The Maryland Republican Party has to look for a new nominee to put on the State Board of Elections, after Gov. Wes Moore rejected the party’s pick of a self-described “election integrity activist.”

The state party put forward the name of William Newton, who has lost elections for Congress and House of Delegates, and says he is the chairman of the party’s “election integrity committee.” Newton frequently posts on social media about false claims that the 2020 presidential election and other elections were not accurate.

Moore was direct about his rejection in a letter he sent to Maryland Republican Party Chair Nicole Beus Harris: “I am of the opinion that Mr. Newton is not an appropriate selection for this important position of public trust.”

The governor’s letter continued: “Among other reasons, I do not believe that someone who has publicly supported challenging the legitimacy of Maryland’s free and fair elections should be entitled to make decisions regarding their administration.”

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The Republican Party released a copy of the governor’s letter, dated Feb. 17, while complaining in a statement: “The Governor is more interested in sneaky, hyper-partisan attacks than he is in ensuring that our elections are free and fair. His actions erode confidence in our democracy, which depends on checks and balances.”

The party’s proof of partisan attacks? They point to an earlier version of the letter, dated Feb. 16, that had been obtained and reported on by the news website Maryland Matters.

The earlier version of the letter said that Newton also had a “previous conviction for a crime of moral turpitude.” The letter didn’t elaborate, but online court records show Newton pleaded guilty and was granted probation before judgment to a misdemeanor charge of embezzlement in 2019.

Newton declined a request for comment on Friday, but he posted recently on Facebook: “IT IS MY belief (and of many others) that I have the qualifications and the demonstrated scholarship to serve on the Maryland State Board of Elections. I am entitled to an opportunity to defend myself and my Party’s expressed confidence in me as its nominee.”

Despite Newton’s wish to be considered, Harris from Maryland Republican Party said the party would send another name to the governor for consideration.

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All members of the Maryland State Board of Elections are appointed by the governor, with consent from the Maryland Senate. Three members must be from the governor’s party (in this case, Democrats) and two must represent the minority party (Republicans).

Women’s Caucus stands up for abortion rights

For the first time in decades, the women lawmakers of the Maryland General Assembly are making a concerted effort regarding the right to reproductive choice.

The Women Legislators of Maryland, more commonly called the Women’s Caucus, is backing a proposal to let voters decide on enshrining the right to reproductive choice into the state constitution. Those rights, including the right to abortion, are already guaranteed through a state law passed in the early 1990s.

In a statement, the caucus said it has “re-committed itself to protect the right to choose, for the first time in 40 years.”

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The caucus released a list of priorities for the remainder of the General Assembly session, which includes bills requiring public colleges to provide reproductive health care; not requiring medical providers to testify about legal Maryland abortions in cases brought by states where abortion is banned; and protecting medical records involving reproductive care.

Other priorities of the Women’s Caucus include bills that provide more generous tax credits for low-income workers, add funding to a child care program and ban insurance co-pays on certain breast cancer screenings, as well as creating an ombudsman for the state prison and repealing a provision that allows a person accused of sexual assault to offer a defense that they were married to the victim.

The Women’s Caucus in the past has been comprised of delegates and senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties. But last year, Republican lawmakers quit the caucus en masse amid a dispute over leadership of the caucus.

Senate prayer decorum dispute

Maryland’s state delegates and senators begin their sessions with prayer each day, but Senate President Bill Ferguson confirmed on Friday that standing for the prayer or participating in it is not required.

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Ferguson was asked by reporters to address the issue because one day earlier, Sen. Cheryl Kagan animatedly gestured to guests in the observation gallery to stand as a Christian minister delivered the daily prayer. Kagan stepped out from behind her desk and waved both arms up and down to indicate it was time to stand.

After the prayer was completed with many guests remaining seated, Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, stood to speak about the prayer as a moment to “stand united” despite “whatever our faith and whatever our beliefs and whatever our party.”

Looking up toward the observation balcony, she continued: “I just want to remind everyone who is in this body that it is out of respect, out of obligation and a hope for unity — and whether we are being ministered to by a priest, a rabbi, an imam or a secular leader — we show the respect and we convene together before we start our business.”

Ferguson said that in the moment, he wasn’t aware of what was happening because he was facing the minister.

“I want anybody that is visiting the Senate to feel welcome,” the Baltimore City Democrat said. “And I think that’s a very important value for the state of Maryland.”

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When asked if guests are required to stand for the morning prayer, Ferguson responded: “No one is required to stand in violation of sincerely held beliefs.”

“I have since had a conversation with the senator about how I didn’t think it was appropriate,” said Ferguson, referencing Kagan and her comments on the Senate floor. “And I don’t believe it’ll happen again.”

Kagan was asked about the incident by reporters later on Friday, and she reiterated her belief that the prayers are “universally uplifting and meaningful.”

Kagan said “it is customary that every senator and everyone in the gallery and the staff all rise to honor and respect the person who’s delivering the invocation.” She said she thought she was helping a state trooper on the floor of the Senate who had also gestured for people to stand.

Informed by a reporter that Ferguson had made a public statement that standing for prayer is not required, Kagan said: “That was not anything that had ever been experienced or shared before.”

The guests who did not stand were students from an Islamic school, who later were introduced and applauded by senators. Reporters asked Kagan if she’d reached out to the school, but she ended the interview without answering.

Halfway through with lots to do

Given the high volume of legislation and budget requests flooding the Senate, President Bill Ferguson on Friday acknowledged he and his chamber colleagues have some “tough choices” ahead.

The Maryland General Assembly passed the halfway mark of its 90-day legislative session Friday.

Each year, the legislature churns through thousands of bills, and only squeezes a fraction of them into new Maryland laws during the 90-day legislative session.

It’s realistic to expect “good bills won’t get done,” Ferguson said, mostly due to a backlog created when hundreds of bills were introduced days before a filing deadline.

The Baltimore City Democrat said he expected the “pace and tempo on the floor” to pick up over the next three weeks as senators try to advance their bills before “crossover day,” a deadline for bills to reach the opposite chamber to have any chance of moving forward.

This year’s crossover date is March 20.

Adding to the workload, the Senate also has about $2 billion in budget requests to consider, Ferguson said. The state closed its last fiscal year with a record surplus, and this is the first year Maryland legislators can exercise their power to add budget line items.

”It is always the case that there’s an inexhaustible demand and limited supply of what we can do with the state budget,” Ferguson said. “This year, it is exceedingly inexhaustible.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee to decide whether to include the line items in the budget as it moves through the process.

Ferguson urged spending state money wisely amid economic slowdowns, high national inflation and two quarters of declining state revenue estimates.

”We have to make sure that we’re funding everything that we need to have, and then secondarily what we would want to have,” he said.

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