Legislators Eye Big Issues This Session

Maryland State House (File photo)

Local Jewish lawmakers are pushing to keep the Preakness in Baltimore for the foreseeable future, make community college free to students across the state and ban fracking, among other issues, in this year’s legislative session.

These items ranked high on the list of priorities for those individuals in advance of the Maryland General Assembly gathering for its annual 90-day legislative session on Wednesday.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat representing District 41 in Baltimore City, said keeping the Preakness Stakes — the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown — at Pimlico Race Course is an economic and social necessity.

Rosenberg, whose district includes the Pimlico area, sought a study that led to the Maryland Stadium Authority approving a $280,000 contract with Crossroads Consulting Services last May. The study examined Pimlico’s aging facilities and estimated what it would cost to turn the race course into a top-flight entertainment venue, findings Rosenberg will examine closely when the report is released this month.

“It would be a very significant blow to the city from a public relations and substantive standpoint if the Maryland Jockey Club were to move the Preakness to Laurel Park,” Rosenberg said. “It would be a different event to hold the Preakness somewhere else from where it’s been held for 141 years.”

Elsewhere, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat representing District 11 in Baltimore County, is “cautiously optimistic” that the Rosewood property in Owings Mills will finally be transferred to Stevenson University.

Zirkin said he has been working with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan over the last six months to solve the significant environmental and fiscal issues that have plagued the former asylum since it closed in 2008.

“I believe by the time we leave session, we will have a conclusion on Rosewood,” Zirkin said. “This is something that Gov. Hogan and I have really put on the fast track.”

Also this session, Zirkin is sponsoring a bill to ban fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a system of oil and natural gas extraction from shale formations. He said another moratorium would be a last-ditch effort to stop the drilling practice, which involves injecting sand and chemicals deep into the ground to break up rock and release natural gas.

Two years ago, the legislature approved a two-year moratorium on fracking and ordered the Maryland Department of Environment to draft regulations to govern the industry. The moratorium ends in October.

Now, Zirkin wants the practice banned once and for all.

“This is a danger to people’s public health,” Zirkin said of fracking. “I don’t really need to get into the whole economic and environmental argument, because [fracking] is a serious danger. It’s crystal clear that it’s time to ban this.”

For Del. Shelly Hettleman, who represents District 11, focusing on fiscal issues will be at the center of her agenda.

Hettleman, a member of the appropriations committee, is working on a bill to help college students keep better track of their loan amounts. The bill would call on universities to send a notification with annual tuition bills informing students of their loan amounts and would work in conjunction with federal student loan programs.

Hettleman said only two other states, Indiana and Nebraska, have passed similar laws.

“It’s not something that is being done right now in Maryland, which I was sort of shocked to find out about,” Hettleman said. “So, essentially, we just want to make it more accessible for students to know how much they owe along with their current tuition.”

Funding post-secondary education is a top priority for Del. Dana Stein, a Democrat representing District 11. Stein is in the process of drafting bills to deal with scholarship award displacement and student loan servicers.

Stein, co-chair of the financial education and capability commission, is also working with Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat, on an affordable community college bill. If successful, Stein said, the bill would allow all 23 counties and Baltimore City to opt in and foot the bill equally with the state, making community college free for students of low- and moderate-income families.

“These are issues that I have been interested in for a while,” Stein said. “Student-loan debt has been an issue the financial education and capability commission has been looking at for the past couple of years, so it’s something I’m very passionate about pushing forward.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council plans to move forward on a number of matters that impact the sick and elderly. Its main budget request this year is $6 million over the next three fiscal years — $2 million per year — for a community primary- and specialty-care complex at Sinai Hospital, which was funded last year for the first time.

Sarah Mersky, the BJC’s director of government relations, said addressing elder abuse programs and helping seniors, including Holocaust survivors, age in place is also of utmost importance. The BJC is seeking $100,000 in its budget for an elder abuse program, and also asking for $350,000 in aging-in-place funding for Holocaust survivors, and $100,000 in new funding for seniors who are not Holocaust survivors.

“We are hoping for level funding for all of our agencies,” said Mersky, who added the BJC received $3.5 million from the state last year. “We’re putting a strong emphasis on community engagement and neighborhood programs.”

Jews United for Justice is determined to continue its efforts to hold police accountable, shift the power in Maryland’s rent court, campaign against gun violence and lobby for paid sick days.

Molly Amster, Baltimore director for Jews United for Justice, said the organization held a statewide legislative kickoff session in Columbia on Sunday to discuss its agenda with residents from around the state.

“There is a lot of energy to resist policy change [at the fedeal level], which is going to make it more important at the state, city and county level to get things done,” Amster said. “Six calls to make to a local legislator on one issue is a lot of calls.”

Juvenile justice reform is also a hot-button issue that figures to take center stage throughout the session.

Former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector is serving in a volunteer role under Mayor Catherine Pugh and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, mostly advocating  for enhancements to current juvenile justice laws.

Spector said she is working to see the passage of a potential amendment being proposed by Sen. Delores Kelley, a Democrat who represents District 10, that would waive the status of juveniles based on the severity of the crime committed.

“[Young] is very much supportive of what I’m doing, as well as [Pugh] and her people,” said Spector, who was the victim of an attempted carjacking in a Baltimore parking garage last month. “My hope is to weigh in on the legislation being put on the hopper for juvenile justice.”

Del. Dan Morhaim, also a District 11 Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

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