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4.3.22 – Baltimore Sun

As Maryland lawmakers steam into the final days of the General Assembly’s annual legislative session this coming week, much work remains to be done — hashing out deals, lining up votes and killing bad ideas.

As Maryland lawmakers steam into the final days of the General Assembly’s annual legislative session this coming week, much work remains to be done — hashing out deals, lining up votes and killing bad ideas.

Of the hundreds upon hundreds of bills lawmakers filed before the session kicked off in January, the ink from Gov. Larry Hogan’s pen signing them into law has only dried on a handful of them.

The governor and legislators quickly agreed, for instance, on a 30-day temporary suspension of the gasoline and diesel fuels taxes. And on Friday, Hogan joined House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson to put their signatures on a collection of tax cuts for older Marylanders and on sales of child care and medical products.

Another stack of bills landed on Hogan’s desk later Friday afternoon, these far less likely to get the governor’s approval. Democratic lawmakers rushed this past week to pass many of their more controversial proposals and drop them on the Republican governor’s desk before Saturday, the deadline to guarantee themselves a chance to override any potential vetoes before the session ends on April 11.

An amendment asking voters whether to legalize recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21 in Maryland will go on the November ballot after the General Assembly approved it Friday, bypassing Hogan altogether since governors do not wield veto authority over constitutional amendments.

So, as legislators head into the final, frenzied week, here’s a rough look at some of the issues still to be settled:

Veto bait for Gov. Hogan?

Hogan will spend the next week deciding which of that stack to veto, sign into law or simply let become law without his signature. Among the items:

  • Although the ballot amendment to legalize marijuana will skip Hogan’s desk, he will have to weigh in on companion legislation that would — if the amendment passes in November’s election — legalize possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana, remove criminal penalties on possessing up to 2.5 ounces and create a system to expunge past criminal records for those convicted of possessing marijuana. The legislation, however, leaves details of how to create and regulate a legal marijuana market in Maryland up to future lawmakers in 2023. Hogan has largely dodged questions about whether he supports legalizing recreational marijuana.
  • Legislation to expand access to abortions in Maryland by allowing medical professionals beyond only physicians to perform them; requiring most health insurance plans to cover abortions at no charge to patients; and spending $3.5 million per year training medical professionals to provide abortions. Hogan is opposed to abortion but has largely called it legally “settled law” in Maryland and hasn’t pushed efforts to restrict it.
  • A sweeping climate change package that aims to make Maryland carbon neutral by 2045. Hogan has hinted at a potential veto, suggesting some of the bill’s measures would be too costly and prove a drag on the state’s economy.
  • Several pieces of legislation that aim to change how Maryland’s criminal justice system treats children and teenagers accused of crimes by changing sentencing rules, limiting how often children are detained and making sure parents and a lawyer are notified before juveniles are interrogated by police.
  • A bill to create a statewide paid medical and family leave insurance program that would cover nearly every worker in the state. The program would give workers up to 12 weeks — or, in some limited cases, as much as 24 weeks — to welcome a newborn, care for ailing relatives or deal with health issues themselves once benefits start being paid in 2025. The benefits would be funded by mandatory contributions from workers and most employers, although the payroll tax rate would be determined later. Hogan signed off on providing similar benefits to government employees — but he, like many other Republicans, has criticized the statewide proposal as too costly for workers and businesses. And many business groups oppose the legislation.

In each case, Democrats appear to have enough votes to override a potential Hogan veto. But legislative politics can be full of surprises and the veto math assumes few lawmakers have belated second thoughts about their support.

“I feel very confident on all,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, when asked Friday afternoon if he could muster the override votes on all the bills sent to Hogan. “You never know — it’s the last 10 days of a General Assembly session before an election — but I feel very confident.”

Scrutiny of how judges issue sentences

Among Hogan’s handful of legislative priorities this spring is a proposal to publish more data on how individual judges in Maryland sentence criminal defendants. Hogan and Republican allies in the General Assembly framed it as a way for voters to hold elected judges accountable — especially those who might be letting criminals off too easy.

But several key Democrats, including Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair William C. Smith Jr. of Montgomery County, expressed concerns that compiling data on sentences could inject too much political pressure into courtrooms, erasing the nuances of cases and undermining justice for defendants by potentially incentivizing election-minded judges to simply throw the book at everyone to avoid being painted as somehow “soft on crime.”

Both sides struck a compromise: Publishing aggregate data for entire jurisdictions that would reveal the average sentences for various categories of violent crime in, for example, Baltimore County courts — but not singling out any judges.

The Senate passed the bill, a fact the governor touted, but as of Friday it had not seen a vote in the House of Delegates.

Decriminalize needles and other drug paraphernalia

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation — long sought by public health and harm-reduction outreach groups that work with drug users — to fully decriminalize ancillary drug supplies such as needles or cookers, the possession of which is currently punishable by up to four years in prison. Actual possession of drugs generally carries a more lenient penalty of no more than one year.

Hogan, however, vetoed the measure, citing his fears that making tools to use drugs more accessible might encourage drug use. The veto was a bitter disappointment for health and overdose prevention workers, who have argued that the stiff penalties for paraphernalia make drug users more reluctant to participate in health programs like needle exchanges, more vulnerable to overdose deaths by secretively using drugs alone and more likely to ditch used needles in parks or on sidewalks.

Even more disappointing for supporters: The Senate opted against overriding Hogan’s veto during December’s special session, leaving backers to try again.

Renewed legislation passed the House by a wide margin in early March, but so far has not advanced in the Senate. Ferguson, the Senate president, said Friday that it’s unclear whether enough senators will get behind the measure to withstand another likely Hogan veto.

Jury duty for those with criminal records

Since 2016, Marylanders with past criminal convictions who have served their sentences can regain their right to vote. But they remain prohibited from jury duty, a civic service many might consider a hassle but that also is one of the hallmarks of full citizenship.

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Advocates of jury eligibility for those with past convictions argue blanket exclusion skews the pool of potential jurors and erodes a defendant’s constitutional right to a jury of their peers — especially given the high rates of arrests and prosecutions in certain communities and the disproportionate number of Black men automatically excluded by the rule.

Bills sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore and Del. Wanika B. Fisher of Prince George’s County, both Democrats, would lift the restriction and make anyone who’d completed their sentence and registered to vote eligible for a jury duty summons.

The Senate passed the legislation after adding a Republican-backed amendment to exclude those convicted of witness intimidation and jury tampering. But the proposal hasn’t yet come up for a vote in the House.

A permanent embrace of daylight saving time

State delegates, apparently weary of changing their clocks or the early winter sunsets, voted to get rid of the twice-yearly time shifts and make daylight saving time permanent.

The U.S. Senate surprised many by unanimously voting to do the same thing just a couple of weeks later [though that legislation has since stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives].

The Maryland proposal would take effect only if surrounding mid-Atlantic states follow suit. But it’s still unclear whether it will get even that far: State senators haven’t taken up the measure since the House passed it in February.

The clocks are ticking.