Maryland session nears end after focus on pandemic, policing

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers neared adjournment Monday from a 90-day session that focused largely on COVID-19 recovery, expansive police reforms and longstanding disparities exposed by the pandemic.

Senate President Bill Ferguson said lawmakers prioritized responding to concerns over health, education and economics raised by the pandemic.

“I think one of the biggest lessons that we’ve seen from this pandemic is that the gaps that existed in our society — the racial gaps, the wealth gaps, the foundational breakdowns of our social contract — they existed before the pandemic, but they were put on wide display, on a billboard, for just how bad these gaps are,” Ferguson told reporters hours before the midnight adjournment.

With top-priority legislation on economic relief and police reform already passed earlier in the session, lawmakers approved a measure to implement sports betting. Maryland voters approved sports betting in November with 67% support. Sports wagering could begin as soon as the fall.

It would be allowed at casinos, the stadiums where the state’s three professional sports teams play and horse racing tracks. The state also would allow 30 licenses for businesses that want to offer sports betting and up to 60 more licenses for online betting. The number of licenses represents a compromise, after the Senate proposed lifting caps.

Gov. Larry Hogan, speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, highlighted bipartisan agreement on pandemic relief earlier in the session.

“The most successful, biggest progress we had, I would say is the RELIEF Act, which was our number one priority during this pandemic,” Hogan said, noting tax breaks that helped small businesses.

Hogan, a Republican, also underscored bipartisan agreement on how the state will allocate $3.9 billion in federal pandemic relief.

The state’s pandemic relief plan expands a tax credit for low-income residents by an estimated $478 million over the next three tax years. Lawmakers also passed a bill to extend the tax credit to include immigrants, including some living in the country illegally, who work and pay taxes in the state.

The General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, was considering legislation that would prohibit local jails from entering into agreements with the federal government facilitating immigration-related detentions. Hogan told reporters he would veto the legislation.

“Hopefully that won’t happen, but we would definitely veto that,” Hogan said.

Lawmakers passed an extensive package of police reform measures. It includes repeal of police job protections in the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a statewide use-of-force policy, limits on no-knock warrants and an expansion of public access to records in police disciplinary cases. Hogan vetoed those measures, but the legislature overrode the vetoes Saturday.

Lawmakers also voted for legislation to settle a 15-year federal lawsuit over inequitable funding at the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities for $577 million. Hogan has signed the measure, after having vetoed it last year citing economic difficulties created by the pandemic.

Earlier in the session, lawmakers overrode Hogan’s veto from last year of a sweeping 10-year plan to improve the state’s K-12 schools, which is known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. At the heart of the plan to improve education in Maryland with billions in added funding is the goal of addressing inequities in schools that serve high numbers of children in poverty.

They also passed a bill this year to revise the plan to adjust for learning loss due to the pandemic, including more tutoring and money for digital devices.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that would exempt the news media from a first-in-the-nation tax on digital advertising. It also would prohibit Big Tech companies from passing the cost of the tax on to consumers. Earlier this year, lawmakers overrode Hogan’s veto of the measure, which is being challenged in federal court.

The General Assembly also prioritized measures making it easier to vote. Maryland voters will have the option to have mail-in ballots automatically sent to them for all elections. The state also will increase the number of early voting sites and ensure a minimum number of early voting sites in each county, based on the number of registered voters.

“Maryland has long been a leader on voting rights. We’re just continuing that tradition, but I think the 2020 election showed that voters like options, so you’re seeing us pass legislation to make sure they have options to cast their ballots,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat.