With Marylanders obsessed over NCAA brackets, another kind of March madness took hold in the General Assembly Monday, as lawmakers faced a crucial deadline that determined which bills have a chance at becoming law in the final weeks of the 90-day legislative session.

Lawmakers put forward a stacked roster of top contenders — bills that set up an industry for legal cannabis; speed up the minimum wage increase to $15; limit the scope of concealed carry gun permits; enable survivors of child sexual abuse to sue institutions; and ensure gender-affirming health care for Marylanders on Medicaid.

They’re also well on their way to approving the state government’s $63 billion budget, including socking away hundreds of millions of extra dollars for future costs of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an ambitious and expensive plan to improve public schools.

Lawmakers were in and out of voting sessions throughout Monday afternoon and evening, pushing their legislation past a key deadline.

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Monday is known as “crossover day” in the State House. The rules require bills to pass one chamber — either the House of Delegates or the state Senate — by the end of the day on Monday, to ensure the other chamber will consider it.

If a bill languished without passage by the end of the day, it’s generally safe to consider it effectively defeated. The exception, however, is for high-priority bills that leaders can whisk through the process with a few procedural maneuvers.

All bills eventually need to be approved by both chambers in the exact same form by the end of the session on April 10 in order to be sent to the governor for his consideration.

House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, presides over the House on Monday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In order to beat the crossover deadline, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson led their chambers through hours and hours of debates and votes.

The majority of bills that move through the General Assembly are not controversial — adjusting rules for local liquor licenses, making minor tweaks to government programs — and Jones and Ferguson each rolled through the requisite procedure of offering chances for amendments and debates before proceeding to votes.

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“Is there any debate? If not, the clerk will call the roll. Has everyone recorded their vote? Does anyone care to change their vote? If not, the clerk will take the call.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson bangs his gavel to end the day at the Maryland State House on Monday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

As the House and Senate met simultaneously, Gov. Wes Moore stood in the marble hall between the chambers and projected optimism on the fate of his bills. Though all 10 of his bills remained alive, he said he still had work to do to get them all the way through the process.

“There’s no victory lap until we start signing things,” the Democratic governor told reporters. “But the thing that I do know is that we’re incredibly excited about where we are.”

As the dust settled on a flurry of lawmaking, here’s where some key initiatives stood, starting with bills that already have been passed or are nearing passage in at least one chamber.

Minimum wage

Moore’s proposal to accelerate a $15-per-hour minimum wage has been changed by lawmakers but is moving forward.

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Under a plan approved by the Senate, the $15 wage would go into effect on Jan. 1, instead of Oct. 1 as Moore sought. The Democratic governor also wanted future increases to the minimum wage to be automatic and tied to inflation, but senators nixed that idea.

The proposal, known as the Fair Wage Act, awaits action in the House.

Family Prosperity Act

Both the House and Senate have approved a bill proposed by Moore that enhances two tax credits that help lower-income workers, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Just a few procedural steps remain — each chamber has to sign off on the other chamber’s bill — before the legislation heads back to the governor for his signature.

The Family Prosperity Act and the minimum wage boost represent Moore’s first steps toward carrying out his ambitious goal of ending child poverty in the state.

Veterans assistance

Moore had proposed exempting more military retirement income from taxes. A version of his Keep Our Heroes Home Act won approval in the Senate without opposition on Monday. That version sets the tax break as less generous than Moore had sought, but still a more generous benefit than the current law allows.

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Another bill from the governor to pay for health insurance premiums for members of the National Guard in the government TRICARE program has been scaled back by the Senate, but the House has yet to act.

Child abuse lawsuits

Lawmakers are on track to lift limitations on the ability to sue institutions that enabled child sexual abusers.

This effort has fallen short in previous years, and cleared a key roadblock when the Senate approved a bill called the Child Victims Act last week. The bill removes all age limits for filing lawsuits and sets caps on potential damages that institutions such as churches and schools might have to pay.

The House of Delegates is expected to follow with approval as well.

Gun rights and safety

The Senate and House have advanced different versions of bills to curtail the use of concealed carry gun permits, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last summer that makes it easier for handgun owners to get the permits.

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Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat, listens to floor debate at the Maryland State House on Monday, March 20, also known as Crossover Day in Annapolis. General Assembly session rules require bills to pass one chamber — either the House of Delegates or the state Senate — by the end of the day on Monday, to ensure the other chamber will consider it.
Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat, listens to floor debate at the Maryland State House on Monday. He chairs the Judiciary Committee that’s been working on gun bills. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The Senate approved a bill that limits where in public concealed carry is allowed, while the House passed a bill that puts more restrictions on who can qualify for a permit. Lawmakers would need to work out their differences for some or all of those restrictions to be put into place.

The House and Senate also have taken slightly different approaches to tightening the rules against leaving guns where minors or others who aren’t supposed to have guns can access them.

Selling legal marijuana

Lawmakers set a priority of laying out the framework for a legal marijuana industry, following a vote from Marylanders last fall authorizing legalization.

The House’s proposal to license and tax a recreational cannabis market leapt across Bladen Street into the hands of the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month.

Sen. Melony Griffith claps as Senate President Bill Ferguson announces that the State Senate’s “desk is clear” for the day at the Maryland State House on Monday, March 20, also known as Crossover Day in Annapolis. General Assembly session rules require bills to pass one chamber — either the House of Delegates or the state Senate — by the end of the day on Monday, to ensure the other chamber will consider it.
Sen. Melony Griffith, Prince George’s County Democrat and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, claps as Senate President Bill Ferguson announces that the Senate’s “desk is clear” for the day on Monday. Seated next to her is Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery Democrat and sponsor of cannabis industry legislation. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Once enacted, the law would allow medical cannabis dispensaries to sell recreational products after paying a conversion fee, just in time for the July 1 deadline. That’s the day Marylanders 21 and older can possess up to 1.5 ounces of recreational cannabis for personal use, according to rules approved by voters in a November ballot referendum.

It’s now up to the Senate to review the House’s work and make their own edits. Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat who will steer the bill through his chamber, said his colleagues must work swiftly to squash illegal sales.

Jones said she’ll be keeping an eye on this signature legislation “until it is across the finish line, but I’m very pleased with where we are in the process right now.” The Baltimore County Democrat was a key backer of infusing the bill with social equity measures to open the market to minority business owners.

Maryland 529 plan reforms

A bill to reconfigure Maryland’s government-sponsored college savings plans is not expected to make the crossover deadline. But leaders have declared this a high priority and are committed to reform this session.

The legislation would move management of the Maryland 529 program into the office of state Treasurer Dereck Davis, and it would phase out part of the program that allows guardians to pre-pay for college tuition. The change comes after Maryland 529 distributed, and then took back, money from thousands of account holders last year.

Reproductive health care

The General Assembly’s effort to expand reproductive care access in the state has proved largely successful thus far this session. Earlier in the session, Moore joined lawmakers to introduce a package of four bills aimed at making Maryland one of the most welcoming states in the country for abortion care.

Three of the four bills, all of which were filed in both the House and Senate, have passed in their chambers.

Both the House and Senate versions of a bill that would give voters in 2024 the option to enshrine the right to an abortion in the Maryland Constitution passed in their original chambers well ahead of the crossover deadline.

Bills aimed at tightening privacy around digital medical records passed in the Senate on March 11, and in the House on Monday morning.

Another bill that would require public colleges and universities to create a plan in consultation with students to ensure they have access to reproductive health services — including abortion and emergency contraception — on or near campus passed in the Senate on Thursday, and in the House Monday morning.

The Reproductive Health Protection Act passed the Senate on Friday, but is not likely to pass in the House of Delegates before the end of crossover day. It would bar a judge from requiring someone to give testimony or produce evidence for a case involving an alleged violation of health care-related criminal law in another state, thereby shielding them from prosecution.

Reimbursing benefits theft victims

Both chambers on Monday passed a bill requiring the state to reimburse those who lose their public benefits due to theft. In 2022, over $1 million was stolen from Marylanders receiving government food and cash assistance.

As written, both bills require the Department of Human Services to reimburse benefits stolen between Jan. 1, 2022 and Oct. 1, 2022.

But legislators will have to work out some slight differences in the bills and vote on each again before it gets sent to the governor’s desk.

Each chamber’s bill proposes looking back even further in time and reimbursing benefits stolen in recent years, as long as the department can show the benefits were stolen.

Both bills require the state to work with the electronic benefits transfer card vendor to make cards more secure.

Rafael J. López, the agency secretary, said he wants the reimbursement process to be “simple, seamless and swift” for theft victims. Should the bill pass with its amendments, victims will no longer be required to submit a police report to the agency.

A 2022 federal law authorized states to use federal funds to pay back fund stolen from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, an action previously prohibited. Gov. Wes Moore has already set aside $11.3 million as part of a broader plan approved by the federal government to pay back Marylanders who lost their benefits through card skimming in his first supplemental budget.

Testing for fentanyl

Inspired by the death of Baltimore native Josh Siems, the House of Delegates approved a bill requiring hospitals to test for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, when they test for other drugs. Cheers and applause rang out in the House chamber as the vote board lit up with all green votes.

Despite the rapid growth in the use of fentanyl — both willingly and unwillingly — most hospitals don’t test for it because it’s not part of a standard toxicology screening. That was the case for Siems, whose records didn’t show fentanyl even though there was evidence he took fentanyl when he overdosed. The bill is being named in his honor, and has a hearing in the Senate this week.

Attorney general’s powers

Attorney General Anthony Brown, a Democrat, sought approval for three bills that would expand the powers of his office, and two are moving forward.

The Senate already approved a bill giving Brown’s office the authority to prosecute police officers in incidents that involve deaths. His office already has an independent division that investigates fatal police encounters, but since that division took over these investigations, local prosecutors haven’t lodged any criminal charges.

The Senate also passed a bill authorizing Brown’s office to enforce state civil rights laws.

Both of those bills are awaiting action in the House of Delegates.

A third bill, which would allow Brown to sue the firearms industry for their role in gun violence, had not advanced in either chamber as of Monday afternoon.

State budget

The approximately $63 billion dollar spending plan for state government is chugging through the approval process. The House of Delegates passed its version of the plan, while the Senate is expected to debate its version this week.

Both chambers have tweaked Moore’s proposal, particularly his plans to sock away $500 million for future transportation projects — including the east-west Red Line transit proposal in Baltimore — and $500 million for future spending in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an ambitious and expensive plan to improve public schools.

Del. Ben Barnes, chair of the Appropriations Committee, takes a call during floor debate on Monday. The House has already passed the main budget bill. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The House moved transportation money over to the Blueprint fund, to bring that to $900 million. They left $100 million for planning for the Red Line and for transit in Southern Maryland.

The Senate, which is taking up the budget this week, plans to put $800 million total for future Blueprint spending.

Another difference on education: The House maintained Moore’s plan of spending $8 million (down from $10 million last year) on the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today — or BOOST — program, which pays private school tuition for certain students. The Senate has shown interest in restoring the funding to the $10 million level.

All differences in the budget will be worked out in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

And these proposals have been voted down or languished without action and will miss the crossover deadline:

Four-day workweek

Unfortunately for those hoping for three-day weekends, a bill was withdrawn that would have given grants to companies that have their employees working for four days instead of five.

Medical aid in dying

Lawmakers have not acted on a proposal to allow terminally ill Marylanders to be prescribed drugs they could use to end their lives. This proposal has been circulated in Annapolis for years, and last came up for significant debate in 2019, when it failed on a rare tie vote in the state Senate.

Gun penalties

Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, who was elected as the city’s top prosecutor last fall, came to Annapolis with a request to stiffen a penalty for gun possession. His bill, however, has not advanced in the process.

The bill from Bates would have increased the maximum sentence for people who are 21 and older for wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun without a permit from three years in prison to five years. The change would have made the penalty match the punishment for those younger than 21 with the same violation.




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