Marylands 439th Session of the General Assembly ended Monday, April 8, on a uniquely somber note following the passing of long-time House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Busch passed on Sunday, April 7, the 89th day of session.
Busch was a Democrat and Catholic who represented District 30A. He served for 16 years at the helm of the House of Delegates. While his absence permeated Annapolis on the last day of session this year, perhaps its greatest impact will be felt in the sessions to come, as the House rearranges leadership to name a new Speaker.
The usual celebration of Sine Die (from Latin meaning "without day" or "without adjourning to a specific time or date”) was tempered by Busch's absence, but it did not stop the General Assembly from engaging in its typical last-day marathon sessions to act on lingering legislation.
Laura and Reid's Law
Among the bills that passed on Sine Die was Laura and Reid's Law, named for the late Laura Wallen who along with her unborn son Reid, were killed in 2017 by her then-finance. Laura's family were leading advocates for changing Maryland's law after prosecutors were unable to add an additional charge to her killer for the death of Reid. Maryland Catholic Conference strongly supported the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Justin Ready (R-District 5) and Del. Trent Kittleman (R-District 9A).
Earlier in the session, members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee reworked Laura and Reid's Law, taking it from an expansion of the state's fetal homicide law, to an enhanced penalty, a change that would both make pregnant women a protected class in Maryland, and eventually garner the bill nearly unanimous support.
Despite an effort by the House to amend failed legislation into the bill, a conference committee returned Laura & Reid's Law to its initially amended version, made a few tweaks, and the bill passed in the final hour of the session with unanimous support in the House.
In its final version, the bill allows a judge to add an additional 10 years to the sentence of someone who commits an act of violence against a woman they know or believe to be pregnant. Laura and Reid's Law now awaits Governor Hogan's signature.
"Even though there is nothing at this point that can bring justice for the loss of Laura and her son Reid, this law is an important step in protecting Maryland's pregnant women and their unborn children going forward," said Therese Hessler, associate director with the Conference. "Far too many Maryland women are like Laura: victims of intimate partner violence. Our prayer is that this law, passed in their honor, will deter others from committing similar acts of violence."
After years of work, Maryland's human trafficking law will look quite different going forward. Several key trafficking bills passed in the session, among them a bill that criminalizes labor trafficking. Until now, Maryland law only recognized sex trafficking as a human trafficking crime, and there was no way to penalize labor trafficking — which is the act of making someone perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion. But a bill passed during the session now classifies labor trafficking as a felony, in the same way it does sex trafficking. Additional legislation that passed this session categorizes human trafficking as a crime of violence and changes how the State refers to trafficking throughout the statute, including reclassifying it as a crime against the person, as opposed to a crime of obscenity.
In the final hours of Sine Die, legislators also established an important grant program that allows for creating regional navigators tasked to provide the services that are unique to child victims of sex trafficking. Services for child victims are not available in all areas of Maryland, so the bill would ensure specialized service providers coordinate with the state agencies to serve victims. Regional Navigators would also facilitate coordination between stakeholders — including agencies and non-profit programs — to ensure that child victims can access the appropriate services.
"This session we saw some major wins in the effort to combat human trafficking in Maryland," said Anne Zmuda Wallerstedt, associate director with the Conference. "Legislators saw the urgent need to take action on these very important bills and enable those on the front line of this crisis to have more tools available to both go after traffickers and care for victims."
The coming fiscal year will see a record $21 million in state aid to Catholic and other nonpublic schools and their families through a number of programs.
The BOOST Scholarship Program, which provides students with state scholarships to attend Catholic schools, was passed in the state budget with approximately $7.5 million slated for next school year. Despite some legislative and special-interest group opposition, supporting legislators were steadfast in their commitment to continue to provide scholarships for deserving students, the majority of which are minorities and all of whom are low-income.
Two other priority programs were also funded in the budget process: $6 million will go to the Nonpublic Student Textbook and Technology Program, and $4 million to the Senator James E. “Ed” DeGrange Nonpublic Aging Schools program. Additionally, our nonpublic schools will be blessed to receive an additional $3.5 million for school safety initiatives through Nonpublic School Safety Grants. These programs are imperative to so many Catholic schools, especially those with older buildings and lower-income students.
"Just a few short years ago, our state was giving only a few million dollars to aid our nonpublic schools," said Garrett O'Day, deputy director of the Conference. "The assistance provided to our students by the legislature both enables low-income families to choose the educational options best suited for their children and enables our schools to continue to provide quality education in a safe and sound environment. Our parents and teachers are grateful for that."
The legislature also took the first major step in a large, substantive educational-framework overhaul for our state’s public schools, which could impact our Catholic and other nonpublic schools.
Within that framework, per recommendations from the state “Kirwan Commission,” the Conference was pleased that the legislature mandated the expansion of prekindergarten access though what is known as a “mixed delivery system,” a system which will likely utilize community-based providers such as our Catholic schools.
A priority environmental bill is also headed to Gov. Hogan for his signature: The Clean Energy Jobs Act. Supported by the Conference as well as environmental groups, various faith-based coalitions and concerned citizens, the Clean Energy Jobs Act passed on Sine Die. The bill requires the state to acquire 50% of its energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, by 2030. It was voted out of the Senate on largely party lines in March, and languished in the House until a last minute revival, where it eventually passed in the final few hours of the legislative session.
Undocumented immigrant victims of violence will now have a greater chance of stability in their communities and with their families under a bill that passed this session clarifying and streamlining the state's role in the application process for a Nonimmigrant U-Visa — a temporary visa that can lead to lawful permanent status. The bill requires an official to certify or deny, in a timely manner, that the applicant was helpful in the detection, investigation or prosecution of the crime of which they were a victim. The law seeks to prevent applications for U-Visas from lingering due to lack of certification of helpfulness, and to expand paths to citizenship for undocumented persons in Maryland. The bill now heads to the Gov. Hogan’s desk for his signature.
Eligible DREAMers in Maryland will now have great access to higher education, thanks to an expansion of the DREAM Act that passed this session. The Maryland General Assembly sent a bill to the Governor that would expand the DREAM Act by allowing eligible undocumented Maryland students to pay in-state tuition rates at a majority of public Maryland colleges and universities. The original DREAM Act was passed by a ballot measure and approved by voters in 2012, and this expansion would more accurately reflect how students receive higher education in the state. Among the changes was the removal of a requirement that the students go to a community college for two years first before seeking a four-year Bachelor's degree.
There were several bills the Conference successfully worked to prevent from passing in Maryland this year, including a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide.
For the fourth time in five years, proponents of assisted suicide introduced legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Maryland, modeled after Oregon's assisted suicide law.
The Conference worked as part of Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide, a coalition whose members and supporters worked together in defeat of this dangerous legislation.
For the first time since the push to legalize physician-assisted suicide came to Maryland, the bill reached both the House and Senate floors as well as came up for a vote in both chambers. While the House narrowly passed the bill, the bill was defeated in the Senate by a tie 23-23 vote.
"The failure of physician-assisted suicide legislation this session was thanks to the many people who spoke out time and again to the General Assembly to ask them to not pass this dangerous legislation," said Jennifer Briemann, executive director of the Conference. "This bill got further than ever before this session, and while we know the proponents are more organized than ever, MAPAS and its supporters remain a powerful opposition. We are beyond grateful for those who took time to write and call their lawmakers and be the voice against this bill. We don't have this in our law today because of you."
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee spent many hours amending the bill with the hopes of addressing many concerns before they held a committee vote. The amendments angered proponents and led them to withdraw their support from the Senate version, a move that only helped seal its defeat once it passed out of committee for a full floor vote.
Despite the failure of the bill this session, the Conference fully expects physician-assisted suicide to be reintroduced again in 2020.
Making good on a promise to work to enshrine abortion rights in Maryland's constitution, legislators introduced a bill, which if passed, would have put on the 2020 ballot a question for voters to decide whether the right to an abortion should be amended into Maryland's constitution.
Despite the strong support among many legislators and the backing of House leadership, as well as pro-abortion groups, the bill led to a groundswell of opposition from all corners of the state who made their voices known.
The bill was withdrawn after Senate President Mike Miller said his chamber would not take up a ballot question bill in a non-election year.
The bill was championed by the late House Speaker Busch, so it is unclear if any efforts to reintroduce similar legislation will emerge during next year's general assembly, as it will also be a Presidential election year.