As the 442ND Session of the Maryland General Assembly draws to a close, I want to take some time to review the matters addressed.
It was our first full session since the pandemic began and things were quite different from the normal session protocol in years passed. There were no receptions, no in-person office appointments and little to no public interaction. This year over 2,300 bills were introduced. All committee hearings were done virtually and there was a limit to the number of witnesses for each bill. While the hearings were virtual, we were in person for committee and floor voting. We were tested twice weekly and had to wear a mask whenever we attended a proceeding in person. On the Senate floor, our desks were encased in wooden framed plexiglass partitions and debate was limited to 2 hours before a deep cleaning was performed. I am thankful that the precautions taken enabled us to continue to represent you in Annapolis, but I know the legislative process was hampered, especially during the committee hearing process. Hopefully we will see this pandemic come to a close soon, so we can get back to a normal session.
This session was hard fought with significant changes to our laws. Below, I have listed some of the legislation and matters we took up and worked on in the Senate.
We worked hard on the budget this year to make sure that it was as fiscally responsible as possible while also addressing the many issues this pandemic has created. This year’s budget has record funding for education and provides tax relief for many Marylanders and increased help for those struggling from this pandemic. Because of the federal legislation that was passed, a significant portion of federal funding is being allocated to much needed areas in our State to continue to help fight this pandemic and see a rebound and quicker return to normalcy when this pandemic is over.
The $52 billion budget will take effect on July 1 of this year. The budget saw a significant increase in funding as a result of the RELIEF Act and Federal American Rescue Plan. I have listed some highlights of the budget below.
This year’s budget will replenish the Rainy Day fund leaving a balance of $1.4 billion and nearly $700 million fund balance in the General Fund. It also eliminates the structural deficit in the coming years, with ongoing general fund revenues exceeding ongoing expenditures by $79 million in fiscal 2022. The reserves will erase the forecasted 2023 budget shortfall and also have a structural surplus forecasted through 2026.
Education is again seeing record funding to the tune of more than $7.5 billion. Direct aid to local school systems will increase an estimated $229.4 million. However, there has been a change to BOOST funding which is a scholarship program that allows low-income children in failing schools to attend a private school of their choice. The changes have now limited the program to only current recipients and their siblings and is due to phase out over the next few years.
Overall, this budget was a fiscally responsible and forward looking budget that I believe will help work to continue our State’s path to recovery from this pandemic.
SB 133/HB 319. This bill is titled the Local Tax Relief for Working Families Act. What it actually does is allow a progressive tax at the local level. Currently counties have a flat tax that is the same for every constituent. This bill increases the base tax to 2.25% with a max tax bracket of 3.2%. This bill passed the Legislature and is awaiting action by the Governor.
HB 732. This bill was vetoed by the Governor last session. However, the General Assembly overrode the Governor’s veto at the beginning of this session. This bill increased the State’s tobacco tax and create a first-of-its-kind tax on digital advertising. Proponents noted that this bill would bring more fairness to the tax system between print type and digital advertising. Opponents argued that this bill adversely affects small businesses who rely on digital advertising to effectively and affordably market their services. While the tax would be levied on the advertising platform, i.e., Facebook, there is nothing to keep the cost from being passed down to the advertiser.
HB 932. This was another bill that was vetoed by the Governor last session and overridden this session by the Legislature. This bill placed a new tax on digital content such as e-books, music and software downloads and streaming service subscriptions like Netflix, Hulu and Disney+ subscriptions that became even more essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SB494. This bill prevented juveniles, if convicted of certain heinous crimes, from serving life without parole. I voted against this bill because I believe some crimes are so bad they just do not warrant allowing the criminal to then be up for parole later. To allow a parole hearing would mean that the family of the victim would then have to be involved and relive the whole ordeal again in discussing the loss of their loved one. This bill was vetoed by the Governor but overridden by the Legislature.
SB852. This was a bill offered to go after criminals using guns. It had enhanced penalties for using guns in violent crimes, closed the drug dealer loophole, increased penalties for knowingly selling a gun to someone who commits a crime, and created tougher penalties for the use of assault weapons in a crime and illegally possessing and selling firearms. Measures to make the theft of a firearm a felony and several measures impacting bail for repeat violent offenders were amended out of the bill. The bill passed the Senate over to the House but never made it out of the House committee.
SB 838. This was a bill that required verification of identification at voting locations. It allowed for the following accepted forms of ID: a current, government-issued photo ID, utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or any other recent government document that shows the voter’s name and address, voter notification card or sample ballot. If a voter could not supply any accepted form of identification, or has a recent address change, they may vote a provisional ballot. This bill did not make it out of committee.
SB 683. This bill will now allow a voter to add his name to a permanent absentee ballot list. Those on the list will automatically be sent a mail-in ballot for every election without having to submit an application. Proponents noted that this would provide a greater opportunity to vote while opponents noted concerns of ballot security, ballots being mailed to outdated addresses and ballot harvesting. This bill passed the General Assembly and will become law without Governor Hogan’s Signature.