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.

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

“We walked off the floor at midnight. Everyone was silent or crying,” recalled Senator Bryan Simonaire, a Republican from Pasadena. “Normally, there are celebrations and confetti, but this year was different, and rightfully so. Mike Busch was the longest-serving speaker Maryland has had.”

Tears aside, Republicans and Democrats alike worked to finalize a slew of bills before capping the 2019 session. Here are the biggest takeaways. Unless otherwise stated, all bills are pending approval from Governor Larry Hogan.

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 percent 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.

Pasadena’s delegation strongly opposed the measure.

“We know 20% of businesses fail in the first year and 50% fail in the first five years, so it’s going to make it more difficult for them to survive,” said Delegate Brian Chisholm.

Simonaire said, “We are not one Maryland with this bill. The people who aren’t in the middle of the state, those counties are competing with Virginia and Pennsylvania. [Supporters] were talking about getting people out of poverty. I believe the solution to lifting people out of poverty is to give them the education they need to get a higher-paying job.”

Alissa Barron-Menza, vice president of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, was one of the bill’s supporters.

“An increase in the state’s minimum wage to $15 will boost consumer spending and strengthen Maryland’s workforce and economy,” Barron-Menza said in a statement. “We wanted the same timetable for larger and smaller businesses, but we’re glad that the first step to $11 applies to all businesses – and that the compromise bill reduced the gap between smaller and larger businesses proposed in the Senate bill.”

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.

Simonaire said whereas the old Thornton Commission focused on economic input, the Kirwan Commission is focused on results.

“The Kirwan Commission is working on the outputs,” he said. “What are the graduation rates? What are the disparities between students? Are students ready for college and to get into careers?”

Delegate Nic Kipke supported the blueprint because the money comes from existing revenue, but both he and Chisholm are leery that Democrats will propose future tax hikes as one of way of paying for the next wave of Kirwan recommendations.

“They’re trying to get to one teacher for every 15 students, which in a utopian world would be great,” Chisholm said. “When do we ask, ‘Where are the results?’ I’m proud of the teachers and school system we have here in Anne Arundel County, but I look at some areas that are failing, like Baltimore City. Why aren’t we offering school choice?”

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.

Chisholm argued that sanctuaries aren’t protecting oysters and that regulations are destroying the Eastern Shore.

Simonaire was in favor of the bill.

“What we have been doing the last couple years hasn’t been working,” he said. “We need a place where oysters can be populated, with support from the state. These five are just a subset of all the sanctuaries.”

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 percent of its supply by 2030.

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.

Kipke said he wanted to see more protection in the bill for people who were coerced or people who chose death because they felt like a burden on others.

“Many people think this was an easy way to go at the end of life,” Kipke said. “This option would allow over 100 pills to be taken all at once. There was testimony that this would be a violent way to die. This bill would not provide that peaceful passage people were seeking.”

In what Kipke called his hardest-fought battle as a legislator, he helped enact a change to protect pharmacies from “anti-competitive measures” used by Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) that reimburse pharmacies at a lower rate than what the pharmacies pay to acquire the drugs from wholesalers.

“These little pharmacies have no leverage in negotiating when they buy from wholesalers,” Kipke said. “The pharmacies had been staying afloat, but in the last year, companies like CVS Caremark have been reimbursing pharmacies less, and the pharmacies have been losing tens of thousands of dollars a month.”

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

Kipke secured $1.75 million to repave a section of Fort Smallwood Road where the county line ends and the Baltimore City line begins. “As long as I can remember, it has been a war zone with mountains in the middle of the road and huge potholes that need to be filled,” Kipke said.

The Pasadena delegation was granted $125,000 for the Chesapeake High School stadium. Coupled with a matching amount from the county, the money will make the site more accessible for people with disabilities and for the elderly.

Simonaire had successful laws that will expand a therapeutic horse riding program to aid veterans and start an Election Day Page Program to get local students involved in the election process.

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.

“Mayor Pugh is getting all the headlines, but I’m worried more nefarious things will come to light,” Chisholm said. “There was hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts given out and it may be many years before we find out who got them and why they got them.”

Kipke introduced an amendment to include a criminal audit into the finances of UMMC. That audit will be completed by the end of the year, Kipke said.

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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