Legislative Look-Back

The most prominent bills passed by the General Assembly in 2014 include bills raising the minimum wage and reforming the state’s marijuana policies. (Kevin Galens/Wikimedia.com)

The most prominent bills passed by the General Assembly in 2014 include bills raising the minimum wage and reforming the state’s marijuana policies. (Kevin Galens/Wikimedia.com)

For many in Maryland’s Jewish communities, the recently-concluded 2014 legislative session was a success.

With a resolution to much of the state’s kosher wine problem, the passage of a bill expanding pre-kindergarten to more Maryland children and the inclusion of an amendment to the budget denouncing the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, in addition to inclusion of many Jewish-supported budget points, both the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Baltimore Jewish Council are pleased with what was accomplished in 2014.

“It was an incredibly successful session,” said Cailey Locklair, the BJC’s director of government relations and public policy.

In both Washington and Baltimore, Jewish social service agencies secured funding to continue their work.

The BJC’s budgetary priorities this year included funding for domestic violence medical training, health care for the uninsured and underinsured, an elder abuse center, the Hillel Center for Social Justice and the Maryland/Israel Development Center, among others. A $50,000 bond bill to help Jewish Community Services renovate housing for developmentally disabled adults was also introduced by Del. Dana Stein and passed. Among the BJC’s policy priorities that were approved were a minimum wage increase and increasing the selection of kosher wine available to Marylanders.

The BJC reached an agreement with the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, Inc. and the Field Enforcement Division of the comptroller’s office to help increase the variety and accessibility of kosher wine, a longtime issue for both the BJC and the JCRC.

Under the agreement, the comptroller created a website that lists kosher wines obtainable in Maryland and the distributors that sell them; retailers will be educated on how to order the wines; the number of kosher wines available in Maryland will increase to 1,000 by 2015; and distributors will maintain lists of the kosher wines they sell.

“We are extremely pleased,” said Locklair.

JCRC executive director Ron Halber said that the settlement reached wasn’t perfect, but it has paved the way for further gains in the future.

Both groups spent time dealing with how to respond to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. A rift between the two Jewish community organizations on the issue became apparent in early March when they took opposite sides on proposed legislation that would have placed a financial penalty on state universities for funding faculty participation in ASA-sponsored events. The inclusion of language in the budget condemning academic boycotts satisfied both organizations, but committee hearings on March 5 and 6 made the divide public.

“It could have been handled better on all sides,” said Halber, noting that such a public disagreement between the two organizations threatens
legislators’ trust in both to present them with ideas supported by the Jewish community as a whole.

The boycott bill, he noted, was the one blemish on the Jewish community’s record. Each side, however, considered the final amendment a legislative win.

“It’s a huge victory for Maryland and for the Jewish community in Maryland that our state has taken such a strong stance on boycott, divestment and sanctions,” said Locklair. “The movement is only going to continue to grow and for our state to say, ‘We don’t support the BDS movement’ … we couldn’t be happier.”

One policy priority that didn’t survive the session was a bill that would have required a French rail company implicated in the transport of Jews
to concentration camps to pay reparations before it could bid on the suburban D.C. Purple Line commuter rail project.

The bill died in committee, but Locklair framed the fight as an opportunity to educate legislators about the Holocaust.

“It was a very good session,” surmised Halber. “Our priorities were passed, relations with legislators were strengthened.”

On pre-K expansion, which would allow Jewish day schools to receive state funding if they choose to participate in the state’s program, Halber said “it certainly has the potential to allow Jewish families of lower income to access a Jewish education.”

In February, members of the Orthodox Union joined with day school teachers and administrators to testify on behalf of the bill. Although the program could potentially result in day school pre-kindergarten’s functioning almost identically to public classrooms, those members of the Jewish community present said the potential good expanded access could do for local Jewish children would likely make any challenges well worth it.

The 2014 session, said Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), saw a lot of compromise among legislators.

He pointed to the passage of bills dealing with marijuana and raising the minimum wage as evidence of a spirit of cooperation. Through changes and amendments, the General Assembly managed to come to enough agreement to pass them all.

“This was a less contentious year than other years,” said Stein.

Professor Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, called this legislative session one of the most boring in history.

“I don’t think there was a whole lot on the agenda, and I think that was probably intentional because this is an election year,” he said. “Delegates and senators don’t want their positions to come back and bite them when they run for office.”

Stein added that many hot -button issues had been dealt with in previous sessions.

Other than decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, passage of an effective medical marijuana bill and raising the minimum wage to $10.10, Norris argued that not much happened. And on the minimum wage, he wasn’t convinced the new rate is significant.

“The $10.10 minimum wage doesn’t kick in until 2018,” said Norris. “By then, four more years of purchasing power will have eroded through
inflation.”

With that in mind, he said Maryland legislators, generally known for being “deep blue liberal progressives,” didn’t do much for the poor. They
did a lot for the rich, he contended, including granting $15 million in tax breaks to movie producers.

With the session being Gov. Martin O’Malley’s last in office, Norris said he set himself up favorably if he decides to seek higher office.

“A number of these issues, such as minimum wage, marijuana, transgender discrimination and issues in prior years are all really good issues for Martin to use when he’s running for president, because those resonate with the democratic base,” he said.

House Minority Leader Del. Nicholaus Kipke (R-District 31) said his party was pleased with the passage of the medical marijuana bill and bills advancing election reform in the state, but he had hoped to see more work on taxes.

“We have a laser-like focus on tax reform in Maryland,” said Kipke. “Right now Maryland has a lot of assets, we have a good economy, but I think if we got our tax policy in a more competitive light, we would make our state so much more prosperous.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com
hnorris@jewishtimes.com

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