The close of the 2014 session marks the last legislative session of this 4-year term and I want to take this opportunity to share with you some of the progress we have made on issues that are important to our district and to our State. With Maryland and the nation on the path to recovery from the worst economic recession in recent memory, our focus this session was on economic investment and on helping working families regain their financial foothold. Maryland continues to compare favorably to the rest of the nation with regard to our economic standing. We continue to be one of only a handful of states with a AAA bond rating; we boast the largest number of residents with post-graduate degrees in the country; we are ranked first in the nation in academic research and development and less than a year ago the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recognized Maryland as the top state for entrepreneurship and innovation; and as a state, we have recovered 99% of jobs lost during the economic
recession. We worked to build on this success during the 2014 session and I outline some of those efforts for you below. In addition, we passed important legislation protecting public safety, expanding educational opportunities, and improving the health of our communities.
Here in our own community, Senator John Astle and I worked diligently to fund priorities that enhance our quality of life and expand opportunities, especially for our youngest citizens:
• $275 million for school construction and modernizing classrooms, including projects at Mills Parole, Rolling Knolls, and West Annapolis Elementary schools. Over the past decade, we have invested nearly $3 billion in public school construction across the State. We also included $3.5 million for improvements at Annapolis and South River High School athletic facilities.
• An engineering study to begin the process of relieving traffic congestion at the Severn River Bridge
• $1.15 to continue renovations to the community theaters and classrooms at Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts and Chesapeake Arts Center
• $2.75 million for improvements at the YWCA domestic violence shelter, Light House shelter, Hospice of the Chesapeake, and Anne Arundel Medical Center.
The Capital Budget is the State government’s best job creation tool. The funding in this year’s Capital Budget will create and maintain 14,000 direct and indirect jobs and another 17,000 jobs from the $1.5 billion of local and private funds leveraged by the State’s capital spending, by only funding projects that are ready to proceed and immediately help the State’s economy.
A Balanced Budget that Invests in Education and Preserves State Pensions
The fiscal 2015 budget passed by the General Assembly continues investments in education, transportation, the environment, public safety and jobs, while constraining State spending growth to 3.5% and leaving a cash balance of almost $900 million. Maryland is consistently recognized as a great investment by Wall Street. We are one of only ten states to have a “Triple-A” bond rating and this budget continues to keep us fiscally sound. This year’s budget: fully funds K-12 education; increases funding for public universities and community colleges, including capping university tuition at 3%; expands access to affordable quality healthcare; funds environmental and public safety priorities; and supports State workers with cost of living and merit increases, for the first time since 2009, and avoids cuts to retiree benefits.
This year, the State will invest an additional $100 million into the pension plan – above the $1.6 billion that the State is required to invest to sustain the pension system, instead of the $200 million additional funding we had originally planned. The General Assembly enacted reforms to the pension system in 2011 to protect the long-term viability of the State’s pension fund, maintain a defined benefit program and ensure State employees and teachers that their hard-earned pension benefits will be there in the future. This was an important step, as we have seen defined benefit plans dwindle to less than 20% in the private sector and there is an increasing push in some states to shift public sector plans to defined contribution plans. Supplemental contributions will increase until the system is 85% funded. Like the mortgage that you pay every month, we are making our mortgage payments and identifying a plan to pay down even more of the principal every year. No employees are in
danger of losing one penny of their pension benefit and the State is fully meeting its obligation to the pension system.
Protecting Maryland’s Working Class
Increasing the Minimum Wage – According to a nonpartisan 2014 Congressional Budget Office report, raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 would lift 900,000 people out of poverty and add $31 billion to the earnings of low-wage Americans. I supported gradually increasing the State’s existing $7.25 hourly minimum wage for more than 67,000 hard-working Marylanders to $10.10 per hour by . Since the beginning of 2014, thirteen states have raised their hourly minimum wages, including: Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia.
Increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit – Widely recognized as one of the most effective tools for preventing working families from slipping into poverty, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have enacted state-level Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) that “piggyback” off the eligibility requirements of the federal credit. This year’s legislation increases State’s refundable EITC from 25% of the federal credit to 28% over a 4-year period.
Boosting Private Sector Investment in Maryland
A major focus of the 2014 Session was a joint business and economic development legislative package that draws on the strengths of our State and places Maryland in the best position to compete in the innovation economy of the future. The President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee noted that it was “ground-breaking” to see the legislature “come together to support an agenda that is so heavily focused on economic development.” According to the President of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, “this package of bills will make Maryland more competitive in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.” New initiatives for the private sector include:
• Private Sector Commission - During the 2014 Session, the General Assembly established a private-sector led commission to review the State’s economic development programs and business climate. This commission will make recommendations at the end of 2014 to improve the State’s business climate and economic development support structure.
• Establishing reduced Tax Zones to support investment around Anchor Institutions (RISE Zones) – New “RISE” Zones are designed to leverage the strength of institutional assets, including federal installations like Fort Meade and academic institutions like St. John’s College. Beginning on , anchor institutions may apply jointly with a local government to the State for designation and businesses in RISE Zones may qualify for 5-year income and property tax credits and priority consideration for a variety of financial assistance and State economic development programs.
• Fostering private-sector investment in early-stage, innovative Maryland startups - Maryland has one of the most elite cybersecurity networks in the country, with federal installations like Fort Meade, as well as private sector industries. This year, we created a new $1 million Cybersecurity Investment Fund that will provide seed and early-stage funding for emerging cybersecurity technology companies. Given Anne Arundel County’s cyber strengths, this fund will benefit the burgeoning cyber industry in our County as well.
• Other initiatives will: coordinate sustained, one-on-one mentoring to Maryland’s entrepreneurs through an executive-level network and skill development program; enhance front-line, public and private sector interactions through additional agency customer service training opportunities; and improve transparency on State tax forms by disclosing how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Also, beginning this year, Maryland will gradually recouple its $1 million estate tax exemption to the $5.3 million federal exclusion amount over a 5-year period, by calendar 2019. The legislature heard testimony from members of the business and nonprofit community as well as certified public accountants about the challenge of regional competitiveness with Maryland’s existing tax policy. These professionals noted that Virginia does not impose either estate or inheritance taxes, while Delaware’s estate tax is tied to the federal exclusion amount.
Pre-kindergarten Expansion Act of 2014 – Maryland was one of the first states in the country to establish a public pre-kindergarten program, starting with pilot programs in 1980. Today, public prekindergarten is available to all four-year-olds from families making less than 185% poverty ($43,500 for a family of 4). This year represents the first step in expanding Maryland’s public pre-kindergarten programs to provide full-day public pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds in the State, by establishing a competitive grant program of $4.3 million in the fiscal 2015 budget, which is expected to support half-day or full-day pre-kindergarten programs for roughly 1,600 children.
Strengthening Laws to Protect Victims of Abuse - Legislation passed to: reduce the burden of proof to allow the judge as much flexibility as possible to award a protective order in cases of abuse; require the court to issue a permanent final protective order against an individual in instances of second degree assault; and give judges the ability to enhance penalties for violent crimes committed in the presence of a minor over 2 years old.
Marijuana Decriminalization– This session, Maryland joined 15 other states and the District of Columbia in “decriminalizing” the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under current law, the use or possession of marijuana even in small amounts is punishable by jail time and fines. While still illegal in the State, new legislation reclassifies the use or possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana as a civil offense as opposed to a criminal, jailable offense for people over the age of 21, and requires fines and drug education for people under the age of 21. I became convinced of the merits of decriminalization when I learned of the wide racial disparity in the enforcement of the current criminal offense. Despite comparable rates of use, data show that nationally African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for simple possession of marijuana than are whites and arrest records can have a serious detrimental impact on an individual’s ability to pursue
educational, housing and employment opportunities. Many believe that police and prosecutor resources are better spent on more serious offenses. At under 10 grams, Maryland will have one of the most restrictive decriminalization statutes in the country.
Strengthening Road Safety Laws - Until we acted this session, a person who caused a serious injury or death when driving while distracted by texting or using a hand-held cell phone usually only resulted in a traffic ticket. Now, a person who kills or seriously injures someone while driving and using a handheld phone to talk or text faces charges under a new crime of up to one year in jail, 12 points on their license and any other applicable criminal charges. This bill, called “Jake’s Law,” comes as a result of the death of 5 year old Jake Owen, who was killed when the driver of an SUV was talking on a cellphone and struck his family’s car on a highway.
Eliminating breed specific dog laws – As a result of two years of negotiations between the House and the Senate to address the consequences of the 2012 Court of Appeals ruling in Tracey v. Solesky, legislation passed to address unfair liability on owners of pit bulls and landlords. All Maryland dog owners will be equally liable if their dog bites someone that results in injury or death, if the owner knew or should have known that their dog was dangerous. This new law provides accountability for dog owners without placing undue burdens on responsible dog owners and landlords, and prevents dog owners from being evicted because of the breed of their dogs.
Improving the State’s Health Care Delivery System
Maryland’s health exchange got off to a rocky start last fall with multiple software and website failures that caused the State to decide to switch to the system successfully used in Connecticut. Earlier this year, President Miller and I launched a Joint Oversight Group of House and Senate members to conduct ongoing meetings to assess and monitor the performance of the MHBE and increase access of uninsured Marylanders to high-quality, affordable health plans at a competitive cost in the private insurance market. The Joint Oversight Group had nonpartisan auditors review nearly 15,000 pages of documents relating to the initial launch of the Health Exchange in October of 2013 and has also requested the auditors to undertake both a fiscal and performance audit of the Health Exchange that is currently in the planning stages to commence early this summer. In addition, they are monitoring efforts to recoup funds from the initial vendors for failures with the October launch.
Despite the failures of the website, at the end of the first open enrollment, the State enrolled over 285,000 people into private, subsidized and government health insurance programs. The Joint Oversight Group will continue regular meetings to monitor and hold Department officials accountable for the switch to the Connecticut model, the fiscal and performance audits, as well as preparations for the next open enrollment in November of 2014.
Medical Marijuana – During the 2013 session, legislation was passed that allowed for the investigational use of marijuana for medical purposes. However, no state academic medical institution expressed interest in establishing a medical marijuana program, largely due to ongoing concerns regarding potential federal enforcement action. As a result, legislation passed this session expanding the structure of the State’s program in an effort to make medical marijuana available to individuals for whom such treatment would be beneficial. The new law allows the Medical Marijuana Commission to certify physicians to treat patients using medical marijuana and to license marijuana growers and dispensaries to create a supply chain for the program. This structure mirrors more traditional medical marijuana programs and is expected to better meet the needs of qualifying patients.
Fairness for Every Marylander
A recent survey in Maryland found that 71% of transgender Marylanders reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job because of their gender identity. Transgender persons are people whose gender identity does not correspond with their sex assigned at birth. The Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014 prohibits discrimination against transgendered Marylanders in public accommodations, labor and employment, and housing. The State follows many jurisdictions that already have gender identity non-discrimination laws in place. This legislation provides a venue for individuals to, in most instances, engage in mediation through the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, if they believe they have been discriminated against because of their gender identity, much like the protections in place for religious, ethnic and gender discrimination. We should not stand for government-sponsored discrimination against any Marylander, which is why I supported this legislation.
It continues to be both an honor and a privilege to represent the residents of District 30. As always, I hope you will contact me with your thoughts, questions at email@example.com.
Michael E. Busch