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In 2018 session, pledges of bipartisanship sometimes rang true

Lawmakers race the clock on the final night of the 2018 General Assembly session


From left, Sens. Robert ‘Bobby’ Zirkin, Richard Madaleno and Edward Kasemeyer work on legislation on the final day of the 2018 General Assembly session. (Maximilian Franz)

ANNAPOLIS — The 2018 General Assembly session drew to a close at midnight Monday with lawmakers and the governor praising each other for a spirit of bipartisanship not always in evidence during past 90-day sessions.

Compromises were reached on measures to strengthen school safety, crack down on crime, expand the state’s medical cannabis program and overhaul the rules for policing sexual harassment in the State House.

Several measures, such as one to let voters weigh in on sports betting, failed to make it out of committees and on to the floor of the chambers. But many of the weightiest issues — the state’s budget, changes to the tax code in light of the federal tax overhaul and measures to shore up Maryland’s private insurance exchange — already had been dealt with prior to Monday.

Unlike previous sessions, the governor and legislative leaders invoked the phrase “bipartisan effort” and actually meant it.

During a bill-signing last week, Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch praised each other’s efforts on legislation such as bills to stabilize the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.

Hogan told reporters Monday afternoon that he was “really happy with the progress” made during the session.

“We started out this session saying let’s put aside the politics, let’s try to come together and do things in a bipartisan way,” said Hogan. “We put forth a really aggressive agenda, almost all of which looks like it’s going to get done.”

But not all of Hogan’s agenda passed as part of legislation with his name on it. Some of his bills were cobbled into other larger bills, including an omnibus violent crime package.

Turnover effect?

Miller attributed the collegial effort to the certain departure of nearly 20 percent of his chamber.

“I think the fact that so many members are leaving. The fact that nine members of the Senate are leaving, and the fact that we know there are other members of the Senate who aren’t going to come back but they don’t know it yet,” said Miller. “With these people leaving and recognizing that they won’t see each other again, people reached out to each other and made things happen.”

Miller even choked up at the end of the night as he apologized to Senate Minority Leader Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties.

Jennings had attempted to speak on a bill late in the session. Typically such tactics are used to run time off the clock. Miller was having none of it and shut Jennings down, taking the vote before a number of senators even had a chance to make their decisions.

But after the session ended, Miller apologized, his voice cracking as he called Jennings a good friend and thanked him for his work during the session.

“I’m an old guy and I get more emotional as I get older,” Miller told reporters afterward.

School safety

The legislature Monday gave final approval to school safety legislation that requires public schools in the state to have either school resource officers or some kind of police department coverage. The bill also allocates $10 million to help local jurisdictions offset the costs of the effort.

The school safety measure would create a variety of standards and guidelines statewide.

“People on both sides of the aisle came together to make this happen, and it’s a big bill,” Miller said.

Lawmakers and Hogan proposed legislation to increase school safety after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The issue received extra attention after the March 20 shooting at Great Mills High School, where a student shot and fatally wounded a former girlfriend before killing himself.

Hogan said although there were some changes in the measure, he was happy about the outcome.

“We made some real progress on that, and everybody in the state wants to see that happen because no mom or dad should ever have to worry when they send their kids off to school whether their son or daughter is going to come home safely,” the Republican governor said shortly before the bill was passed.

Medical cannabis licenses

The Senate vote Monday on expanding the medical cannabis program to provide access to the lucrative industry for minority-owned businesses was one of a few highlights on what was an otherwise slow-moving final day punctuated by lengthy breaks for both chambers.

The House approved the compromise on medical cannabis Saturday. With Senate approval, the measure now heads to Hogan for his signature.

“It’s been a long, drawn-out issue,” Miller said as he called for the vote as one of the first orders of business taken up by the Senate on the final day of the 2018 session.

After a similar issue failed in the final seconds of the 2017 session, supporters came to Annapolis in January overly optimistic and vowing to have legislation on the governor’s desk before February.

The compromise effectively incorporates most of the changes made by the Senate, including an increase in grower licenses from 15 t0 22, with two licenses earmarked for growers who were bumped from the original license awards for reasons of regional diversity. The total number of licenses available could decrease if the last of the original 15 licensees or if one of the two businesses earmarked for new licenses drops out.

Supporters said the changes were needed to increase racial diversity among licensees. None of the current grower licenses were awarded to minority-owned businesses. The law doesn’t earmark licenses for minority-owned businesses but will establish emergency regulations they say will increase diversity.

Dels. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, and William Folden, R-Frederick, walk back to the State House after a break in the afternoon. (Maximilian Franz)

Dels. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, and William Folden, R-Frederick, walk back to the State House after a break in the afternoon. (Maximilian Franz)

Not everyone sees the changes as a benefit to minority-owned growing companies.

“I certainly don’t see it that way,” said Brett Scott, general counsel of Mazey Farms, an African-American-majority-owned Maryland company. “What this new law actually does is award two licenses to companies who filed lawsuits against the state, jumps over Mazey Farms and two other minority-owned companies, and directs the MMCC (Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission) to award potentially four additional licenses to companies who scored lower than we did.”

And while some lawmakers said the bill this year would help end a batch of lawsuits, it could also spur new ones.

Scott said he plans to review the constitutionality of the new law and “explore every option available in correcting this injustice.”

The compromise also sets the number of licenses for processors at 28, two fewer than the 30 asked for by the Senate.

Also removed from the legislation is a provision that would allow the medical cannabis commission to approve a dispensary licensee to move locations if the owner can show a hardship, particularly an inability to receive zoning approval from a local jurisdiction.

The amendment was focused on dealing with issues related to Anne Arundel County, where County Executive Steve Schuh has opposed such businesses.

Sen. Brian J. Feldman, D-Montgomery, said such issues are “really unlikely to appear until next session.”

Also on Monday:

  • A bill strengthening how sexual harassment and misconduct complaints are handled in the state legislature was amended by the Senate. The bill implements a number of recommendations made by the Women’s Caucus; adds protections for lobbyists; prohibits the use of state funds to settle lawsuits; and creates a procedure for the use of an independent investigator.
  • Legislation to place sports betting on the November ballot contingent on a favorable Supreme Court decision died in the Senate Finance Committee after the House and Senate failed to reach an agreement on whether or not to include specific venues in the bill. The death of the bill means that the issue could not appear on the ballot before 2020 and puts Maryland behind other states lining up in the hope that the high court will legalize sports betting.
  • The legislature passed a bill that would require projects such as the proposed Hyperloop to undergo environmental reviews by the state if federal law does not requirement.
  • A bill to regulate home-sharing services such as AirBnB died in the House Economic Matters Committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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