End of Session 2024

Everyone is in agreement – this was an incredibly and unusually busy legislative session this year. Not only were so many important bills heard, but so many groups came out to hold events and visit their representatives in person. It was truly a pleasure to be able to meet so many of you in person to hear your concerns and opinions. 

As for me, I’m still a member of the committee I love – Environment & Transportation (ENT) – and its Environment (ENV) and Natural Resources and Agriculture (NRAG) subcommittees, as well as Chair of the Baltimore County Delegation’s Community Affairs subcommittee, Vice Chair of the Maryland Transit Caucus, and a member of the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus and Women Legislators of Maryland. This year, however, I proudly served on the latter’s legislative review committee, which means I helped recommend bills the full caucus would officially support

This year also came with some big news: it was truly an honor to be appointed a Deputy Majority Whip in the House of Delegates! Thank you to Speaker Adrienne Jones for this opportunity.

Of course, the tragedy of the Key Bridge disaster marred the end of this session in an incredibly serious way, and I feel this must be addressed before I get into the nitty-gritty of other legislation. We felt the pain of our constituents and Maryland as a whole when the Francis Scott Key Bridge, once crossing the Patapsco River connecting Baltimore City to Dundalk, was struck by a cargo vessel and collapsed, making national news, paralyzing the Port of Baltimore – a major port and economic engine for our nation, region, and local area – the temporary partial closure of which will cost the economy roughly $15 million per day. Approximately 8,000 workers at the port are temporarily out of work, and many other businesses and workers are indirectly affected by the reduction in port operations. This isn’t even counting the thousands more who could potentially face unemployment until access is fully restored.

However, the six human lives lost is truly the most heartbreaking aspect, and my heart goes out to their families and friends. It was at least positive to see Governor Wes Moore sign the Maryland Protecting Opportunities and Regional Trade (PORT) Act (SB1188/CH0003) that we passed into law, which will provide tuition assistance to surviving members of victims’ families and provide economic aid to individuals and businesses who have been negatively affected financially by the port’s closure.

I must thank the first responders that day who acted quickly to help prevent further mortalities and injuries, and all those who have participated in the recovery effort thus far, from the federal government’s support to rescuers like the dive teams who worked tirelessly in hazardous conditions during the recovery efforts to individuals who have made charitable donations. I am grateful that the list of supporters is too great to name them all.

As the recovery efforts unfold in the news, it’s time for me to turn to why legislators send out a letter like this each year: to tell you about the legislative work I’ve done this session, and highlight other important bills that we as a whole have addressed during the past months.

As you can imagine, this session I put a lot of focus on introducing bills that would promote the health of our environment, and the animals and people who are negatively affected when it is harmed.

I can’t help but start with the most exciting news: HB0022 and its crossfile SB0178  (courtesy of Senator Kathy Klausmeier) both passed the legislature and are on their way to the Governor’s desk! Let’s take a moment to celebrate for the pollinators, as this was the reintroduced (and slightly altered) version of last year’s bill that passed the House – an “awesome little bill,” according to then-Environment & Transportation Committee Chair Kumar Barve. Remember that pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) play an important role in our ecosystem and agricultural industry. Most fruit and vegetable crops require pollination, yet pollinator populations are declining due to habitat loss, harmful pesticide usage, and climate change. Loss of pollinators has serious consequences for both the economy and human health. The State Highway Administration (SHA) has been developing pollinator-friendly sites under their Pollinator Habitat Plan, but more is necessary to truly protect these ecologically and economically vital creatures. The most important components of this law are that the SHA must create policies and procedures to develop and maintain pollinator habitats along state highways using native plants in accordance with the Federal Highway Administration’s best management practices, provide educational outreach regarding their highway pollinator habitats, as well as track and apply for any federal funding available for this work and deemed appropriate and beneficial by the SHA. The bill recognizes the importance of codifying the protection of pollinators in law but allows the SHA – with whom I worked closely with in crafting this bill – flexibility in its enforcement. This year is a win for the pollinators, and due to the climate crisis, they deserve one.

Had it passed the Senate, HB0841 would have fought plastic waste and microplastic contamination by requiring water bottle filling stations be installed in newly-constructed buildings where water fountains are already required, as well as requiring a survey of state government single-use water bottle usage is conducted. Reducing plastic waste disposal by encouraging the use of reusable bottles is critical to environmental health, and the extent of the threat microplastics pose to human health as well is still being discovered, making the disposal of plastics into our environment even more important to reduce. HB841 only needed one final vote to pass, but unfortunately it died in the final hours of Sine Die when it was placed on a temporary hold and the Senate didn’t get back to it before the midnight deadline.

I introduced HB1129 (with Senator Karen Lewis Young sponsoring its crossfile SB902 in the Senate) to protect both ourselves and our animal neighbors from the significant danger of vehicle-animal collisions. Each year, more than 33,000 drivers hit deer in Maryland alone, resulting in a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the state in insurance claims alone. Additionally, these collisions pose a significant threat to threatened and endangered species across the state. Had it passed, this bill would have ensured the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and SHA work together to identify high-priority locations and develop procedures for creating safe wildlife crossings, and would have created a methodology for a statewide deer population survey, given the funding. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the House bill died in committee. Its crossfile passed the Senate but unfortunately also died after crossover in its House committee. We did succeed in securing a commitment from SHA to seek federal funding that will help with this effort in the future.

I also addressed the issue of gas stations again this year with HB0012 which would have authorized local governments to give tax credits to developers that convert old gas stations to other uses. I share your concerns about the proliferation of gas stations in our communities, as not only do they displace businesses that positively affect communities, they sell a product that is dangerous to human and environmental health. I want to thank fellow Baltimore County member Sen. Ben Brooks for sponsoring the Senate version of the bill (SB0067).

I also wanted to further address the climate crisis with HB1077, a bill which would have established a Small Business Climate Coordinator position within the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority, and Women Business Affairs. This coordinator would work in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Emergency Management’s Office of Resilience to aid small businesses suffering from issues related to climate change, like damage from extreme weather, and making the transition into an advanced clean energy economy. They would help businesses identify already existing resources, apply for existing aid, and navigate and help understand new regulations. Large businesses have the resources to do all this themselves, but we can’t let our state’s small businesses fall behind, which is why I will continue to fight for them despite this bill not passing committee.

Additionally, I introduced HB1190 and HB1242. The former sought to crack down on the presence of dangerous PFAS “forever chemicals” by banning the less than 8% of Maryland-registered pesticides known to contain PFAS. These chemicals have been connected to damage to environmental and human health, with pesticides often being a “super-spreader” of them. The latter would have required telecommunications companies to report the existence of any lead-covered telecom cables to the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Public Service Commission. Having outdated lead cables in residential areas poses potential harm to our communities, and as such we should be proactive in their reporting and disposal. 

While these four bills did not pass out of committee, I will continue to fight to clean up our environment of toxic substances and to prepare our communities for the climate crisis and the changes it’s causing in nearly every sector of our society.

While my concern for environmental health is clear, so is my concern for the health of humans. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that public health is a matter of grave importance – and situations we see and may even find ourselves in all the time show why the people of Maryland care so deeply about public safety. I introduced several bills this session addressing these topics.

If you have followed my work, you know I have been working for quite a long time on a bill that was reintroduced this year as HB0615 (SB0512 in the Senate, thanks to sponsor Senator Alonzo Washington), which would have modified a section of the Education code that currently allows students to be arrested and processed into the criminal justice system for “disrupting school activities” – behavior like storming out of class or talking back to a teacher. While this cannot be tolerated, behavior like this ought to be handled internally. Behavior that rises to a criminal offense can, of course, still be prosecuted under the Criminal code like one would expect. However, this language should not be in the state’s Education code and is used disproportionately against students of color and students with disabilities, leading to harmful inequity in our school system. This is unacceptable and must be rectified. Unfortunately, this bill again did not pass in the Senate once it crossed over – but that does not mean I’ve given up on fighting for our students.

I once again introduced a bill (HB619) to establish a commission on universal healthcare in Maryland. This session, I significantly reworked the bill to focus on exploring the feasibility of a universal healthcare system for our state. I continue to firmly believe that such a system is viable, but we need data and analysis to determine that before the state commits to a plan. Although HB619 did not make it out of committee, I remain committed to fighting for affordable, comprehensive, high-quality healthcare for every Marylander.

We are all familiar with the devastation that drug use causes in so many communities. However, our society and its laws have long treated drug use as a criminal issue rather than the public health issue that it truly is. This approach punishes victims of very real mental health disorders – Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) – and does nothing to alleviate the problem from either standpoint. A new approach is clearly needed. This is why I introduced HB1057, which would have created a task force of experts from a diverse range of backgrounds and sectors to, among other things: study the relationship between drug use and crime, recommend minimal amounts of certain controlled substances that should be eligible for a civil rather than criminal citation for use and/or possession, and identify ways to refer those with certain amounts of substances to appropriate non-criminal alternatives like drug education programs or mental health assessments. Unfortunately, this bill never made it out of committee, but garnered support from some in the medical community and I have hope for it in the future.

Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to be able to withdraw a bill because the problem is addressed. I am as concerned as all of you about the ongoing danger reckless driving poses to our communities. To address this I introduced HB187 (crossfiled in the Senate as SB168 by my excellent District colleague Senator Charles Sydnor III), which would have established a task force to investigate possible causes of and interventions for aggressive and dangerous driving. However, since the Motor Vehicle Administration committed to integrating what the bill would have done into their Strategic Highway Safety Plan, I was able to withdraw the bill.

I also introduced some other legislation I found particularly relevant in today’s political climate, although unfortunately they did not pass this year.

I once again introduced the Ballot Petition Modernization Act (HB1109), with the goal of protecting Marylanders’ fundamental state constitutional right to participate in the democratic process. Citizens have the right to circulate petitions to put ballot questions up for a vote, but the significant hurdles make this a difficult right to exercise. The bill would have further enfranchised voters by, among other things, allowing people to sign petitions electronically, allowing signers to correct minor mistakes caught by the State Board of Elections that currently would invalidate their signature entirely, and making signing more accessible to disabled individuals. The time for the petition process to be modernized has come and gone. We have already demonstrated it is possible during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow for electronic signatures. It is our duty as lawmakers to make it as simple as we reasonably can for our people to exercise the rights enshrined in our constitution.

Finally, I introduced my first resolution, HJ7, that would ensure Maryland ratified the Child Labor Amendment, proposed by Congress  as an amendment to the United States Constitution in 1924. It is currently only 10 states short of full ratification, and given the increasing erosion of child labor rights in many states, it is time we rectify the mistakes of the pasts – when the Maryland General Assembly actively voted to reject the amendment – in order to protect children from work that is dangerous or interferes with their education.

I also made sure to collaborate with my colleagues this session on some important bills, including with Delegate Mary Lehman on HB085, a bill we’ve worked on extensively in the past to expand Maryland’s Spay/Neuter Fund. This bill would have provided greater access to low-cost spay/neuter services by making a small increase to the fee pet food distributors that fund this program pay, thus reducing the number of unwanted pets and euthanized animals. As a loving pet owner myself, it is my goal to remove barriers to responsible pet ownership and ensure the health and safety of all animals in Maryland. Unfortunately neither this bill nor its crossfile SB0641 sponsored by Senator Ben Brooks passed committee this session, but I will continue to fight for it in years to come.

For the last two years, I’ve worked with Delegates Jen Terrasa and Mary Lehman to pass legislation to put guardrails on stream restoration projects. These projects are done around the state with a primary goal of restoring degraded stream channels and reducing sediment runoff to the Chesapeake Bay. However, there is often ecological devastation left behind after project completion: trees clearcut around the stream and wildlife habitats destroyed. Although our bill HB1284 did not pass this session, we were successful at getting language added to the Whole Watershed Act (HB1165) that will require greater transparency so that residents nearby know what to expect and greater review by the Maryland Department of the Environment to increase ecological uplift and avoid unintended consequences.

I’m hopeful that the work that’s been done on all these bills, regardless of where they made it in the legislative process, will make a difference – particularly next session!

Despite the extremely tight budget this year, the District 44 legislators also managed to secure funding for projects in the District that will benefit our communities, including $250,000 to Catonsville Emergency Assistance for renovations and equipment to receive, store and redistribute food to neighbors facing food insecurity in Catonsville; $300,000 to Knights of Columbus Council No. 1960 for strategic updates, modernizations, and enhanced accessibility to the Knights of Columbus Patapsco Council #1960s Building in order for it to continue to serve as a community hub and activity space; $245,000 to Music City Maryland Amphitheater to build a community amphitheater and event center in downtown Catonsville in the designated Arts & Entertainment District; and $325,000 to NCIA (National Center on Institutions and Alternatives) to renovate properties to providing a nurturing and accessible living environment for people with intellectual disabilities.

Of course, this busy session saw many important pieces of legislation that bear discussion, and I’d like to start with a few of Governor Wes Moore’s priority bills.

In response to the horrific crash on I-695 in District 44B last year that claimed the lives of six road workers, Governor Moore created the Work Zone Safety Group to prevent similar tragedies. This group’s research came to fruition this session in the enacted HB513/CH0017, which increases fines for speeding in work zones. On a personal note, I found the supportive testimony of Lieutenant Governor Aruna Miller, who led the group, incredibly powerful. Further emphasizing his commitment to safety, the Governor introduced SB0471/HB0575, which passed the legislature, streamlining and strengthening Maryland’s victims compensation program in order to better support victims and their families as well as prevent future crimes and the already enacted HB585/CH0021 which criminalizes threatening election officials and/or their families in order to secure our democracy against a rising tide of threats and harassment. The Governor also made housing and tenants’ rights a top priority. HB0693/SB0481 (though only the House version passed the legislature) will establish a state Office of Tenants Rights to help tenants in disputes housing disputes, reduce security deposit maximums to one month, increase Maryland’s low eviction filing fee, and give tenants a right of first refusal option to purchase the property if the landlord decides to sell it.

Unfortunately I can’t share all the important bills introduced this session with you in one letter but here are a few more I think are especially important to highlight. For example, I was proud to co-sponsor and glad to see Delegate Mary Lehman’s HB0601 pass this session, which addresses exhibition driving and street racing, which has become a problem across the state, including in our District. I know this is a very important issue to myself and my constituents, and this bill increases the penalties for street racing and introduces matching penalties for dangerous exhibition driving. Additionally, as you know, I believe all of us deserve access to the healthcare we need, so I was proud to support the “Access to Care Act” (HB0728/SB0705), which will require Maryland to seek a federal waiver that would allow undocumented Marylanders to purchase insurance on the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange with their own money. This will reduce the number of uninsured Marylanders, lower health insurance premiums for everyone, and save the state money by reducing the amount of uncompensated care (a whopping $842 million in 2022). It was exciting to finally see this bill pass the legislature.

Juvenile justice was a major complex topic this session, in the legislature and the news, and HB814 makes changes to our juvenile justice system to address concerns that came to light during the last year. Although data doesn’t show a juvenile crime wave beyond social media-driven car thefts that have since been addressed by a software fix from car companies, the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees did find specific areas of concern. The bill speeds up Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) intake decisions and improves communications between DJS and police. It increases time for court-ordered rehabilitation programming and requires a Child in Need of Supervision Petition to be filed for 10-12 year olds alleged to have committed car theft, allowing those situations to be addressed with voluntary or mandatory diversion as needed. It also expands the crimes for which a 10-12 year old can be charged with to include some firearms offenses, violent sexual offenses, and animal torture. Despite my concerns about some provisions of the bill that increase children’s contact with the juvenile justice system, which data shows is harmful to children and doesn’t improve public safety, I think the final version of the bill strikes a fairly good balance of protecting public safety and getting children the help that they need, and I appreciate the committees’ work. In addition, we are putting record funding towards services and supports for kids, including $111 million in funding awarded in February by the Maryland Consortium on Coordinated Community Supports to programs around the state, including $8,870,000 to programs in Baltimore County.

Finally, each year we are obligated by the Maryland Constitution to pass a balanced budget. This year, the path to getting to a balanced budget was more rocky than usual due to a projected revenue shortfall and structural deficit. 

Back in the fall, we got hit with bad news that there was a $3 billion shortfall for transportation funding, partly because people are driving more fuel efficient vehicles causing gas tax revenues to decline. In order to balance the budget, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) would have had to slash 8% of funding across the board. The draconian cuts announced by MDOT would have included cutting highway maintenance as well as funds going to local jurisdictions for road maintenance, putting every major highway project not already started on hold for the duration of the six-year plan, eliminating every MTA commuter bus line, including the Baltimore to Annapolis line, reducing funding for transit system maintenance and local transit systems, and delaying the transition to electric buses. Although the Red Line development and engineering was kept in the plan, there were no funds allocated for construction in the six-year plan.

Transportation is a vital economic and quality of life issue, so we couldn’t let those cuts stand. Through negotiations between the House and the Senate, we passed a budget package that avoids broad tax increases, but uses narrowly targeted fees to ensure that EV’s, heavier vehicles, and rideshares are paying their fair share. 

They say that “budgets are values documents,” and this budget funds our values. We were able to restore much of the transportation cuts, fund three years of implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform, increase funding for trauma services, support child care, support individuals and businesses impacted by the reduced operations at the Port following the bridge collapse, increase funding for gun violence protection and community-based services for juveniles and families, invest in the state’s Climate Pollution Reduction Plan, and continue rebuilding our state government.

The final deadline to send bills to Governor Moore is April 28, and he must either sign them into law, allow them to become law without his signature, or veto them by May 28. Make sure to keep a close eye out for the outcome of these important laws, and any others that you have cared about this session!

As always, thank you for reaching out to me throughout the session with your thoughts, comments, concerns, and questions. Should you wish to get in contact with me – a welcome thing at any time of the year – you are always free to email me at sheila.ruth@house.state.md.us. Thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the state of Maryland – it’s a privilege I will never take lightly and I pledge to always work for my constituents and the state of Maryland to ensure it is doing everything in its power for its people.

All my very best,

Delegate Sheila Ruth