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Special Session: It's about more than Congressional districts

Rachel Baye
Maryland State House

When Maryland’s General Assembly returns to Annapolis for a special session next week, lawmakers will take up more than the Congressional redistricting maps. They also will have to deal with Governor Larry Hogan’s vetoes of bills passed during this year’s regular session.

One of those bills, the Transit Safety and Investment Act, would have required the state Department of Transportation to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to catch up on a backlog of maintenance projects that stands now at $2 billion.

It set a minimum amount of spending in each fiscal year, starting with $361.9 million in fiscal 2023 and maxing out at $566.6 million seven years later. It also would have required the state to study extending the MARC commuter train system farther into Western Maryland.

Hogan said in his veto message that the bill would tie his hands and those of future governors and deny them flexibility to shift funds when necessary.

But Del. Brooke Lierman, sponsor of the House version of the bill, said in a news conference Wednesday that many Maryland residents depend on public transit to get to work, school and health care appointments. And the transit system is unreliable.

“We know that today in Maryland, we have some of the worst on time rates in the country because we have the highest breakdown rates for bus for transit for rail of almost any state and any comparable system in the country,” she said.

Charts the advocates displayed showed the MARC commuter rail system had the fourth worst breakdown rates of any similar system in the nation and the MTA’s bus, subway and light rail systems all had the worst rates in the country.

Although the bill passed both houses with veto-proof majorities, Lierman, along with transit advocates and business leaders said they want to make sure the veto is overridden.

“Until the votes are counted, you never know,” Lierman said. “So, we just want to emphasize how important this bill is to Marylanders everywhere, to adults, to students, and to our businesses and our business owners and employers around the state.”

The bill, with its potential for extending MARC farther into western Maryland, passed with several votes from Republicans. But Del. Jason Buckel, the House Republican leader, argued that public transit systems benefit only a small percentage of the population while “sucking tax dollars out of all of us, either through gas taxes or subsidies or other things.”

Sen. Craig Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat, countered that the bill supports a wide swath of Maryland residents.

“This is a statewide infrastructure investment,” he said, “where we're connecting different parts of the state. In particular, the MARC train, which right now ranks fourth worst, nationally. We need to make sure that we're investing in that.”

Though that veto appears certain to be overridden, another could be sustained. A bill that would have removed needles, syringes and other supplies from the list of banned drug paraphernalia in Maryland fell one vote short of a veto proof majority in the Senate.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Senate Republican leader, says that bill may not come up for a vote.

“Rumor has it that may not be overridden,” he said. “They may not try to override that one. But it's Annapolis. Anything could happen.”

Hogan, who called the bill “an ill-advised policy change” in his veto message, said in a news conference Wednesday that he had told Senate President Bill Ferguson that morning most people agreed with him.

“I tried to explain to him they would be making a mistake to go against the overwhelming will of the voters,” Hogan said. “But I’m not sure I convinced him on all of them.”

Ferguson’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Del. Eric Luedtke, the House majority leader, said there are enough votes in his chamber to override all the vetoes, but he’s not sure about the Senate.

“I will say if nothing else, the opiate epidemic has shown us that we need to treat drug addiction like a health issue and not a criminal issue,” he said. “I think drug addicts get better treatment in a hospital than a jail.”

Among the other bills Hogan vetoed are two that would limit the state’s involvement with the federal government on immigration issues and one that would remove the governor’s final say on parole for inmates serving life sentences.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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