Maryland General Assembly Legislative Wrap-Up Highs, lows for Jewish lawmakers

The most recent Maryland General Assembly session was an eventful one for Jewish lawmakers and lobbyists in which many priorities were funded and top policy initiatives both passed and failed.

Bobby Zirkin (Photo by Rebecca Gardner)

Lawmakers voted to pass a bill to ban the controversial natural gas extraction technique known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. They also approved legislation that would give five paid sick days to most Maryland workers.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), the Senate’s lead sponsor of the fracking bill, said he had been working “for more than a year” to convince Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to ban the practice.

“It’s been a long haul to get this bill passed,” Zirkin said of fracking. “Gov. Hogan was more than willing to help [once convinced], and this was an issue that Democrats and Republicans exerted a lot of effort to get passed. It’s a prime example of ways decisions should be to benefit the people.”

While Hogan signed the fracking bill, it remains unclear whether the governor will authorize the General Assembly’s mandatory earned sick and safe leave bill that passed both chambers with a veto-proof majority. Hogan previously had said the legislation would be “dead on arrival,” but he remained mum on the last day of session, April 10, on whether he planned to sign or veto it.

Zirkin, who opposes the bill in its current form, proposed an amendment to allow businesses to be exempt from having to provide the benefit by applying for a hardship waiver from the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Had his amendment been added for inclusion, Zirkin, an attorney who runs his own law practice and offers earned sick and safe leave to his employees, said he would have thrown his support behind the measure.

“With issues like these, we have to be careful we aren’t hurting our small businesses,” Zirkin said. “I heard from a local lifeguard company that this bill would have raised their expenses by $250,000, which would have put them out of business.”

Another issue of particular note to Zirkin and the Jewish community was a bill that would have that would prevented companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel from doing business with the state. The bill, which failed to make it to the House and Senate floors for a vote, is expected to be brought back up next year, according to its lobbyists and bill sponsors.

“Unfortunately, other matters demanded the attention of the legislators, resulting in the bills being sidelined this current session,” the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) wrote in a prepared statement. “We’re confident that next year we will receive even further support on this issue and look forward to continuing to work side-by-side with our friends and allies in the state legislature until we secure overwhelmingly bipartisan passage.”

Zirkin, lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said there is a possibility Hogan, a supporter of the anti-BDS legislation, could issue an executive order on the matter before next year’s session. Sixteen states have adopted laws or executive orders targeting the movement.

“I would say not getting that bill passed this session was one of the biggest disappointments,” Zirkin said of the anti-BDS legislation. “It was extremely frustrating. I think, now more than ever, it is time for us to send a strong message that we will not stand for this.”

Despite the setback on the anti-BDS legislation, BJC officials said there were many positives to take away from the session.

Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, said the state agreed to provide level funding for all of his organization’s requests totaling $3.175 million. That total will also help fund The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s agencies and programs.

The BJC’s main budget request this session was $2 million for a community primary- and specialty-care complex at Sinai Hospital, which was funded last year for the first time.

“At a time when there aren’t many increases in the budget, we are very appreciative of the support we are receiving from the state,” Libit said.

The state budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, totals $30.6 billion, a $400 million increase from the previous year’s budget.

As part of the state budget the General Assembly passed in late March, more than $5.5 million was set aside to continue the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program to help low-income students attend private schools.

Libit applauded the state’s decision to increase the funding for BOOST from the $5 million it received in its inaugural year in 2016. He noted it would ensure that more than 700 students at 10 different Jewish schools who benefited from the program this school year would again remain in the program.

“We’ve seen and heard from many families just how much of a difference this had made in their children’s lives,” Libit said. “We hope to see the program funded for years to come and that many more families can benefit.”

In other fiscal matters this session, Zirkin was able to broker a solution on the former Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, which is finally expected to be transferred and sold to Stevenson University.

Zirkin said $16 million in state-sponsored bond loans has been set aside over the next three years combined to redevelop the former psychiatric hospital, which closed in 2009. In addition, Zirkin added the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC would also have access to part of the 178-acre site.

“This was a long time in the making, and I’m just really glad we were finally able to figure out something concrete for Rosewood,” Zirkin said. “It’s an issue that I had put on the fast track when the session first began.”

Jews United for Justice, which lobbied in favor of earned sick and safe leave, was also pursuing bills on police and rent court reform, the latter of which the group worked on with Del. Sandy Rosenberg, and neither of which passed this year.

“I was deeply disappointed that the Maryland General Assembly missed this opportunity to pass legislation that would support some of our state’s most vulnerable residents,” said Michele Levy, who co-chaired JUFJ’s rent court campaign.

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

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