February 14, 2022
February has been an exciting month in session. Despite COVID-19 affecting our State for two years, we are gradually moving forward and making progress on behalf of our constituents by tackling many issues exacerbated and created by the pandemic. 

I am pleased that we started to address one of the most critical issues this week - childcare. COVID-19 has decreased the affordability and availability of providers, thus impacting parents and childcare centers. Last Thursday, during a joint press conference with Speaker Adrienne Jones and several colleagues, I announced a package of bills that supports childcare providers and increases access to childcare facilities.

It is imperative for families to have access, but also to ensure that providers are compensated with a livable wage. As the General Assembly finishes the first third of session, please know that I am committed to protecting the health and well-being of the people of the 46th Legislative District and preparing for a better future.
Rethinking Service through Maryland Corps 
Service is a powerful tool for bringing people together with a shared purpose and vision for what’s possible. Individuals, regardless of political affiliation or background, generally believe in building a society where opportunity is foundational no matter one’s circumstance. As a Teach for America alumnus, I know from firsthand experience that service has the power to bring people together in a setting where learning from one another is integral to outcomes. Originally created in 2016 by statute, Maryland Corps is meant to serve as the mechanism for expanding service year and national service opportunities in Maryland that may lead to additional long-term employment options. 

Last Wednesday, I testified in support of my Maryland Corps legislation, Senate Bill 228, so that more Marylanders can benefit from these experiences. The bill creates and funds a quasi-public agency focused on coordinating service opportunities in the State of Maryland that match 21st century needs of participants and communities. 

It will also help remove barriers to entry so those who would benefit most from service years have the ability to participate in the program. Ultimately, the bill builds new pathways to service through scaling up service slots with existing organizations, incentivizing large-scale employers to offer service year opportunities, and building opportunities within State and local government.
Increasing Childcare Access
This past Thursday, House Speaker Adrienne Jones and I, along with members of the Senate and House, announced a legislative package that will increase childcare capacity throughout the State. According to a recent report, more than 750 providers have been forced to close during the pandemic. That has made it tremendously difficult for working families in Maryland to find adequate care for their children. The closures of daycares have created unpredictability for parents and led to exhausted families. 

Our childcare package includes legislation that removes barriers to access in childcare, provides greater financial assistance for special education childcare providers, and helps providers expand their facilities, make critical renovations, hire new employees, and retain existing employees. 

More specifically, the legislation:

  • Improves the childcare scholarship program so students on the edge of eligibility will be automatically enrolled and allows childcare providers participating in the scholarship program to receive their payments faster;
  • Creates a $35 million revolving loan fund available to childcare providers participating in the scholarship program. The loans will be at no interest and can be used for expansion, new construction/acquisition, and renovations of childcare facilities;
  • Provides $16 million in retention and new hire bonuses;
  • Provides a grant program for childcare providers who support students with developmental disabilities; and
  • Prioritizes family childcare and allows providers most in need a better opportunity to take advantage of the state’s $50 million stabilization grant this fiscal year. 
Return to In-Person Hearings
The Senate had intended to return to in-person operations for the 2022 Legislative Session, but had to use a hybrid format for committee hearings due to the prevalence of the Omicron variant and the declaration of a public health emergency in January. Fortunately, this COVID-19 spike is subsiding at a rapid pace. As a result, the Senate resumed mostly normal operations today, which is critical to minimize disruptions to the legislative process that we experienced during the 2020 and 2021 Legislative Sessions. The protocols follow what was announced at the beginning of session and can be reviewed here.

As always, public participation is welcomed and encouraged. Safety measures are in place to minimize any risk to the public who attend in person, including mandatory masking and social distancing throughout the complex. Online written testimony will still be accepted and reviewed by the relevant standing committees for all introduced bills during the session. Additionally, Committee Chairs may play pre-recorded video testimony for individuals who have a hardship, such as being immuno-compromised, and who are unable to attend a bill hearing in person or who are unable to submit their comments via electronic testimony. 

The Maryland General Assembly’s legislative infrastructure was designed around an in-person process, which means that staffing, information technology, and other operations do not function as effectively under emergency protocols, such as virtual testimony.  Equally as important, the Senate of Maryland does its best work when committee members can gather in person for bill hearings to communicate with colleagues and the public, ask thoughtful questions, and engage in respectful debate before voting takes place. 

Open government is foundational to participation in the legislative process. Please know that the Senate of Maryland has taken a number of steps in the last two years to significantly increase transparency in operations during the General Assembly Session, including:

  • Live-streaming video of Senate Floor sessions (fully operational as of the 2021 Legislative Session);
  • Creating the MyMGA web portal so individuals can sign up for bill hearings and submit electronic testimony without the need to physically come to Annapolis (initially operational for the 2020 Legislative Session and enhanced for the 2021 and 2022 Legislative Sessions); 
  • Removing the limit on witnesses that was implemented in the 2021 Legislative Session (as of the 2022 Legislative Session); and
  • Live-streaming committee voting sessions (initiated in the 2021 Legislative Session and remaining for the 2022 Legislative Session).
Universal Behavioral Health Hotline 9-8-8
The pandemic has created an unprecedented impact on our daily lives, but Marylanders who already faced mental and behavioral health challenges have experienced even more severe effects. Because people could not receive in-person assistance, there has been a 50% increase in crisis calls. Investment in training for 911 operators and first responders, and establishing a universal 9-8-8 behavioral health hotline are just two of the things we must implement to address the behavioral health crisis.

Last Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 241, which would establish the framework for a Maryland 9-8-8 hotline. Our goal this session is to ensure that providers and Marylanders receive the resources and facilities they need. This will not only prevent future crises from escalating, but it will free up resources, leaving law enforcement to focus on crime. Having a universal behavioral health crisis number will streamline and efficiently connect the caller to the services they require.
COVID-19 Updates
Maryland has a new lottery program to encourage Marylanders to get fully vaccinated and receive their booster shot. The lottery begins February 15th and will award one eligible Marylander each week for twelve weeks. The first week will start with a $500,000 award and the winners following will receive $50,000. For the twelfth week, the winner will win $1 million. To be eligible for the VaxCash 2.0 lottery, a person must be 18 or older; and receive both vaccinations (or single-shot of Johnson and Johnson) and booster shot in Maryland.

Maryland currently has administered 4 million second-dose shots, however only 2.1 million Marylanders have received their booster shots. 82.59% of Maryland’s population is at least partially vaccinated, 73.21% is considered fully vaccinated, and 34.55% has gotten a booster dose. I encourage everyone to get vaccinated and receive your booster shots not only for the lottery, but for the safety of the community and your families.
More News
I am very excited to announce that I am offering my annual Senatorial Scholarships for the 2022-23 school year. If you or someone you know is seeking financial support towards tuition and are a 46th Legislative District resident who will be attending a Maryland institution for college, graduate school, or trade certification programs, I encourage you to apply. The application is now live and can be accessed at bit.ly/SBFScholarship22. Applications are due on May 1, 2022, but students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by March 1, 2022. Last year, my office awarded nearly $100,000 in aid to 30 students. I look forward to announcing awards for the next school year in the coming months.

I would like to congratulate Rolando Reid, an alum of Morgan State for qualifying for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics bobsled team. Baltimore also has two Johns Hopkins engineering graduate students, Caitlin Patterson, a cross country skier, and Emery Lehman, a speed skater, representing the country. I wish them great success and welcome everyone to watch our athletes. 

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be providing a series of free community based concerts around Baltimore in recognition of Black History Month. The performances will include a combination of classical favorites and other genres. Concert locations include Shiloh Baptist Church, the B&O Railroad Museum, and the Patterson Park Observatory.
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.