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Maryland’s General Assembly Calls It a Wrap

Joel McCord

The General Assembly wrapped up its 90-day session in Annapolis Monday night with a flurry of activity, passing bills to increase minimum sentences for some repeat offenders, tightening school safety measures and diversifying the medical marijuana industry.

Many lawmakers, including Gov. Larry Hogan, began the legislative session seeking an answer to the recent spike in violent crime in Baltimore. On Monday, the legislature passed what some lawmakers said is part of the solution:  mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders caught illegally carrying a gun.

Baltimore Del. Talmadge Branch said he sponsored the bill after experiencing the murder of his 22-year-old grandson last year.

"This session was dedicated to the 342 families that lost loved ones in Baltimore," he said. "And I was hoping to come back with something that could help and some way lessen the number of shootings that occur in the city."

Branch described his bill as a watered-down version of other anti-crime bills that failed this session. He said his goal was to create a deterrent to people who might want to commit a violent crime.

"And I don’t know of any other thing out there that you could even use," he said.  "I mean it’s either do something or it’s do absolutely nothing."

Lawmakers also passed a bill to require regular audits of the Baltimore City Police Department. The bill is part of an effort to restore trust in the department after testimony in the Gun Trace Task Force trial revealed a dysfunctional force where officers planted evidence and falsified overtime reports, said Sen. Bill Ferguson, the bill's sponsor.

"It will be difficult to address crime until we’re able to truly restore faith in the police department," he said. "And until we can move past this Gun Trace Task Force I think that will be almost impossible."

The session was colored by school shootings — the one in Parkland, Florida, in February and one last month at Great Mills High School in Southern Maryland. The events prompted a school safety bill that passed on Monday.

The bill requires every public school to either have a school resource officer or a plan in place with local police to respond quickly to an emergency.  

The bill also included provisions for wrap-around services and mental health care for students struggling with a crisis, said Ferguson, a Democrat who represents South Baltimore.

"It really takes in a lot of the challenges that we know lead to some of the most extreme circumstances and tries to put some protections in place by building out the Center on School Safety to be a real institution providing best practice across the state," he said.

The Senate’s version of what became known as the "Red Flag Bill" cleared the House by a narrow margin Monday night. It allows police to seize firearms from those a court deems to be a risk to cause harm to themselves or others.

In February, the Maryland Women’s Caucus released a report detailing a pattern of sexual harassment experienced by staff and lawmakers.

The legislature on Monday passed a bill that would require an independent body to investigate incidents of sexual harassment involving lawmakers, lobbyist, state’s attorneys, and statehouse reporters.

It takes politics out of the equation, said Montgomery County Del. Ariana Kelly, chairwoman of the Maryland Women’s Caucus.

"This was a really difficult conversation to have within the legislature — I think people took it personally," she said. "But it was an important conversation to have."

Lawmakers also passed a bill designed to open medical marijuana growing to minority-owned businesses, and specifically to African Americans.

Maryland is the first state to require a diverse marijuana industry in law, said Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and the bill’s sponsor.

"We’re showing the rest of the country that this is absolutely something that has to be done and should be done," she said. "When you look at nationally, less than 1 percent of the licenses are owned by people of minority."

Lawmakers opened the session this year with promises that they would protect Maryland taxpayers from potential increased tax bills as a result of changes at the federal level.

Monday morning, the General Assembly gave final approval to two measures designed to fulfill those promises.

Gov. Hogan celebrated those efforts that afternoon.

"It looks like, on Maryland taxes, 82 percent of the people are going to get tax relief," he told reporters. "If you add in the total, if you blend them with the federal taxes, 91 percent of Marylanders are going to see lower taxes. That’s quite an accomplishment."

The bills increase the state’s standard deduction to $2,500 for individual filers and $5,000 for married couples and ensure that Marylanders will be allowed to claim personal exemptions even after Congress eliminated them from federal tax returns. State officials estimate that together the two changes could save taxpayers as much as $800 million.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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