April 9, 2021
This final full week of the 2021 Legislative Session has been a marathon as the Senate continues to work long hours on the floor, and in committees, to advance as many urgent bills as feasible before we adjourn Sine Die on Monday. The intensity is only likely to increase as the Governor has vetoed his first two bills for this Session and the Maryland General Assembly considers overriding those vetoes before leaving Annapolis. Conversation and debate about how we build a better Maryland is contentious, but necessary to move our State forward as we face compounding crises. 

Next week’s newsletter will cover the highlights of the legislation passed throughout the 2021 Legislative Session, but there is still much work left to do in our final few days. We will be back in Annapolis tomorrow (Saturday) to make sure we fulfill our responsibility to our constituents. As I reflect on the last 87 days, I am proud of what we have already accomplished to protect Marylanders from COVID-19, pass historic police reform measures, expand voting rights, support Maryland’s students, and provide financial relief to Maryland’s most vulnerable residents and small businesses.
Historic Police Reform Package Heads to Governor
On Wednesday, the Maryland Senate passed a package of the most comprehensive reforms to policing in Maryland in generations. Increasing public safety in Maryland requires restoring trust, transparency, and accountability between law enforcement and the people they serve. These bills take major steps in pushing Maryland in that direction, and make our State a national leader in constitutional, community-centered policing. You can read a breakdown of the package’s four Senate bills and one House bill in this piece by The Baltimore Sun. The bills have been presented to the Governor and I hope he will take swift action on them. 

Thank you to my colleagues in the Maryland General Assembly for working collaboratively with each other and with many stakeholders to address the most complex issue facing our State this Legislative Session. I would be remiss if I did not specifically thank the members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee for shepherding this work - many of them have done so throughout their entire careers, but I know they have been particularly focused on these issues over the past year. 

As many of my colleagues reminded us during Wednesday’s Senate floor session, the work is far from over and we are committed to continue building a more just, equitable State for all Marylanders.
MGA Passes Fiscal Year 2022 Budget
This week, the Maryland General Assembly passed a balanced $52.4 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2022 that invests thoughtfully and strategically in Maryland’s values. At the beginning of the Legislative Session in January, we faced uncertainty over the budget, due to the constraints that we anticipated from the pandemic. To our surprise, Maryland has collectively fared alright through the pandemic, though financial impacts have been disparately felt.

Some highlights of next year’s budget include:
  • $572M to expand testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations;
  • $13.5B in Medicaid funding to provide health care coverage to 1.5 million residents;
  • $1.6B to ensure solvency of the Transportation and Unemployment Insurance Trust Funds;
  • $600M to reopen schools safely, including $80 million for HVAC and ventilation improvements;
  • $371.5M for Maryland's community colleges, representing a 9% increase over FY21;
  • $85M for local parks and playgrounds throughout the State; and 
  • $2.1B in cash reserves, including $1.4B in the Rainy Day Fund and $696M in the General Fund, that erases projected budget shortfalls in FY23 and FY24.
Key Legislation Making Progress
The General Assembly has ramped up during this final full week of Session, as we work to pass crucial pieces of legislation before the clock strikes midnight on Monday. I want to highlight several strong and meaningful bills that are making progress and that we are working to advance through both chambers:

  • The COVID-19 Testing, Contact Tracing, and Vaccination Act of 2021 (SB741) requires the Maryland Department of Health to collaborate with local health departments in order to create and implement a two-year COVID-19 response plan, providing us with a long-term blueprint for mitigating the spread of the virus. The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate and is now on third reader in the House. 

  • The Maryland Environmental Service (MES) Reform Act of 2021 (SB2/HB2) was crafted in response to last year’s MES debacle, involving improper reimbursements and a hefty payoff for a government employee moving into another public position. This legislation is on its way to the Governor and will bring much-needed transparency and accountability to the agency’s operations. 

  • Yesterday, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee followed the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee when it voted nearly unanimously to advance the Value My Vote Act (HB222) to the Senate floor where it is now on third reader. The Value My Vote Act will increase voting accessibility for eligible voters who find themselves in pre-trial or correctional facilities at the time of an election.
Senate's Sports Betting Package Moving
Since Marylanders overwhelmingly approved of legalizing sports betting in last November’s election, the General Assembly has been working hard to develop a thoughtful plan for implementation. This week, the Senate put forth an amended plan to ensure equitable access to licenses. The plan includes five different types of licenses, based on the size of the business applying for a license and whether it operates in-person or online. Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course and the stadiums for the Orioles, Ravens, and Washington Football Team would be able to offer daily betting. 

The Senate’s sports betting workgroup has designed this plan to allow as many businesses as possible - both large and small - to have a bite at the apple of this burgeoning industry. Additionally, the plan was crafted to provide ample opportunities for businesses owned by women and people of color to acquire sports betting licenses. As this industry opens up in Maryland, we want to ensure that it develops with a strong structure that allows for the inclusive participation of businesses.
Vaccine Access Continues to Expand
On Tuesday, Maryland opened eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine at the State-run mass vaccination sites to all Marylanders ages 16 and over. Next Tuesday, this will expand to cover appointments at all provider sites. Higher risk and more vulnerable Marylanders who were already eligible will continue to be prioritized in booking appointments. Additionally, walk-up lines are being piloted to expand vaccine access to individuals who lack access to broadband. A walk-up site opened today at M&T Bank Stadium, though health officials caution that individuals should be prepared to wait in lines. 

Marylanders who are able to access the statewide pre-registration system by calling 1-855-MD-GOVAX (1-855-634-6829) or by visiting https://onestop.md.gov/preregistration should continue to use these methods. 

The statewide increase in vaccinations is a bright spot, as are the successful community-based clinics that continue to build access and serve Maryland’s residents who have otherwise faced challenges securing appointments. I am encouraged to see the recommendations of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup continue to be integrated into our State’s vaccination strategy. 

However, health officials continue to issue warnings regarding the increase in COVID-19 metrics: this week, Maryland recorded the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since January. Some experts attribute this increase to being driven, at least in part, by our State’s loosening of COVID-19 restrictions. The Washington Post’s Editorial Board penned an op-ed criticizing the pace of Maryland’s reopening as more transmissible strains continue to become increasingly prominent. Each of us also has a part to play in ensuring that Maryland can usher in the end of the pandemic: I encourage you to keep wearing face coverings, social distancing, and limiting in-person indoor gatherings.
More News
Although us legislators have sorely missed the presence of our incredible high school pages in-person at the State House during this Session, the pages have been hard at work, virtually attending floor sessions and bill hearings, and deeply engaging with the legislative process. This Maryland Matters piece captures some of their keen reflections on the need for discourse, service, and humanity in legislating. 

On Monday evening, the statue of Captain John O’Donnell, who enslaved dozens of Black people in Baltimore in the late 18th century, was removed from O’Donnell Square Park in Canton. I appreciate the advocacy of many Canton residents who collectively made the push to remove this statute to ensure that the symbols in Baltimore represent our values and build an inclusive City. 

Dr. Taiisha Swinton-Buck, the principal of Digital Harbor High School, was named the 2021 Maryland State Principal of the Year by the Maryland Association of Secondary Schools. I am incredibly proud of Dr. Swinton-Buck and her leadership at Digital Harbor High School, highlighting the great teaching and learning happening in our District 46 and City Schools.

Yesterday, the Orioles played the Red Sox at the Orioles’ home opener at Camden Yards - the first game with fans in the stands since September 22, 2019. Fans were seated in pods of two, four, or six and the Orioles’ management kept the crowd well below the State-mandated limit of half capacity. Although the O’s lost, they’ll have an opportunity for redemption tomorrow.

On Wednesday, Governor Hogan announced that Maryland’s public and private schools will receive $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief grants, to be used for addressing COVID-19 learning loss and supporting students’ academics and socio-emotional health.

The Newslight group, newly formed by businessman Stewart Bainum Jr. and Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, has made a $680M proposal to acquire the entire Tribune Publishing chain, including The Baltimore Sun. Bainum has previously expressed a desire to sell many of the individual newspapers to local owners, and is particularly interested in expanding the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun.
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.