ANNAPOLIS (CNS) -- The Maryland General Assembly operated like never before in 2021 but still passed significant measures that included a multi-billion dollar COVID-19 relief plan, historic police reform, legalized sports wagering, and a wave of overrides of the governor’s vetoes.
Only elected officials, portions of their staff, and a limited number of media could be present at the State House this session to help minimize any potential spread of COVID-19.
With none of the general public or usual lobbyists present, lawmakers worked to make up for time lost in the 2020 session, which ended early during the start of the pandemic.
“We’re sending a strong and clear message: While we may have disagreements on certain issues, we can work together in a bipartisan way for the people of Maryland,” Gov. Larry Hogan, R, said during a bill signing Tuesday with House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, and Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore.
Here is a roundup of the changes and happenings in Annapolis during the 2021 General Assembly session:
BUDGET: State budget bolstered by billions in federal dollars
Funding for healthcare, education and broadband access were included in a $52.4 billion budget. Funding for public schools totaled $7.5 billion and $371.5 million went to fund community colleges. Medicaid received $13.5 billion, providing health care coverage for 1.5 million Maryland residents. The state budget received $3.9 billion from the American Rescue Plan. The federal funds paid for $600 million to assist schools in the return to in-person instruction and $300 million to expand broadband internet.)
UNEMPLOYMENT: Unemployment relief
The Maryland Department of Labor was inundated with record unemployment insurance claims in the wake of the pandemic, which forced some businesses to lay off employees and some to close. In response, the legislature passed a package of emergency unemployment bills, all of which were enacted Friday. SB819 (HB1139) raises to $200 the uncounted weekly pay claimants can receive. Another, SB816 (HB908), will ease the financial burden of record unemployment on business owners. Lawmakers also passed a study, SB817 (HB907), of the state’s unemployment insurance program. Lastly, SB818 (HB1138), will require enhanced transparency from the labor department and outlines a “disaster plan” in case unemployment again exceeds 6%. The unemployment bills became effective upon enactment.
BROADBAND: Broadband for more Marylanders
The pandemic accentuated inequities in access to high-speed broadband – which internet users depend on for online school, work, telehealth appointments and, nowadays, social interaction. SB66 (HB97), which went into effect Tuesday after Hogan signed it into law, assists in the development of affordable broadband internet.
ENVIRONMENT: Environmental justice, oysters
Legislation passed (SB674/HB1207) that would reform Maryland’s environmental justice commission, and require buses purchased by the Maryland Department of Transportation to be electric beginning in 2023 (SB137).
Lawmakers worked to protect aquaculture as the pandemic-affected oyster season has been difficult for the industry. A bill (HB800) requiring the Department of Natural Resources to develop a mobile application to determine someone’s location in relation to aquaculture leases and oyster sanctuaries passed in both chambers. All three of these environmental bills go into effect on Oct. 1.
VOTING: Early voting, drop boxes, absentee ballots
Voting legislation passed this session (HB1047) that ensures Maryland keeps its ballot drop boxes and gives mail-in voters the ability to correct errors before their ballot is rejected. Legislation (HB1048 & SB683) passed that establishes a permanent absentee ballot list, and lawmakers also passed a bill (HB745) to increase the number of early voting sites statewide. Another law (HB 156/SB283) supports voting for groups who have historically faced challenges, such as students, overseas military personnel and senior communities. Another bill (HB222) assists the incarcerated who are legally allowed to vote. HB1047, SB683, HB156/ SB283 and HB222 go into effect on June 1. HB1048 and HB745 go into effect on Oct. 1.
CORONAVIRUS: Testing, vaccine rollout, reopening
COVID-19 set the tone for the 2021 session. The Maryland General Assembly passed the emergency $1.2 billion RELIEF Act (SB496/HB612), which provides financial support to residents, tax relief to residents and business owners, and funding to reopen schools. The Maryland General Assembly also passed a $152.5 million COVID-19 bill (SB741/HB836) that mandates guidelines for testing, contact tracing, and vaccine efforts. Both bills went into effect upon enactment.
JUVENILE AND SOCIAL SERVICES: Juvenile life without parole, sexting, LGBTQ
The Juvenile Restoration Act (SB494) makes Maryland the 26th state or jurisdiction to end the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole. The bill also allows those convicted as adults for a crime committed as a minor who have served at least 20 years to petition for a sentence reduction. Hogan vetoed SB494; the Legislature overrode it.
The Legislature also passed a bill (HB180) that will lessen punishment for some teen sexting, such as not requiring the child to register as a sex offender.
Legislation (HB130) will create a commission on LGBTQ Affairs in the Governor's Office of Community Initiatives. The commission will work to address challenges and implement inclusionary practices, and will publish a yearly report. All three bills go into effect on Oct. 1.
IMMIGRATION - Detention centers; cooperation with ICE
A bill (HB16) prohibiting state and local governments from creating future immigration detention facilities and requiring current facilities to end their federal contracts passed the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. This legislation would make Maryland a “sanctuary” state, according to Hogan.
Legislation (HB15/SB85) would create the Governor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which would be responsible for providing immigrant communities with assistance.
EDUCATION: Kirwan, HBCUs, and where to get the funds
The Legislature overturned Hogan’s veto of HB1300, best known as the “Kirwan” education plan, which passed last year and will be implemented over time from 2022 to 2030. It requires a roughly $4 billion annual budget to be spent on reforms to the public education system such as increasing teacher pay, focusing new resources on poverty-stricken jurisdictions, establishing career focused programs, and more. Hogan has cited concerns regarding the steep cost for the plan and how to pay for it amid a pandemic.
The Legislature passed two bills specifically intended to help fund Kirwan last year, which were also vetoed by Hogan and later overturned this session. The bills, HB932, effective Oct. 1, and HB732, effective July 1, establish additional taxes on tobacco, digital products, and a new, first-of-its-kind tax on digital advertising that was quickly challenged in court.
Lawmakers responded to Maryland voters’ overwhelming approval of legalized sports wagering at the polls in 2020 by establishing a legal framework in the state with the goal to launch in upcoming months. The bill, HB940, sponsored by Jones, includes licenses for both in-person and online wagering, with the revenue set to help fund the Kirwan plan in the long run. This bill became effective upon enactment.
After almost 15 years, lawmakers passed nearly $600 million worth of funding for HBCUs. Hogan had vetoed the package last year but signed it this session. The funding will kick in during fiscal year 2023.
(SB427/HB205), requiring the availability of free menstrual hygiene products in Maryland public schools, will go into effect July 1, as will legislation aimed at helping support the educational goals of pregnant and parenting students in high school, HB401/SB438.
HEALTH: Beyond the virus
Telehealth (including audio-only telehealth) will be more accessible beyond the COVID-19 pandemic with expanded coverage (SB3/HB123) and reimbursements by both Medicaid and private insurance. This bill will go into effect on July 1.
Health equity was a major push this session, including emergency legislation (SB172/HB463) that aims to reduce racial disparities in health outcomes by creating “Health Equity Resource Communities” that provide grant funding to improve access to care. Another bill (SB52/HB78), which will take effect on Oct. 1, establishes a Maryland Commission on Health Equity.
The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange is also now able to provide new health insurance coverage subsidies for lower-income young adults, under SB729/HB780, which aimed to make insurance more affordable, and is effective July 1.
And HB1002/SB893, which goes into effect upon enactment, enhances the state’s Easy Enrollment law that links people with health insurance through Medicaid or private health insurance carriers when they file state taxes.
Hogan signed SB719/HB812, also known as the Thomas Bloom Raskin Act, into law on Tuesday. The law requires the Department of Health to establish an opt-in, phone-based system through Maryland 2-1-1 to assess a person’s mental health status beginning July 1.
PUBLIC SAFETY: Police reform
Lawmakers passed a host of sweeping reforms to policing in the state focused on increasing accountability and transparency. HB670 has several major components, including repealing the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.
Legislation alters police use of force standards as well as placing a limit on when police can obtain a “no-knock” warrant.
Other bills require the widespread use of body cameras (SB71), establish an independent investigative unit to look into deaths caused by police officers (SB600), allow misconduct records of law enforcement officers to be made public (SB178, Anton’s Law), and a historic shift of control for the Baltimore City Police Department from the state to the city (SB786).
The Democrat-controlled Legislature overrode Hogan’s vetoes of three of the bills -- HB670, SB71, and SB178 -- and the remaining two were expected to go into effect without his signature.
The body camera and police bills go into effect June 1; Anton’s Law and the investigative unit on Oct. 1; and the bill of rights law on July 1, 2022.
OTHER MATTERS: Other matters of note that passed in the 2021 General Assembly session include:
SB439/HB1025, the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, allows NCAA athletes at public universities in the state to profit off of their name, image and likeness starting July 1, 2023.
It also requires public universities throughout the state to adopt guidelines to prevent and treat sports-related injuries such as heat illness.
HB18 assists low-income tenants in obtaining legal representation in eviction proceedings through the Maryland Legal Services Corp. The bill goes into effect on Oct. 1.
Under SB199/HB114, which would go into effect June 1, the Maryland Transit Administration will oversee between $400 million and $500 million annually through 2028, which can be put toward the state’s subway, light rail, bus and commuter rail systems. The legislation also establishes a grant program for qualified small businesses that have lost revenue as a result of the Purple Line rail project in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Legislation (SB359/HB80) that would go into effect Oct. 1 replaces trees uprooted during transportation construction projects, which include the Purple Line project. The bill prioritizes communities hit hardest by the “heat island effect,” in which lack of shade contributes to near unbearable summer temperatures.
Protections for essential workers:
Lawmakers established benefits and protections (HB581) for essential workers during the pandemic, though the requirements will expire six months after Maryland’s COVID-19 state of emergency ends. The legislation would go into effect upon enactment.
The General Assembly repealed the state song “Maryland, My Maryland” on the grounds it contains outdated and offensive language, including labeling Abraham Lincoln a “despot.” Various institutions around the state — including the Mighty Sound of Maryland Marching Band and The Preakness Stakes — had previously removed the song from their lineups. SB8’s sponsor, Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, had unsuccessfully sponsored similar bills twice in the past. This bill goes into effect on July 1.
The General Assembly passed the Walter Lomax Act (HB742/SB14), which requires the Board of Public Works to pay monetary compensation and other benefits to exonerated individuals who were incarcerated. The law goes into effect on July 1.
Legislation regarding marijuana legalization, greenhouse gas reductions, evictions and firearms did not pass this session. Here are some of the bills that failed:
HB32, a bill essentially legalizing recreational use of cannabis in Maryland failed when it did not come up for a vote in committee. Lead sponsor, Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s, believed that this bill would be an important step toward addressing social equity and racial injustices. Legislation legalizing recreational cannabis has since been passed in neighboring states such as Virginia.
SB414 — would have reduced Maryland’s greenhouse emissions 60% by 2030. The bill would have also required the state’s emissions to reach net zero by 2045.
SB233 — would combat possible flaws in the voting system and require the State Board of Elections to study other states that have safeguards for absentee ballots.
SB88/HB304 — would prohibit Immigration and Customs Enforcement from working with or getting information from the Department of Motor Vehicles to prosecute or search for undocumented immigrants.
HB832 — pilot program that would have deployed 25 electric school buses across the state and provide rebates of $50 million to participating jurisdictions.
HB1312/SB910 — in residential leases would have prevented landlords from raising a tenant’s fee during a catastrophic health injury; and required the Judiciary to collect and publish eviction data.
SB271/HB423 — would have required all voters to use a universally accessible voting system.
HB200/SB479 — would have increased storage requirements for firearms and increased certain penalties to prevent unsupervised adolescents under the age of 18 from gaining access to them.
A handful of public school education bills failed to advance. HB461, which would grant students mental health days. HB713/SB409 regarding therapy dogs didn’t make it past committee. A bill looking to mandate seizure response training for all public school teachers, HB370, also failed to pass.
HB31 -- would have increased eviction Maryland court filing fees for landlords in the District Court as well as circuit courts.
LEGISLATURE CHANGES: Distancing, masking; new names
Social distancing guidelines radically changed the process of governance during this year’s General Assembly session.
Meetings of the full House of Delegates and Senate were held in two-hour blocks with breaks in between. The chambers took on a remarkably different look. The House was split between the main hall and auxiliary space in the House office building. The Senate remained in it’s chamber with the addition of large plexiglass panels on the desks. All sessions and committee meetings were livestreamed, though with some issues especially with signups for witness testimony. Many hearings were conducted online over Zoom; and everyone wore masks in the State House.
The Assembly also saw a host of new faces in new places, including Sen. Michael A. Jackson, D-Prince George’s, shifted from the House to fill the vacancy left by former Senate President Mike Miller. The Senate minority party also had a shift in leadership this session, as Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Harford and Baltimore counties, was replaced at the helm with conservative-leaning Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel. Sen. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Caroll, replaced Sen. Stephen S. Hershey, Jr. R-Caroline, Cecil, Kent, and Queen Anne’s as minority whip.
The House Minority Caucus announced on Tuesday a change in their leadership. Del. Jason Buckel R-Allegany, was elected to House minority leader, with Del. Christopher Adams, R-Caroline, Talbot, Dorchester and Wicomico to serve as minority whip. They replace Del. Nic Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, and Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Harford and Baltimore counties. Both had announced plans to step down from their posts earlier this year.
BEYOND THE LEGISLATURE: Around the nation and the state
U.S. Capitol insurrection; inauguration
Hogan made national news in January during the aftermath of the pro-Trump takeover of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., when he said it took hours for Pentagon approval of the Maryland National Guard to help. President Joe Biden was inaugurated weeks later and Hogan has repeatedly spoken of his discussions with the new president on COVID-19 related issues.
Mike Miller died
Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., 78, the longest-serving state Senate president in U.S. history and a titan of Maryland politics for decades, died Jan. 15 after battling prostate cancer. Miller lay in state Jan. 22 and the Senate honored his life with a ceremony that included Hogan, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer and former state senator and cabinet secretary Bobby Neall, R.
Board of Public Works highlights:
The Board of Public Works, which includes Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot, D, and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, D, approved funding for a $3.5 million settlement with the family of Jordan McNair, a University of Maryland football player who died of heat stroke during a practice in 2018.
In addition, the board approved a controversial project that would extend natural gas services in Somerset County by installing pipelines under three waterways. The panel has also been voting on significant emergency funding because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senate confirmed Dennis Schrader as the secretary of health. Schrader had previously been nominated for the position in 2017, but was not confirmed.
Emergent BioSolutions, a Baltimore-based manufacturer of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, made headlines after a mishap that rendered 15 million doses of the vaccine useless.
By Thursday, 431,795 Marylanders tested positive for COVID-19; 3,675,440 residents had been vaccinated; and 8,326 residents had died of the virus, according to the state COVID-19 dashboard.
Capital News Service reporters Darryl Kinsey Jr., Callan Tansill-Suddath, Madison Hunt, Jacob Steinberg, Tori Bergel, Jack Hogan, Catherine Scott, Thomas Hindle, Audrey Decker, Kimberly Seif and Patrick Hauf contributed to this report.