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Governor, environmentalist claim victories, school board reform defeats in General Assembly session

Maryland State House from College AveSEABROOK – The General Assembly session ended Monday with a flurry of votes, and as the dust settles stakeholders are claiming wins – or lamenting losses.

Among those celebrating was Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who saw many of his top priorities pass both houses this session. They included repealing the “Road Kill Bill,” which created a formula for funding state road improvement projects rather than let the counties and governor rank them themselves; expanding manufacturing opportunities on the Eastern Shore and Baltimore City with a tax credit via the More Jobs for Marylanders Act; and improving government ethics with the Public Integrity Act of 2017, which restricts legislators from making laws to benefit their or their families’ business interests.

“I commend Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Mike Busch and the Maryland General Assembly for working with our administration in a bipartisan fashion to unanimously pass the most important and transformative ethics reform legislation in over a decade,” Hogan said. “With this legislation, we are reaffirming our promise and commitment to the accountability, transparency, and fairness that the people of Maryland deserve.”

A bill specific to ethics on Prince George’s County’s liquor board also passed on the last day of session. It gives the power to make liquor board appointments to the county executive instead of the governor, and requires county council confirmation, as well as geographic, racial, ethnic and other diversity on the board. Liquor board members must also have professional experience in the field and abide by county ethics laws.

A bill expanding P-TECH training programs in schools also became law. Hogan also lauded the passage of the Taxpayer Protection Act (which helps safeguard tax filers’ privacy and allows preparers who attempt to misuse taxpayer identities to be charged), the Clean Cars Act, and several measures design to address the opioid overdose epidemic in the state.

“Creating jobs, building roads, and ensuring ethical and transparent government will always be top priorities of our administration,” Hogan said to sum up the session. “I want to thank Senate President Miller, Speaker of the House Busch, and all of the members of the Maryland General Assembly who worked with us to achieve these tremendous results for the citizens of our great state.”

However, not everything went the governor’s way this session. Hogan’s veto of the Protect Our Schools Act was overridden by the General Assembly. The bill aims to change how school achievement is measured. Also, the General Assembly did pass a measure to tackle redistricting reform, but the proposal is weaker than the one Hogan put forward and is contingent on other mid-Atlantic states doing the same. Hogan’s paid sick leave proposal also failed to advance, with Democratic leaders instead choosing to enact their own version that Hogan and business groups believe would be more burdensome to employers. It requires companies with 15 or more employees to offer full-time workers at least seven paid sick leave days per year. Part-time employees would be eligible for leave based on the number of hours they work.

Prince George’s County officials, meanwhile, praised the sick leave bill. County Councilman Mel Franklin, who was chair of the council in 2015 when it endorsed a statewide paid sick leave proposal, said the move was a win for families.

“It is particularly important that this benefit will extend to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The statewide approach for this policy will ensure that Prince George’s County businesses are not competing at a disadvantage with other Maryland counties,” Franklin said. “I congratulate the General Assembly and urge Gov. Hogan to sign this family-friendly legislation.”

County Executive Rushern Baker, III agreed.

“This is an important day for the working families and children of Maryland,” he said. “With the passage of this legislation, more employees will not have to choose between staying home with a sick child or going to work because they do not have leave. I applaud the General Assembly and its leadership for moving Maryland closer to becoming that eighth state to make this important benefit a reality. This vote shows that Maryland supports its working families.”

Hogan has pledged to veto the measure, and with the General Assembly adjourned until next year, that veto won’t be overridden until January 2017 at the earliest.

Environmentalists in the state got a huge win earlier in the session with the passage of a statewide ban on fracking, which Hogan signed into law. Last year, Prince George’s County became the first county in Maryland to ban the practice, and the state has followed its lead.

Many grassroots and environmental organizations lobbied and rallied in Annapolis to ban fracking, which is a method of extracting natural gas by pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into the ground.

“Waterkeepers across the region applaud the vote today in the Maryland Senate to ban fracking statewide,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “This vote was the result of an incredible grassroots movement across Maryland, and especially in Western Maryland, that demanded the legislature protect their families, livelihoods and clean water and air from the irreversible damage caused by fracking.”

Municipalities and counties saw a mixed bag of successes and disappointments this session. Several got state bonds approved to fund projects in their cities. Prince George’s County secured even more funding for the new regional medical center thanks to a Senate bill that passed both houses, as well as the amended budget.

Barbara Zektick, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said overall the year was better than many had feared.

“We did fairly well. We went into session and figured it would be a tough budget year, which it was, but we didn't get hit too hard,” she said.

Although their top priority, the LIFT Act, did not pass, Zektick said the push for more highway user revenues (HUR) – which fund road improvements in municipalities and had been cut from local distributions by Gov. Martin O’Malley – yielded some results.

“LIFT bill represented our dream ask. It was full restoration of highway user revenues phased in over seven years,” Zektick said. “We're disappointed it didn't get traction, but we were able to get about $9 million in HUR.”

A local government victory came in the passage of an act that eliminates the requirement for local jurisdictions to pay back income tax money that was allocated to them in error over several years. It was sponsored by Prince George’s County’s Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith. Zektick said the state has a reserve account for such situations.

“It’s not really local government's fault. It’s not really anyone’s fault that this misallocation took place,” she said. “We’re glad that reserve account will be used to cover this.”

Although many groups got partial victories, advocates for reform of Prince George’s County’s school board can’t say the same. The measure to repeal HB 1107 and, supporters feel, give more power back to the board’s elected members, was weakened from its initial state but still failed to pass out of a Senate committee.

Theresa Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, said the news was disappointing.

“I think that there clearly is some room for improvement in checks and balances, and I would be disappointed if it didn't pass,” she said Monday afternoon.

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