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2009 Maryland Legislative Roundup

Like many states Maryland's largest issue this session was the budget.  However, a number of important issues were debated during the 90-day session, including a controversial bill to prevent undocumented residents from obtaining driver's licenses, an attempt to repeal the state's death penalty, and a bill to crack down on worker misclassification.

Budget: Faced with falling tax revenues, and little political will for tax increases after a significant hike last year every item of spending came up for scrutiny.  Committee chairs were asked to review every bill with a fiscal component, instead of the usual practice of singling out bills costing over $250,000.  In the end a combination of over $850 million in cuts in non-essential areas, along with $2.5 billion in federal stimulus funds over two years, produced a $32.3 billion budget that increases spending by 3.5%, the lowest increase in history.

Education: While the governor proposed cuts to education in the executive budget, political and public opposition kept education budgets whole with $5.5 billion in aid, a 2.5% increase. This includes $250 million for school construction.  The stimulus package is adding $200 million in school funding as well.  Under HB 184, by Del. Tom Hucker, the business plan being developed for universal preschool in Maryland will be due by Dec. 1, taking the state a step closer to that goal.

Stimulus: Governor O'Malley has been a vocal advocate for stimulus dollars, aggressively organizing and taughting the state's shovel-ready projects, and its Statestat stimulus website.  The state has $3.9 million in stimulus funds, with the major allocations being health and human services [$1.7 billion], education [$1.1 billion], transportation [$610 million], housing $193 million], and environment [$123 million].  Commenting on his high profile approach to the stimulus the governor said, "We consciously set out to be a leader among states ... The fact that we were able to do all this ahead of other states is, I hope, beneficial to the whole country."

Workers Rights:

  • Worker Misclassification:  The big story for workers this year, as we've highlighted, was the Maryland Workplace Fraud Act (S 909 / H 819), which criminalizes the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.  Importantly, the bill allows workers standing to sue their employers for knowingly misclassifying them, receiving treble damages and attorney fees among other relief.  
  • The Fair Share Act [SB 264] was enacted to require that all public employees benefitting from a union contract, if a majority of workers vote to establish fair share provisions, to pay their Fair Share of the costs supporting collective bargaining efforts, with political spending prohibited.  Previously, workers choosing not to join the union could benefit from union provisions while paying no fees to suppot them.
  • In other victories for state workers, they will now be eligible to recieve domestic partner benefits; and the status of graduate students and adjunct faculty, will be examined by a working group that reports to the legislature by November 1.

Environment:

  • Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act:  Capping a two-year effort by Sen. Pinsky and Del. Barve, Environment Maryland and others, Maryland joins six other states in mandating reductions in greenhouse gases, and has committed to the largest percentage decrease - 25% by 2020, with regulations in place by 2012 [H 315 / S 278].  “This bill puts us at the forefront of the national and international effort to address the reality of global warming,” said Environment Maryland Policy Advocate Tommy Landers. “At the same time, this bill will put us ahead of the curve in the transition to an economy fueled by clean, homegrown energy.”
  • A number of other good environmental policies were passed including: citizen enforcement of shoreline development permitting; outlawing high-phosphorous fertilizer, green jobs in the welfare to work program, and allowing municipalities to use property tax revenue bonds to fund clean energy projects.

Elections: This year Maryland passed a couple important reforms to their voting systems:

  • H 1179 by Del. Jon Cardin implements the early voting initiative passed by Maryland voters last November. It  allows for approximately one week of early voting and mandates a minimum number of early voting centers based upon population;
  • H 893, by Del. Sheila Hixson, requires a uniform voting system statewide, selected and purchases by the State Board of Elections.

Death Penalty: The governor came out with a death penalty repeal bill, but right as hearings were about to begin in the House, where support was the strongest, the governor cut a compromise deal with the Senate, S 279, that will restrict death penalties to instances where there is a greater certainty about the guilt of the accused, such as when DNA evidence is available, and when the jury is not relying on eye witness testimony alone.  The backroom deal making left some death penalty opponents disappointed.  Del. Curt Anderson lamented that  "I guess it's a matter of practicality, but practicality is not something you would want to consider when you have an issue as important as the death penalty."

Preventing Police Violations of Privacy: The Freedom of Association and Assembly Protection Act [S 266, Sen. Raskin / H 311, Del. Hixson] was passed in response to a state-police spying scandal where police spied on activists and non-profits of all stripes and labeled them terrorists.  The ACLU of  Maryland uncovered this huge scandal and spearheaded the advocacy campaign to pass the bill that protects residents from being the targets of police investigations "based solely on political, social or religious activities and beliefs, absent describable suspicion of criminal activity." It also establishes oversight and accountability to ensure law enforcement activities are kept to legitimate law enforcement purposes.

Another bill, HB 1267 by Del. Valderrama, requires that law enforcement agencies with SWAT teams issue reports every six months to the Governor’s Office on the number, purpose, authorization, county and zip code, and results of SWAT deployments. This legislation was developed in response to an incident where a SWAT team illegally raided the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and killed his two dogs.

Domestic Violence Prevention: The legislature overwhelmingly passed administration bills giving judges the authority to confiscate guns from the subjects of temporary protective orders, and to require judges to confiscate them in the case of final protective orders.

Immigration: One large loss was on immigration where the two chambers agreed to only allow undocumented residents who already have a Maryland driver's license to get a second-tier license that will expire in 2014, after which they would be denied a driver’s license of any kind.  Those without a license and no documentary proof of legal residence will not be able to obtain a license at all.  The bill is better than another up for consideration that would have not allowed anyone so situated to retain their license.

GLBT Rights: Domestic partners will now be exempt from inheritance tax as are spouses, under S 785 / H 1215, by Sen. Robey and Del. Hixson.

Close Defeats for Progressives

  • A bill to increase back pay awards and beef up private enforcement of prevailing wage laws passed both chambers in different forms [H 543, Del. Braveboy / S 406, Sen. Conway], but the session ended before the versions could be reconciled, dooming the bill.
  • The state came closer than ever before to passing clean elections public financing for state legislative races.  Senate President Mike Miller supported the bill and had the votes to pass it, but a poison pill amendment was attached on the floor, killing the legislation.
  • A House of Delegates committee rejected O'Malley's proposal to re-regulate the electricity market. And in a year when the governor needed to find money wherever he could, he has been rebuffed in efforts to crack down on Medicaid fraud, which could yield millions of dollars for the state's coffers and a major policy victory.