day session is to just make the public and the legislature more aware of the potential for that site,” he said. “Our goal is to make it apparent that there is great potential to make this a 365-day-a-year proposition, with benefits and additional investment in the surrounding neighborhoods both north and south of the track.”
As a member of the Health and Government Operations Committee, Rosenberg said he will be “very involved in health care and health insurance for sure,” including maintaining the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“I would hope to be involved in thwarting — to the extent that we can — any effort to damage the safety net, whether from Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and so on,” he said.
His public safety initiatives include creating incentives for people to become police officers and expansion of hate crimes legislation to include threats and attempts, not only actual criminal acts of hate.
The Baltimore Jewish Council’s director of Government Relations, Sarah Mersky, said the council’s focus for this session includes a capital budget request for $3 million in funding over two years for construction of the new College Park Hillel, a joint request with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
The council is also requesting $2 million from the state’s operating budget for security projects at schools and childcare centers.
“It’s really important with all of the bomb threats last year, some of which happened at JCCs that have preschools and Jewish Day Schools through the state and throughout the country,” Mersky said.
Mersky said the council is hoping for level, or increased funding, to support the many programs of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “Anything above and beyond would be amazing. Level funding is really integral for how The Associated works and how many people we help in our systems,” she said.
The BJC also supports continued BOOST funding.
“We have been very grateful for this program, so many students that have low-income that go to our Jewish day schools have been able to participate in the program, so we’re hopeful for increased budgeting,” Mersky said.
The council’s operating budget requests include $250,000 for Sinai Hospital’s Medical Home Extender Program; $75,000 for the Elder Abuse Program; $225,000 for the Supportive Community Network: Empowering Older Adults to Thrive in Supportive Communities; $400,000 for Holocaust survivor aging in place funds; $100,000 for personal care for non-Holocaust Survivor aging-in-place funds; and $275,000 for the Maryland-Israel Development Center (MIDC).
Council policy initiatives include paid sick leave, prescription drug reform and a bill making sex trafficking a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
Jews United for Justice held its 2018 Maryland legislative kickoff event on Jan. 8 in Annapolis to let people know about the organization’s priorities for the legislative session, which include earned and safe sick leave, safe and affordable housing and water, a $15 minimum wage, expansion of the Maryland Dream Act, bail reform and opposing mandatory minimum sentences.
“Our event was fantastic with nearly 100 people in attendance,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore director of JUFJ.