With days remaining before a key deadline, lawmakers are pushing weighty bills through the General Assembly faster than most Marylanders can pick a crab.
Next Monday marks a crucial date, the day by which bills must be passed in one house in order to be directly considered by the other chamber. Both chambers are picking up the pace and moving into multiple floor sessions each day, as time waits for no legislator during a 90-day session.
Delegates and senators have taken on some meaty issues this session, some in response to two recent decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court on abortion rights and gun ownership, while another clears the way for survivors of sexual abuse to sue negligent institutions. And as if there weren’t enough hot buttons, the state is setting up a recreational cannabis market.
The contentious issues embedded in these bills have sparked wrenching floor debates and impassioned pleas among colleagues. However, the Democratic majority’s political will has bowled over the Republican minority. From day one, these bills have been headed toward the finish line. So, here’s an update on where they stand right now.
Reining in permissions to wear and carry guns
Should the “Gun Safety Act of 2023″ become law, even those with a wear and carry permit will be prohibited from carrying their weapon near “sensitive places,” as listed by the bill.
Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher and his colleagues wrote the bill in response to then-Gov. Larry Hogan’s order to drop state restrictions on wear and carry permits. Hogan did so after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law similar to Maryland’s which required gun owners to have a “good and substantial reason” to carry a gun in public.
Hogan’s action opened the floodgates, and droves of applicants flocked to apply for permission to carry a gun in public.
Waldstreicher said senators have tailored the bill to uphold legal scrutiny and worked with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure it is defensible, he said.
“We made the bill simultaneously narrower and stronger by specifically listing the sensitive places where firearms would not be allowed,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. The bill lists such places as preschools, hospitals, establishments serving alcohol, theaters, and stadiums.
The House, however, has taken a different approach. Del. Luke Clippinger, a Democrat from Baltimore City, drafted a bill currently under review that expands and changes gun possession laws. For example, someone who has violated a protective order or someone who is on probation after DUI charges cannot possess a handgun.
The bill increases the age limit on wear and carry permits from 18 to 21 and doubles application and renewal fees.
The chambers plan to marry the bills if they pass each house, Waldstreicher said.
“We look forward to working with the House and coming up with a consensus work product that the governor can sign,” Waldstreicher said.
Lifting sexual abuse lawsuit restrictions
The state Senate gave preliminary approval on Tuesday to a bill that would enable more survivors of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits against institutions, such as churches and schools, that harbored abusers.
Advocates for survivors have cheered the bill’s advancement in the Senate, where legislation has stalled in past years.
The bill is “an opportunity to seek justice,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the bill.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore wrote to parishioners recently that the bill “greatly increases the financial harm to the Church and its ministries,” and asked followers to contact lawmakers to oppose the bill
The church’s message noted private entities might have to pay more damages to victims than government entities and that more than two dozen dioceses have filed for bankruptcy after similar laws were passed in other states.
The opposition comes as authorities are expected to soon release an investigation into decades of abuse within the church in the Baltimore region.
Smith defended the bill against multiple amendments proposed by Republican lawmakers that would have, among other things, equalized the maximum amount of financial damages against both private and public institutions and limited attorneys fees that could be awarded.
The bill completely lifts time restrictions for suing institutions that supervised or enabled abusers, and gives victims who previously ran into time limits the ability to file lawsuits now. The bill also caps the amount of financial damages that could be awarded to victims who successfully sue.
Final approval in the Senate is expected in the coming days. The House of Delegates has not yet advanced the bill, but it is expected to eventually pass that chamber as well.
Both chambers have now passed bills that will let voters decide whether the right to an abortion should be enshrined in the Maryland Constitution.
Should it become law, the bill says that “every person, as a central component of an individual’s rights to liberty and equality, has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom,” and the state cannot infringe upon that right, according to the text of the bill.
The Senate on Monday passed an identical version, and after a few procedural steps, Marylanders will have this choice before them on the 2024 general election ballot.
Abortion is already legal in Maryland. But lawmakers took this step after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed the right to an abortion.
When can Marylanders legally buy marijuana?
If the bills keep cranking through the sausage grinder as they have, Marylanders should be able to legally buy cannabis on July 1.
Most existing medical cannabis dispensaries will pay a fee to convert their licenses so they can sell to recreational consumers by then. The recreational cannabis product will likely be the same, just taxed 6% at the register. Medical cannabis will remain tax-free.
The legislative gears started churning through the Senate on this issue last week. The bill has already passed the House.
So far, it seems lawmakers from both chambers agree the bill is a priority for this legislative session, especially if they want to stomp out the illicit market. If the Senate and House versions of the bill differ, a gaggle of legislators from each side will get together to iron out the differences.