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Lawmakers put finishing touches on 2021 General Assembly session

House, Senate reach deal in final hours on long-sought sports betting measure

The Maryland Senate meets on the last day of the state's 90-day legislative session on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Annapolis, Md. Senators have been working inside enclosures around their desks as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. By Brian Witte. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

The Maryland Senate meets on the last day of the state’s 90-day legislative session on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Annapolis, Md. Senators have been working inside enclosures around their desks as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. By Brian Witte. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s 2021 General Assembly session ended Monday night without a pandemic hitch, with lawmakers dealing with economic relief, police reform and sports betting during their 90 days of activity.

Making it to midnight on Monday seemed like a stretch goal when the General Assembly gaveled into session on Jan. 13. By the time lawmakers reached the last eight-hour session, they had already completed work on many big-ticket items while dodging the serious concerns raised by a pandemic that was flaring in Maryland in January.

“So, senators, we made it,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, Monday as he gaveled in the first session of what is always a long final day. “There were many nights where I thought that would not be the case, especially before we got here, but we’ve gotten here and we’ve gotten a lot of really, really, really, really important work done for Marylanders. We fought the virus. We created jobs. We’ve done the work of the people.”

And while the sense of urgency remained — Ferguson warned members of his chamber that “every minute of debate meant a minute where a good bill died” — much of the activity that marks the final day was strangely absent.

Both chambers got a slightly later start. The practice of committees leaving the floor to vote quickly on a bill in a hallway or nearby room was nonexistent this year.

The 188 lawmakers returned to Annapolis in the midst of a pandemic that ended the 2020 session nearly three weeks early.

Leaders of the House and Senate both imposed mandatory distancing and masks for members. Floor sessions were limited — the House didn’t begin holding full floor sessions for nearly the first month — and committee meetings were all conducted remotely.

And while there was a small scare in February in the Senate with a number of senators who received false positive rapid tests, no legislators tested positive.

“There was not a night that didn’t go by where I wouldn’t think what could go wrong with this virus in our session,” Ferguson said. “And tomorrow …will be the first day where I wake up not thinking, ‘Who tested positive today?'”

Avoiding illness and a pause or even early adjournment allowed the House and Senate to focus on their priorities coming into January.

Topping the list for Ferguson, Jones and Gov. Larry Hogan was a $1.2 billion pandemic aid package for businesses and families. The governor signed the bill a month into the session and he and the presiding officers all declared it a bipartisan victory.

“We’re very happy to have the legislative session coming to a close. It was a terrific session,” said Hogan, adding that “this was by far our best legislative session.”

The law contains a mix of measures to provide financial support for struggling Maryland residents and businesses and to exempt them from some taxes.

Low-wage workers eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit received an additional $540 for joint filers and $300 for a single filer annually for three tax years, 2020-2022.

Businesses and nonprofits got an additional $100 million in financial relief; forgiveness of some state loans made to businesses last spring; up to $9,000 in sales tax payments that some businesses can keep over the next three months; as well as housing and utility assistance.

The House and Senate later passed a controversial companion bill that granted workers who pay taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers — mostly undocumented immigrants — aid payments similar to those who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Hogan allowed that bill to become law without his signature.

Jones, the first Black and first woman to preside over either chamber of the General Assembly, also declared this session would focus on equity issues and what she called her “Black agenda” that included pandemic relief but also settling a long-standing dispute involving the states historically Black colleges and universities, police reform and ensuring that minority owners got a fair shake in acquiring licenses in Maryland’s fledgling sports betting industry.

Last year, Hogan vetoed legislation that would have provided $577 million to the state’s historically Black colleges and universities over a decade. The legislature opted this session to pass new legislation that provided the same settlement rather than override Hogan’s veto in an effort to resolve some concerns about deadlines built into the bill.

The governor this time signed the bill at a ceremony last month at Bowie State University.

Hogan scored another win with the ultimate confirmation of Dennis Schrader, his pick to run the state Department of Health.

Also top of mind for Jones and Ferguson was the passage of police reform in the wake of the police involved death of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis as well as the 2015 police involved death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore.

The two chambers differed in their approaches with the House offering an omnibus bill and the Senate passing a package of nine bills. Despite some social media vitriol, the House and Senate ultimately passed five bills intended to curtail deadly and excessive force, limit the use of no-knock warrants and make the police disciplinary process subject to greater civilian oversight.

Hogan vetoed the bills last week but the General Assembly quickly overrode those actions on Saturday.

The legislature and governor were also able to come to agreement, without much fuss, on a $51 billion budget. Heading into last summer, the pandemic was expected to dramatically reduce state revenues and force Hogan and lawmakers to dramatically retrench state spending priorities.

The dire predictions didn’t come to pass with the aid of a large infusion of federal aid early that provided stimulus checks to individuals and pandemic aide to state and local governments.

Billions in federal aid also allowed the pass a budget that is structurally balanced for the first time in recent memory.

Ferguson called the federal aid “necessary and needed.”

Legislative leaders and the governor quickly reached agreement on another round of stimulus, nearly $4 billion,  spending it on one-time expenses including shovel-ready parks and highway projects and rural broadband expansion. Roughly one-fourth of the funds will be used to bolster the unemployment insurance trust fund and lower premiums for businesses.

“Would we have been in a much tighter spot without it?” said Ferguson. “Of course but we were able to take it and turn it into real investments.”

The House and Senate were also able to pass a number of other bills including:

  • Legislation that will extend for another two years Hogan’s executive order allowing bars and restaurants to continue to deliver alcoholic beverages. The issue will be studied by the state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission to determine if it should continue after 2023.
  • A bill that would give inmates sentenced to life in prison after Oct. 1 to apply for parole after 20 years. The bill also eliminates the requirement that the governor approve the parole.
  • A bill that eliminates the media from an online ad sales tax and prohibits companies from passing the cost of the surcharge on to customers. The original bill passed in 2020 is due for a hearing this month in federal court.

After three years of trying, the House and Senate finally agreed on a sports betting bill after the Senate pulled back amendments on a House bill that eliminated caps on physical and mobile licenses.

In its place, the Senate approved a new slate of amendments that automatically grants licenses to the state’s casinos as well as the three major professional teams in Maryland. Horse racing venues Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the State Fairgrounds in Timonium would also be eligible.

“We often draw the line and we wanted some certain named entities, but we didn’t want to promise all the licenses,” said Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. “We had to draw the line somewhere.”

Casinos could get an early start with mobile licenses if they enter into “meaningful partnership” with a minority business owner. The total number of mobile licenses, considered the most lucrative, would be set at 60.

Off-track betting facilities, including the Riverboat on the Potomac, Rod and Reel in Chesapeake Beach and some bingo halls such as Bingo World in Brooklyn Park, would also automatically be eligible for a license. On top of that, the state would allow for 30 additional licenses subject to limits on how close a licensee may be located to another — 1.5 miles in more urban areas and 15 miles in rural areas.

Del. Mark Fisher questioned the limits, calling them “sketchy.”

The Senate amendments also call for a study due in 2025 to determine if there is a demand for additional licenses.

The bill heads to the governor for his signature.

“I can’t really say without reading it but I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to act quickly on it,” said Hogan.

 


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