Maryland Lawmakers Push Long-Term Policies During 2019 Session

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Undoubtedly, no one is turning to Maryland General Assembly proceedings to get their fix of drama and intrigue, but this year’s 90-day session had plenty of both.

Lawmakers raised the minimum wage, allocated funds for Maryland’s new educational blueprint and required the state to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030. They also dealt with fallout from a University of Maryland Medical System scandal and mourned the death of Mike Busch, the Annapolis Democrat who had served as speaker of the House of Delegates since 2003 and member of the House since 1987. Busch had been hospitalized for pneumonia and his condition worsened on April 7.

READ MORE: The 2019 Legislative Session Will Shape The Future Of Maryland

The final day of session on April 8, known as Sine Die, was somber.

“Even though he was on the other side of the aisle and we often disagreed, he was always respectful,” said Delegate Sid Saab, a Republican from District 33. “His job was tough. He had to handle 140 members who come from all walks of life and ideologies. He was helpful to a lot of us as freshmen. No matter the issue, he was always available to talk.”

Tears aside, Republicans and Democrats alike worked to finalize a slew of bills before capping the 2019 session. Here are the biggest takeaways.

Minimum Wage

Both the House and Senate overrode Hogan’s veto of a bill that will increase the minimum wage to $11 by January 1, 2020. Businesses with 15 or more employees must increase that wage by 75 cents per year until reaching $15 in 2025. Businesses with 14 or fewer employees will increase the rate by 60 cents per year, reaching $15 in 2026. Workers under age 18 must earn at least 85% of the minimum wage.

In a letter explaining his veto, Hogan wrote that the measure could cost Maryland more than 99,000 jobs. The “dramatic and geographically disproportionate increase,” he said, could harm the state’s economy and put Maryland at a disadvantage to neighboring states, like Virginia, which has a $7.25 minimum wage.”

Delegate Heather Bagnall, a Democrat from District 33, was happy with the outcome.

“I know people are still worried, and that’s the nature of change,” Bagnall said. “Change is scary, but we have given ourselves a lot of time to get this right and to make sure we aren’t locked in if we are seeing an adverse impact on the economy.”

The bill gives the Board of Public Works a one-time option to temporarily suspend an increase to the minimum wage rate if the year-over-year seasonally adjusted total employment is negative.

Republicans wanted more protection for mom-and-pop shops.

“Small businesses will have to do one of a few things: cut hours, cut positions, cut benefits or raise prices,” said Senator Ed Reilly.

A small-business owner himself, Saab reiterated his stance that raising the minimum wage will cause employers to cut jobs in favor of automation. He also expects the spike to eliminate some entry-level opportunities for teens looking to get valuable experience.

“Is the sky going to fall? No, but it is going to be very harmful to the people it’s supposed to help,” Saab said.

Delegate Michael Malone echoed his fellow Republicans’ concerns.

“One amendment provided that there would be consideration for areas of the state that are less metropolitan and more rural to have a decreased minimum wage,” Malone said. “There are parts of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore that abut other states which have a much lower minimum wage. Businesses in those areas will have to compete against other businesses just a few miles away and will be handicapped by higher wage costs. My concern is the Maryland businesses will no longer exist, resulting in further unemployment in the rural areas of Maryland.”

Education

Legislators approved a bill to allocate nearly $1 billion in additional funds to public schools over a three-year period in support of recommendations from the Kirwan Commission. Dubbed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the legislation has several goals: to establish a poverty grant program to aid public schools that have high concentrations of students eligible for free or reduced meal prices, to provide raises for teachers, and to create a Maryland Office of the Inspector General to investigate complaints of waste, fraud and abuse of public funds.

The bill, viewed as a down payment on the Kirwan initiatives, garnered bipartisan support although Republicans are worried that the price tag for the next phase of recommendations will be too high.

“In the next three years, we’re going to have to talk about the gorilla in the room,” Reilly said. “If we’re going to do that deep dive, do we have the money? A lot of economists have said we’re heading for a recession in the next few years.”

Bagnall is excited for the potential to make Maryland’s school systems competitive not just nationally but globally. She also praised the bill for elevating careers in technology and cybersecurity, and for helping underserved populations.

“It’s looking at how we deal with equity gaps in education,” Bagnall said. “In the past, funding was tied to performance. The more the school was underperforming, the more the funding was stripped. That’s counterintuitive because the schools that are underperforming usually need the most resources.”

The Environment

A Busch-sponsored bill protecting five oyster sanctuaries on the Chesapeake Bay was vetoed by Hogan, who said the bill would harm local watermen. The General Assembly overturned the veto.

An ambitious piece of legislation, the Clean Energy Jobs Act requires Maryland to rely on renewable energy sources like wind and solar power for 50% of its supply by 2030.

“When we got the global climate report, I think it was a wakeup call for a lot of people,” said Bagnall, who supported the legislation.

Opponents say the bill will drive up the cost of energy bills for Maryland consumers. Saab also said that while the bill is called the Clean Energy Jobs Act, some of those jobs will go to other states, and trash incinerators will be considered clean energy sources.

“I’m not willing to subsidize trash pollution in Baltimore City,” Saab said.

“People were passing laws to prevent birds from flying into buildings and yet we want to put turbines in the middle of the ocean,” he added.

Health Care

Perhaps the most emotional debate surrounded the End-of-Life Option Act, which passed in the House but died in the Senate. If passed, it would have created a process allowing patients to request and receive aid in dying from their physicians.

Saab said he respects both sides of the argument but was worried about patients being coerced. He also questioned the bill’s “vague” definition of the term “terminally ill.”

“Diabetes, if you stop taking your medicine, is considered terminally ill,” Saab said.

Lawmakers also changed the age at which customers can purchase tobacco products and electronic smoking devices. Instead of 18, those customers must now be 21.

Local Laws

Reilly sponsored a controversial bill to change the hours for towing a water skier on a slalom ski course at Maynadier Creek near Crownsville. Homeowners complained of excessive noise on the waterway. Water enthusiasts fought to maintain their current level of access to the course.

“A ski boat club wanted to control 80 hours of access to Maynadier Creek,” Reilly said. “Homeowners felt like that was too much, so we got it down to 58 hours. The boaters testified that they used the course eight to 11 hours a week. I’m sure the boaters can find 11 hours to ski in the 58 that have been authorized.”

In her first session, Bagnall helped pass a few laws. One prohibits health care practitioners and certain students from performing exams on patients who are under anesthesia or unconscious unless those practitioners or students are given consent. Another law allows nonprofits to use 10% of their revenue for necessities like office space and electricity bills.

The Anne Arundel County delegation also helped extend the lease for the Anne Arundel County Food Bank in Crownsville, and successfully lobbied for several bond bills: Chrysalis House ($200,000), the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds ($75,000) and the Cape St. Claire beach ($25,000).

Other Laws

Striking Hogan’s 2016 Executive Order to have Maryland schools start after Labor Day, the General Assembly shifted that authority to the individual school districts.

Months after Anne Arundel County adopted a bill to ban polystyrene products from restaurants and schools, Maryland passed similar legislation.

The Handgun Permit Review Board was abolished after critics noted that it was overturning the majority of cases decided by the Maryland State Police during the appeal process. The Office of Administrative Hearings will now handle appeals.

An investigation revealed that Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh had a deal with University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) to purchase $500,000 worth of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books. Further research showed that other organizations were awarded large financial contracts by city agencies and the UMMS board, which Pugh served on. Appalled by the insider deals between UMMS and its board members — Pugh the most prominent among them — the General Assembly moved quickly to pass reforms to overhaul the board and prevent its members from using their position for private gain.

“It was deeply concerning to see that an entity that is responsible for providing health care for so many Marylanders appears to have been fraught with unethical and improper business dealings with current and former elected officials,” Malone said. “We must always work to maintain the trust of the public with our public and semi-pubic organizations.”

To learn more about these bills and others not mentioned in this article, visit www.mgaleg.maryland.gov. The website allows users to search by bill number, sponsor or broad subject.

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