ANNAPOLIS — An effort to reform the state’s fledgling medical cannabis laws to simultaneously allow minority-owned growers and end two lawsuits failed in the final moments Monday night of the General Assembly’s 2017 session.
The House of Delegates had taken the vote but before it could be officially recorded the clock struck midnight Tuesday and session ended. The tight timing at one point led observers and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to initially believe the bill passed.
“It breaks my heart,” said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Conway had been critical of the current law, which resulted in 15 licenses being awarded with none to minority-owned businesses. Additionally, two applicants who ranked highly were bumped because of concerns about geographic diversity.
Meanwhile, an 11th-hour attempt to revive the nomination of Gov. Larry Hogan’s pick to head the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene apparently has failed, as lawmakers rushed through measures to combat pharmaceutical price gouging, offer manufacturers tax breaks and deal with a controversial transportation scoring law.
The hours leading up to the end of the session also saw a vitriolic dispute among Democrats over the Maryland Trust Act proposal.
Under the medical marijuana bill proposed by Miller, the state would offer seven more licenses. The first two would go to the companies who were bumped, prompting officials at one of those companies said such a move would cause them to drop their legal actions.
Five other licenses would to to minority-owned operations and the state would conduct diversity study. Additionally, the bill would eliminate licenses that have been given preliminary approval if the companies are not ready by August to begin operations and receive final approval. The reductions are a concession to the original 15 growers who said they built their business models on 15 licenses.
But the failure opens the door to a potential special session.
Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he believes the House and Senate could get a bill done in a day based on the final version of the bill that almost passed Monday night.
Hogan, speaking to a reporter during a brief encounter near the State House, said he was rejecting an offer to confirm Dennis R. Schrader as secretary of DHMH in return for agreeing to not reappoint nominations he has withdrawn earlier this year.
“No deal,” Hogan said.
Hogan elaborated briefly at an afternoon meeting with the press.
“We already withdrew both of those names and there are a lot of other things going on today, like a thousand bills,” Hogan said. “We’re focused on our agenda.”
The Senate was still in session when Hogan made his comments. Legislators on both sides of the political aisle expressed surprise.
“That was the first I’d heard of a definitive decision,” said Sen. William “Bill” Ferguson, D-Baltimore City and chairman of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, in a text message. “It’s fair to say, I’m very surprised and even more disappointed. “
“OK. Well it was alive for a little while,” Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford Counties and Senate minority leader, wrote in a text message response.
Hogan unexpectedly withdrew Schrader’s name in the belief that the acting secretary would not get a confirmation vote before the end of the session — a contention Ferguson said was unfounded.
Driving the resurrection of the nomination, according to sources, was a concern about how a fight over Schrader’s continued presence at the DHMH might affect ongoing discussions with the federal government over the Medicaid waiver program — a $3 billion federal aid package that Maryland would be hard-pressed to pay for should the funding evaporate.
Efforts to revive the nomination started Friday. But reviving Schrader would come at a cost — an agreement to not reappoint other nominees he had withdrawn earlier this session including five that were withdrawn along with Schrader.
Topping the list of withdrawn nominations that is a concern for Ferguson and others is Wendi Peters, the embattled acting secretary of the Department of Planning. Peters’ nomination was withdrawn less than an hour after the Executive Nominations Committee voted to recommend she not be confirmed.
But Peters continues to serve in the role. The Senate later added language to the budget that would prevent a secretary in Peters’ situation from being paid. The language also appears to apply to Schrader, though a spokesman for the governor said they disagree and planned to reappoint Schrader even without Senate consent.
Zirkin under fire
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin came under fire from House Democrats advocating for the Maryland Trust Act.
Proponents of the measure are angry at how the bill was changed by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and laid the blame squarely at Zirkin’s feet.
The bill up for debate late Monday essentially codified a Supreme Court decision making it illegal to stop a person merely to check on immigration status. The Senate committee removed language that would bar law enforcement agencies from checking on federal detainers.
Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George’s, called for Zirkin’s defeat in the 2018 election with fiery comments during an afternoon news conference.
“It was disgusting the things that came out of some of these senators’ mouths about people of color, about minorities,” Pena-Melnyk said of debate within the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which Zirkin chairs.
“Senator Bobby Zirkin is a DINO — a Democrat in name only,” Pena-Melnyk said. “Shame (on) him. We don’t need a Democrat like that.
“You played with us,” she continued. “You killed the bill. You amended it onto another bill. You held it on the floor on Sine Die. You knew what you were doing. Shame on you and I hope your district takes you out.”
Zirkin said the issue was one of public safety.
Pena-Melnyk also called out Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. calling the bill “a Democratic priority.”
“Act like a Democrat,” she said. “We don’t need anyone who doesn’t act like a true Democrat.”
Other legislative actions
- The Senate agreed to concur with House amendments to bill that would permanently delay implementation of the transportation project scoring system that Hogan called “the road kill bill.” Under the bill that passed, the governor would be responsible for developing a scoring system and providing the results in his annual six-year plan but the projects would not be required to be ranked. The bill also calls for a three year study of the results. Hogan had vowed to repeal the measure and the final version, while not a full repeal, effectively removes some of the concerns Hogan raised while still requiring the projects to be scored.
- Legislation backed by Hogan that would provide tax credits to attract manufactures to move to the state and encourage established manufacturers to expand jobs in the state passed both chambers.
- The General Assembly passed a first-of-its-kind in the country bill that will allow the Office of the Attorney General to sue generic drug manufacturers for unconscionable price increases.