September 16, 2022
It is a rare person who cannot remember the excitement and trepidation of leaving the long days of summer behind to reunite with friends for a new school year. Thankfully, Maryland’s students are back in the classroom this fall. However, a new report reveals the devastating impact of COVID-19 on students’ academic health.
 
The study, released by the National Center for Education Statistics last week, measures reading and math achievement for nine-year-old children across the country. For the first time in the five decades since the Center has tracked student progress, math scores fell and performance in reading dropped by the largest margin in more than 30 years. The starkest declines were seen in the lowest-performing students and children of color.

The impact of COVID-19 has widened racial and socio-economic gaps in learning that may have lasting effects on a generation of students. As a State, we must deeply commit to the ground-breaking tenants of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the transformational legislation that will create world-class public schools for all students, to address these troubling trends. The Blueprint invests in specialized tutoring, early childhood education, college and career readiness, state-of-the-art schools, and support for educators so we can deliver the promise for a better future for every Maryland student.
Senate Finance Committee SNAP Hearing
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have allowed many in our community to put food on the table in dark times, especially during the pandemic. Alarmingly, there has been a stark increase in Baltimoreans unable to access their approved SNAP benefits. Others have reported deep frustration over recouping the fraudulent theft of these life-sustaining resources, meaning they face impossible choices about putting food on their families’ table, maintaining a roof over their heads, and ensuring their children have the basic school supplies they need to thrive.
 
Last week, The Baltimore Banner highlighted this crisis in a story about a brave and indefatigable woman who was forced to track down the thieves who stole her benefits without the help of authorities. These are the most vulnerable families in Maryland, and we must uphold our commitment to ensure these vital resources get to those most in need.
 
On September 20 at 2:00 p.m., the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing to ensure accountability for the roadblocks Marylanders are facing. If you have been impacted, I encourage you to lend your experience and voice to this important hearing by providing written or oral testimony. You can find details on how to submit that testimony here.
$162 Million for Maryland's State Parks
Earlier this month, I joined former Governor Parris Glendening, Senator Sarah Elfreth, Delegate Eric Luedtke, and Annapolis Mayor Buckley to announce $162 million in funding through the Great Maryland Outdoors Act of 2022 to bolster Maryland’s state parks, including honoring and restoring an historic black beach in Anne Arundel County.
 
The six-acre plot of land includes a stretch of beach once owned by Lizzie Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow, a beloved refuge during the hot Baltimore summer for African Americans who were denied access to other beaches because of the color of their skin. In its heyday, many well-known musicians performed there, including Count Basie's band, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald. The tract will become home to a waterfront park to honor this important African American history and preserve the legacy and culture of these beaches.
 
The Great Maryland Outdoors Act, passed in the 2022 Legislative Session by the General Assembly, provides historic funding for the maintenance of existing parks, acquisition of new land to increase access, and to hire additional park rangers. This $162 million investment is the largest in our State’s history.
State Surplus
The Maryland Board of Public Works announced this week that the State of Maryland has an unanticipated budget surplus of around $2 billion for a second year. The legislature has been intentional about making strategic and prudent investments over the last few years, helping to ensure our State's ongoing fiscal health. At the same time, we must continue to be cautious as signs of economic turmoil linger and the longer term remains unpredictable.

Much of the surplus is already accounted for through action in the 2022 Legislative Session, including an allocation of $500 million to the State's Rainy Day Fund, increasing the balance to $1.66 billion. Another $370 million will go towards capital investments throughout our public education system. Finally, we will continue investing in our State workforce, where salaries have lagged for far too long.

Addressing the remaining fund balance next Session in a responsible and targeted manner will be a top priority, especially as Marylanders overwhelmingly voted through ballot referendum to give the Maryland General Assembly greater budgetary authority.
Student Loan Debt Relief
I was happy to see that President Biden has taken a critical step in tackling the student-loan debt crisis in our country by providing relief to millions of Americans and thousands of Marylanders who need it the most. If you received a Pell Grant while in college and make less than $125,000 a year (or $250,000 as a household), you are eligible for up to $20,000 in debt reduction. Non-Pell Grant recipients can receive up to $10,000 in debt reduction.

Many borrowers may be eligible for automatic relief if the U.S. Department of Education has the relevant income data. For individuals that do not receive automatic relief, an application will be available by early October with expected approval in 4-6 weeks. Borrowers are advised to apply before November 15 to ensure relief ahead of the repayment pause ending on December 31, 2022, though applications will continue to be processed after that date. More information can be found online here.
Potential Changes Coming to State Center
Governor Hogan has announced his intention to transfer ownership of the State Center office complex to the City of Baltimore once all employees are moved to Baltimore’s Central Business District. There are a number of legal hurdles to clear before that offer can become a reality, and it is an immensely complex and costly project for redevelopment. With that said, the reimagining of this important site is exciting and provides the City an opportunity to invest in and uplift Baltimore’s midtown communities after years of stagnation.
Safety Improvements for Little Italy
I was happy to welcome Governor Larry Hogan to Little Italy in the Fightin’ 46th Legislative District this month to announce a $500,000 investment in security enhancements for this historic downtown neighborhood. I enjoyed meeting and talking with many residents and business owners about their concerns and suggestions for the success and health of this vibrant part of our City. 

Little Italy is a cornerstone of Baltimore drawing regional visitors. At the same time, every single neighborhood throughout our City must feel safe and I will continue to work tirelessly until that value is realized. I want to thank the Governor for his partnership and welcome all Marylanders to come and enjoy this important cultural gem.
More News
Morgan State University is set to sign an estimated 35-year lease for a new osteopathic medical school that could net the university over $20 million in rent. The school has two primary goals: to increase the number of Black doctors entering the profession, and, in turn, to increase Black Baltimore residents’ access to physicians that look like them.

Almost $2 million in federal funding will be released as part of the State Small Business Credit Initiative. As our State continues to recover, this funding directly supports small and minority-owned businesses as they look to expand and scale up operations. For small businesses that would like more information, contact dhcd.ssbci@maryland.gov or call 866-226-3559.

Low-income homeowners can apply for the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit Program, which limits the property taxes owed based on an applicant’s income. Homeowners who have already paid property taxes and who apply for the program by Oct. 1 can be refunded their tax credit. Apply online, or download a paper form to print, fill out, and mail.

The first-ever Maryland Cycling Classic was held this month in Baltimore. Kudos to National road-cycling champion Kyle Murphy who partnered with UnitedHealthCare to gift new bicycles to 50 City students from James McHenry Elementary/Middle School.

When the General Assembly passed sports wagering, it did so with the goal of promoting diversity in the industry. The Maryland Sports Wagering Application Review Commission (SWARC) issued new rules for its mobile betting licensees this month that require all companies to seek out minority investors, to use the State’s minority business enterprise program in contracting, and to submit a substantive diversity plan to ensure meaningful minority participation in this new industry.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins hospitals may no longer accept insurance from one of the state’s dominant insurers, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. Johns Hopkins and CareFirst have until December 5th to reach an agreement over the portion of patient bills that goes toward physicians, other providers and potentially other fees, though not direct hospital services.

Across the Baltimore region Thursday, people contemplated the death of Queen Elizabeth II. In a long and rich life, the queen marked two milestones in Maryland: she attended both her first football and baseball games here in Maryland.
If there is anything we can do to help, please do not hesitate to contact my office via email, bill.ferguson@senate.state.md.us, or by phone, 410-841-3600.