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Key Bridge aid and Pimlico takeover headline final bills passed by Maryland General Assembly

As the clock ticked toward midnight on the last day of the General Assembly’s annual 90-day session, lawmakers gave last-minute approval to bills putting Pimlico Race Course under state control and giving financial aid to workers and businesses affected by the temporary closure of the Port of Baltimore.

“Everything that needed to pass today passed,” Senate President Bill Ferguson told reporters just after midnight.

The PORT Act — which stands for Protecting Opportunity and Regional Trade — was at the top of both legislators’ and the governor’s priority lists, and it passed with just minutes to spare. The bill directs the state Department of Labor to create relief programs for individuals and small businesses who lost work when the Port of Baltimore closed to shipping.

The measure was drafted after the Key Bridge collapsed on March 26, and in less than two weeks, lawmakers passed it through both chambers.

“It’s gonna do a lot for people who affect every part of the state, and the businesses,” Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican whose Dundalk district is home to many port workers, said after the bill passed his chamber. “We’ve only just begun.”

The bill allows the governor to use money from the state’s rainy day fund for the financial aid programs.

Lawmakers also passed a last-minute bill requested by state Attorney General Anthony Brown that gives him the ability to sue entities responsible for the ship strike that caused the Key Bridge to collapse.

Ferguson said he was happy with how another of lawmakers’ top priorities, the state takeover of Pimlico Race Course, turned out.

“I hope that it lays a framework for keeping the Preakness and allowing Maryland racing to thrive,” he said, “and hopefully we don’t have any coming back for additional money down the line.”

Under the plan negotiated by the state and the current owner of both Pimlico and Laurel Park racetrack, Maryland will spend $400 million on horse racing facilities, including at least $250 million at Pimlico and $110 million related to the development of a new training facility.

Officials expect the Preakness to be run at Pimlico in 2025, then Laurel Park the following year. The Preakness is slated to return to Pimlico for good beginning in 2027, while Laurel Park will close.

Other bills that survived the final sprint of the session dealt with topics ranging from firearms to ticket scalpers.

One measure attempts to make ticket sales through resale websites, such as StubHub and SeatGeek, more transparent by disclosing all fees upfront. It also caps ticket prices.

Lawmakers also passed a bill prohibiting people convicted of first-degree rape from earning credits that reduce their sentence.

Under another bill that eked through in the final hours, attorneys representing Maryland and each of its counties will be able to sue gun manufacturers and sellers for negligence.

Lawyers representing Maryland and its counties can sue gun makers and sellers for negligence under a bill that passed the General Assembly Monday. WYPR’s Rachel Baye explains.

For example, Austrian gun maker Glock could be held responsible for not changing the designs of its semi-automatic handguns to make them incompatible with a device known as a “switch” or “auto sear,” which turns the weapons from semi-automatic to automatic.

“Glock has actual knowledge that the switch is being utilized and has not altered their design of the firearm,” said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee. Waldstreicher contrasted the gunmaker’s actions with those of car makers Kia and Hyundai, which have worked to make their vehicles less susceptible to theft.

Also potentially liable under the bill are firearms dealers — including in other states — that don’t take steps to prevent straw purchases, sales to people not legally allowed to own guns, or sales to people likely to commit a crime.

Republicans heavily criticized the bill and attempted to delay the bill during the session’s precious final hours.

“It’s just about punishing an industry we don’t like,” said Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready.

Despite their objections, the bill passed and, with the others, is headed to Gov. Wes Moore’s desk for his signature.

He is expected to sign several bills, including the PORT Act, during a ceremonial signing Tuesday.

Matt Bush spent 14 years in public radio prior to coming to WYPR as news director in October 2022. From 2008 to 2016, he worked at Washington D.C.’s NPR affiliate, WAMU, where he was the station’s Maryland reporter. He covered the Maryland General Assembly for six years (alongside several WYPR reporters in the statehouse radio bullpen) as well as both Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. @MattBushMD
Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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