Happy Spring! Amidst more and more Marylanders receiving shots in arms and flowers starting to reach out the ground towards the sky, things feel more hopeful than when the year began.
As you know, this legislative session was truly unique. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything from committee hearings to witness testimony to town hall meetings were virtual and held over Zoom. All the hearings have been live streamed and archived on mgaleg.maryland.gov for public viewing, if you want to check them out. You can view the hearing for any bill by searching for the bill and clicking on the red camera icon on the bill page.
Here’s a summary of some of the most important legislation of the 2021 General Assembly Session including my own bills. It has been a busy and monumental session for sure!
Police Reform and Justice
This was a landmark year for police reform and justice in Maryland. In light of the national movement for police accountability, Maryland took action with a transformative package of police reform bills anchored by House Speaker Adrienne Jones’s Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 (HB670). This bill repeals the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights (LEOBR) and defines a civilian-driven process for police misconduct. A civilian charging board will review each case and make recommendations on charges. Police agencies must use a statewide uniform matrix to discipline officers developed by the Police Training & Standards Commission through an open and public process. HB670 also mandates implicit bias testing and training, establishes that civilians have the right to record police encounters, and other essential provisions. Other bills in the package include:
SB71, sponsored by District 44’s Senator Charles Sydnor III, which requires universal use of body-worn cameras no later than July 1, 2025, defines a use of force policy, and requires officers to intervene when excessive force by a colleague is used.
SB178, Anton’s Law, provides the public with access to police disciplinary records regardless of outcome. Additionally, the bill puts greater restrictions on how and when no-knock warrants can be served.
SB494, the Juvenile Restoration Act, ends sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, gives judges more flexibility when sentencing minors, and provides a process for minors convicted as adults to be considered for release after 20 years served. I strongly supported this because children who make bad choices at a time when their brain isn’t yet fully developed, and who may themselves be victims of trauma, should have an opportunity for rehabilitation.
The police reform bills above were vetoed by the governor, and we quickly overrode his vetoes so that the bills will become law. Other bills are on the governor’s desk, waiting for a decision. If the governor doesn’t sign or veto them, they automatically become law 30 days after being sent to him.
SB600 sets up an independent investigative unit in the Office of the Attorney General to investigate alleged police-involved deaths and prohibits law enforcement from acquiring surplus military equipment such as grenade launchers, silencers, and weaponized aircraft, drones, and vehicles. SB600 is on the governor’s desk.
This police reform package will bring greater transparency and accountability to policing across Maryland and ensure equal treatment for every Marylander, safer communities, and public confidence in Maryland’s police departments.
Other justice legislation this session included the removal of the Governor from parole decisions for those sentenced to life in prison (SB202), ensuring the parole process is independent and fair. The Walter Lomax Act (HB742) will require compensation for individuals who are erroneously convicted, sentenced, and jailed and defines a formula for compensation. HB742 was signed by the governor and SB202 is on the governor’s desk.
This session, I introduced two justice bills that unfortunately were not passed:
HB0700 would have stopped students from being charged under a law which defines “disturbing class” as a misdemeanor. This law is overly broad, disparately applied, and criminalizes normal adolescent behavior. 82% of students charged under this law are Black students or students of color. It also disproportionately impacts students with disabilities. HB700 passed the House but unfortunately never got a vote in the Senate committee. I will be bringing this bill back next year.
HB640 would have repealed the law making it a misdemeanor to failure to obey the orders of a police officer. That law is overly broad and vague, making it open for abuse by police officers, and disproportionately used against Black and brown people. This bill didn’t get a committee vote.
This year’s legislative session produced bills to address the very real systemic health and social inequities in our state. HB28 will require implicit bias training as part of the accreditation and licensing process for all health care providers and require the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities to publish health data with race and ethnicity information on its website. The Shirley Nathan-Pulliam Health Equity Act of 2021 (HB78) will establish a Maryland Commission on Health Equity. The Maryland Health Equity Resource Act (HB463) will create a process to designate Health Equity Resource Communities to reduce health disparities and improve healthcare outcomes. HB849 will prohibit providers from charging a fee for medical records for people applying for Social Security benefits or Social Security Disability Benefits. HB565 provides protections for low-income patients who incur medical debt. These bills are all awaiting the governor’s decision on whether to sign or veto them.
My bill to create the Commission on Universal Health Care (HB470) was introduced and would have developed a plan for the State to establish a universal health care program that covers all Maryland residents by January 1, 2024. Unfortunately HB470 never received a committee vote.
Unfortunately, the Climate Solutions Now bill (HB583/SB414) did not make it all the way through before the legislature adjourned for the year. The House and Senate passed different versions and the two chambers did not come to agreement on a version to pass. However, the good news is that we did pass two parts of Climate Solutions Now as separate bills, which are now awaiting the governor’s signature or veto:
HB991 (the Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021) sets a state goal of planting 5 million trees by 2031, and establishes the Urban Trees Program to provide grants for planting trees in urban areas with high unemployment, low income, or a history of redlining.
SB137 (the Zero–Emission Bus Transition Act) requires the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to purchase zero-emission buses for any bus purchases beginning in fiscal year 2023.
While other states are restricting voting rights, Maryland is expanding access.
HB745 (Election Law – Early Voting Centers) will modernize the state’s formula for Early Voting centers and create over a dozen new centers across the state for the 2022 election. It requires local Boards of Election to consider equity, accessibility to public transportation, accessibility to historically disenfranchised communities, and proximity to dense concentrations of voters when determining early voting locations.
HB1048 (Permanent Absentee Ballot List, Ballot Drop Boxes, and Reports) makes voting easier and more convenient by creating a permanent mail-in ballot option. It requires local Boards of Election to consider equitable distribution, accessibility to public transportation, accessibility to historically disenfranchised communities, proximity to dense concentrations of voters, and maximizing voter participation when determining ballot drop box locations. Elections during the pandemic have shown us that our existing mail-in voting process works and that voters should be able to choose the option that works best for them. This is an important step towards a more accessible and equitable democracy.
After a decade-long federal court case, Maryland’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities will finally receive $577M to resolve program duplication issues and level the playing field for all students regardless of background, or race, or college they attend. The governor signed HB1 into law.
2020 was a year of distance learning, and the passage of the Blueprint For Maryland’s Future 2.0 bill includes much needed revisions to education funding and will provide more support to address learning loss that were exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, close the digital divide, and expand behavioral and mental health resources.
The pandemic hit Maryland’s economy hard and initially we expected to have to make major cuts to balance the budget. However, a better-than-expected economic recovery and an infusion of federal stimulus funding allowed the General Assembly to pass a bipartisan, balanced FY22 State Budget that will erase the state’s structural deficit for two years and replenish the Rainy Day Fund while still providing funding for important state needs. The state budget will ensure sufficient funding for resources to address COVID-19 impacts as well as fully fund the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future and other education initiatives. It also provides funds for expanding broadband access, making schools safe for reopening, and adds $85 million for grants to counties to design and build local parks and playground projects.
HB1178 will create tax-free savings accounts for all first-time homebuyers so an equal path to homeownership can be afforded for more Marylanders.
The Recovery for the Economy, Livelihoods, Industries, Entrepreneurs, and Families (RELIEF) Act will provide over $1.5 billion in pandemic relief, infusing the state’s economy with $509 million in spending and over $1 billion in tax relief and credits for individuals and businesses.
I introduced the Transportation Equity Analyses and Assurances Act of 2021 (HB1204) this session, which would have made equity a central goal in Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) planning throughout any and all decision-making processes regarding all modes of transportation in Maryland. Although this legislation did not pass this year, it had broad support and I’ll be reintroducing it next year and building on the progress we made this year.
The Transit Safety and Investment Act (HB114), introduced by Delegate Brooke Lierman, will provide increased funding to MTA to address the maintenance backlog for our public transit systems. Poorly maintained transit is both a safety and a reliability issue and it’s essential that we maintain our transit in a state of good repair. For example, in 2018 the Baltimore Metro subway was shut down unexpectedly for a month after a safety inspection revealed track maintenance problems requiring emergency repairs.
Even pre-pandemic, we haven’t focused enough attention and resources on mental health, but the stresses and isolation of the pandemic have exacerbated mental health issues. The General Assembly passed several bills to help individuals needing mental health support.
HB108 (Behavioral Health Crisis Response Services- Modifications) alters the Behavioral Health Crisis Response Grant Program to prioritize programs that connect individuals in crisis with peer support and family support services after stabilization. It also extends funding for the program through FY25, and requires that, beginning in FY23, at least one-third of the appropriation be awarded to grants for mobile crisis units.
SB41 (Mental and Emotional Disorders – Consent) lowers the minimum age from 16 to 12 for when a minor may receive mental health services (not including medication) without a parent’s consent. This is an incredibly important bill that will allow adolescents to get the mental health support they need, even if they aren’t comfortable asking a parent or if the parent is part of the problem. The bill will literally save lives since suicide is one of the leading causes of death among adolescents.
I introduced two bills to help people with mental illness in the criminal justice system. Neither of these bills passed, but I will be continuing to work on these issues next year:
HB537 (Mental Health Law – Petitions for Emergency Evaluation – Procedures) would have decreased contact between individuals in crisis and law enforcement and allowed a licensed mental health professional to use their professional discretion on when to involve law enforcement during an Emergency Petition (EP). Current law requires a mental health professional to call the police to transport an individual in mental health crisis under an emergency petition. Police aren’t always the best people to deal with individuals in mental health crisis. Even when police receive specialized training, it can’t match the years of education and experience of a mental health professional. One in four people killed by the police are experiencing a mental health crisis.
HB851 would limit the use of restrictive housing (segregation) of incarcerated individuals with serious mental illness. Restrictive housing is harmful to individuals already experiencing mental illness, and people with serious mental illness need treatment, not warehousing.
Immigrants from around the world live, work, worship, study, and own businesses in District 44B. Our immigrant neighbors have endured assaults on their human rights from the policies of the Trump administration, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing disparities. We must do better. The General Assembly passed these bills to help and protect our immigrant neighbors:
The Dignity Not Detention Act (HB16) will ban private immigration prisons in Maryland. It will also prohibit law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status, detaining an individual to investigate immigration status, transferring an individual to federal immigration authorities unless required by federal law, or threatening an individual based on immigration status.
HB15 will create a Governor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to assist immigrants and advise the governor on immigrant issues.
HB23, the Maryland Driver Privacy Act, will require state and local government to deny access to personal records and facial recognition searches to federal agencies conducting immigration searches without a warrant. Among other things, this will deny ICE free access to our drivers’ license database.
SB218 will make low-income immigrant taxpayers who file their taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
The language of Maryland’s state song (“Maryland, My Maryland”) sympathized with Confederate motivations and is not representative of who we are as a state any longer. HB667 repeals the state song so we can better reflect our current values of unity, diversity, and inclusion. It’s about time!
Many of the bills listed above are still waiting for the governor to sign or veto them. If the governor does neither, the bills will become law after 30 days.
It has been an honor to represent you in Annapolis this session. Although only one of the many bills I introduced this session passed the House, I will not be deterred from working even harder next session to get these important issues passed. Thank you to all of the residents of District 44B who contacted my office this session; your phone calls, letters, and emails are always appreciated. Even though the legislative session is over, my office is always open to your questions and concerns via email at email@example.com.
Stay safe and be well,
Delegate Sheila Ruth