Black state lawmakers in Annapolis unveiled an ambitious agenda on Thursday, aiming to promote the health and prosperity of Black Marylanders across the state.
The General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland is the largest caucus of its kind in the nation, with 66 members, all Democrats. The caucus represents a powerful voting bloc and has influence over legislation. And their members have ascended to leadership positions, including the speaker of the House of Delegates, the president pro tem of the Senate and five committee chairs.
“We are more than these positions. We are making these seats matter,” said Del. Jheanelle Wilkins of Prince George’s County, chair of the Black caucus. “We are spurring and leading change and a more just society in our work here in Annapolis every single day, as well as in our communities.”
Here’s a look at some of the key priorities of the caucus this year:
Building Black wealth and businesses: The caucus supports bills to expand state contracting opportunities for minority-owned businesses, as well as improved transparency about how much money is flowing to those businesses. They also want to improve awareness of when contracts are up for bid so that minority companies can apply for them.
“If our state does not allow for them to know these opportunities exist, they will always be left to the outside,” said Sen. Nick Charles of Prince George’s County.
Improving health: The Maryland Maternal Health Act would require doctors to better screen and coordinate care for pregnant women, as Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women. The act also would require more study and reporting on the causes of mortality.
They also support a bill expanding a relatively new state board’s authority to set maximum prices for drugs, as well as another requiring the state to create a marketing campaign to promote recently expanded no-cost cancer testing.
Making housing and transportation more affordable: The caucus supports legislation that would require landlords seeking to evict tenants to give reasons for the evictions. Another bill would ban rental applications from asking a prospective tenant about criminal history, and limiting how much landlords can use criminal history in deciding whether to rent to someone.
And lawmakers support coming up with a dedicated funding stream to pay for mass transit projects, which are vitally important for people to get to work and school, said Del. Robbyn Lewis of Baltimore. “It’s a civil right, the ability to move, the ability to seek opportunity, the ability to find a job, to move to a location where you can start a business,” she said.
Improving educational equity: Lawmakers will work to expand community schools, which offer additional family and community support in high-poverty areas. They’ll also back efforts to block state universities from duplicating programs already offered at historically black colleges and universities in the state.
The caucus also will work to change a proposal from Gov. Wes Moore that requires a co-pay from new recipients of a valuable child care scholarship before they can receive the funds. “For working families that are eligible for a child care scholarship, having to face potential co-pays at anywhere from $100 to $300 [a month] could actually make the value of the scholarship program less potent,” said Del. Stephanie Smith of Baltimore.
Reforming the justice system: Another caucus-supported bill would create an ombudsman office for the state’s prison to monitor and audit conditions for people who are incarcerated — potentially saving the state money by fixing problems that can result in lawsuits. “The correctional ombudsman will provide eyes and ears behind the walls,” said Del. Debra Davis of Charles County.
Lawmakers also want to expand the types of convictions individuals can seek to expunge and offer more support for people returning to the community from prison.
Lawmakers also expect to play defense this year to protect laws passed in previous years. Chief among them is the Child Interrogation Protection Act, which requires police to connect children in custody with a lawyer who can advise them of their rights.
That law has come under fire from police and prosecutors who say that it makes solving crimes more difficult. But Democratic leaders in the legislature have signaled that they’re not interested in rolling it back.
The Black caucus also plans to protect a law passed last year that prevents police officers from pulling over vehicles based solely on the smell of marijuana, given that cannabis is now legal for adult use in Maryland.