A 2020 bill that would levy fees to pay for a first-in-the-nation prescription drug affordability board passed its first hurdle Friday when the Democratic-controlled Maryland Senate overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
The votes represent the first substantive business conducted by the Senate in a session affected by the pandemic during which lawmakers sit at plexiglass-wrapped desks, meet twice a week and hold committee hearings virtually. The override, one of more than a dozen, came on just the second floor session of the 2021 General Assembly in the Maryland Senate.
Senate President Bill Ferguson called the afternoon floor session a success.
“These were all bills that initially passed the Senate with bipartisan support,” said Ferguson. “Unfortunately we didn’t see that today, but I think politics is what it is.”
Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, praised the vote that will ultimately provide a funding source for the board that will review prescription drug prices.
“The board has already started its work with preliminary funding and is doing a great job exploring the impact of rising drug costs across the state,” said DeMarco. “And other states are following our lead by moving to create similar boards. Establishing permanent funding for the board will guarantee it has the resources it needs to effectively address the issue of rising drug costs.”
Hogan vetoed the Senate bill in May along with legislation from the House creating taxes on digital advertising, downloads and streaming services and an increase in the tobacco tax. The bill provided the state’s Prescription Drug Affordability Board with the ability to impose an annual assessment estimated to be about $1,000 each on 1,400 drug companies, pharmacy benefit management companies and insurers.
“These misguided bills would raise taxes and fees on Marylanders at a time when they are already out of work and financially struggling,” Hogan wrote in his veto letter last year.
The 30-15 vote along party lines was on a package of bills that included the prescription drug board legislation.
Republicans asked for three other bills, part of a crime package for Baltimore, to be voted individually. Democrats acceded to that request, but the outcome was the same — a 30-15 party line vote to override.
“We worked very, very hard for hours on end on this package of bills,” said Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The vetoed crime bills included mandates for funding crime prevention coordinators in 10 newly created micro crime zones in the city; allowing state police to patrol certain highways; and providing $3 million in funding for community-based violence reduction efforts. Other vetoed bills require the creation of a state law enforcement coordinating council that would prepare crime plans for regions of the state and share intelligence across jurisdictions.
The Senate passed the crime legislation in 2o20 as part of a package that included parts of Hogan’s legislation that would have imposed tougher penalties on repeat violent offenders, especially those who use guns in the commission of their crimes.
The House ultimately did not act on Hogan’s crime proposals but passed the other bills — a fact Hogan noted prominently in his veto letter last spring.
“We should have held the House accountable. There are two chambers here and we should not abdicate our responsibility just because the House didn’t want to do the right thing,” said Sen. Mike Hough, Senate minority whip and a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Democrats needed 29 votes to override Hogan’s vetoes. Republicans, who have only 15 votes, watched as each override passed 30-15, with two senators absent.
Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, acknowledged that some of the package approved by his committee and the Senate died in the House. Overall, the bills vetoed by the governor, while not a panacea, represented historic progress, he said.
“It’s not going to solve everything, but progress is progress,” said Smith.
The veto overrides in the Senate now move to the House of Delegates for a final vote likely next month. The full House of Delegates is not expected to meet for floor votes in this pandemic session before February.