September 18, 2020
The recent spate of violence in Baltimore has been particularly disheartening after weeks of relative progress. Regardless of where the incidents take place in the City, each one is a tragedy and requires both the City and State to mobilize all available resources in a coordinated way. That can be done through legislation, and was in the 2020 Legislative Session before the Governor's veto, or through decisions to prioritize partnerships that we know pay dividends.

At the same time, we must celebrate the progress the City of Baltimore is seeing as our schools and communities are revitalized after years of planning. The violence, as it is so often, is juxtaposed with the unveiling of two brand new school buildings last week in the Graceland Park and O'Donnell Heights neighborhoods of District 46. Both are two of the first net-zero energy schools in the entire State and will allow students to engage in project-based learning with digital energy interfaces. Next week, we will celebrate the groundbreaking for the new Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center that's coming to South Baltimore.

Each of these communities have long faced underinvestment at the expense of policies that prioritized more affluent parts of the City. We are slowly reversing the systemic political decisions that underpin the violence in Baltimore. These projects - new schools and a recreation center - demonstrate the promise of a better future where every neighborhood and its residents in the City, and State, are set up for success.
Reconvening in 2021
You may have seen the headlines about the Maryland General Assembly not convening for a Special Session.

Speaker Adrienne Jones and I understand the calls for a Special Session – Maryland is facing compounding crises stemming from the pandemic, housing insecurity, disruption to our children’s education, police brutality, and record unemployment. We know the stakes and feel the gravity of the situation every time we speak to our constituents, often helping them access resources to stay afloat.

Those stakes are too high to rush solutions and not get them right. Each of those crises are wildly complex and require correspondingly thoughtful solutions. To move forward with rushed policies that don’t accomplish the same objective advocates are calling for would be a disservice to all Marylanders.

Maryland is facing an $800 million deficit this year and $3.4 billion deficit next year. The outcome of November’s election will provide radically different financial pictures and we need to act to solve problems, not just appear to. Without greater clarity of federal support, we put generational bills at risk. We won't have perfect information in January, but we will have a better idea of the fiscal challenge ahead.

In the meantime we will continue to what we have done since we left on March 18th - hold agencies accountable for protecting people, pressure the Governor to support those struggling Marylanders who could be assisted today with a stroke of his pen, and do the complex work of preparing legislation that helps solve the dynamic problems in our midst.
Interim Bill Hearings on Police Reform
Whether in Annapolis, in spread out across the State of Maryland, your state senators are hard at work to put Maryland in the strongest position possible ahead of the 2021 Legislative Session. On Wednesday, the Senate Judicial Proceedings (JPR) Committee released a series of fifteen police reform bills to be considered in January when the General Assembly reconvenes. The Committee will take public input next week in three virtual hearings on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday as detailed by Maryland Matters below. After receiving input, the bill sponsors will work to update the proposals in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, JPR will hear bills concerning use of physical or deadly force standards; the creation of a misconduct database to establish an officer’s credibility as a witness; the elimination of no-knock warrants; an officer’s duty to intervene and report misconduct, whistleblower protections; and a measure prohibiting purchasing certain military-grade equipment.

On Wednesday, lawmakers will discuss legislation regarding public access to and court admissibility of body camera footage; the ability of State prosecutors to investigate of use of force and fatal officer encounters; financial liability surrounding police misconduct investigations; mandatory drug and alcohol testing after civilian fatalities; and mandatory routine psychological testing for law enforcement officers.

Thursday is wholly devoted to two pieces of legislation sponsored by Senator Jill P. Carter concerning the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which establishes due process rules for police in investigatory and disciplinary scenarios.
Changes to MD's Unemployment Insurance System
Too many Marylanders are still struggling with unemployment due to COVID-19. I am glad that Maryland was approved for an additional three weeks of retroactive federal unemployment benefits, for a total of six weeks of $300 federal payments to those who qualify. That extra $300 weekly has recently started to be disbursed to recipients, filling the gap in wages after the original funding the CARES Act expired.

At the same time, my office continues to hear from many of you who have been frustrated by their inability to access unemployment insurance benefits through the current BEACON system and staff at the Department of Labor. A modernized BEACON 2.0 system is launching later this weekend which I sincerely hope will address many issues in the filing process. The site is currently offline to upgrade to what the department promises will be an improved system. My office is still taking constituent cases, but the Division of Unemployment Insurance staff will be unable to resolve them until the new BEACON 2.0 system is online.
A New School Year Begins
This certainly has been an unorthodox start to the school year, but I am impressed with how successful it has been thanks to the dedication and hard work of educators, administrators, staff, students, and their families. We have addressed many of the issues experienced this spring. School districts like Baltimore City Public Schools are working to address problems with connectivity, technical difficulties, and device shortages as they occur.

I am grateful that City Schools, like so many other districts across Maryland, used the summer months to plan ahead. Through hard work and some ingenuity, schools have developed new and creative ways to make the educational experience rewarding and effective for students until they can return to the classroom.

As a parent of two school-age children, I know how challenging this moment is for parents. I implore the Maryland State Department of Education every chance I get to set more specific guidance for schools as to when it is safe to begin bringing students back into the classroom in phases. Families and school districts alike need and deserve clear expectations.
Red Line - Purple Line
How we allocate transit funding is a clear indication of our priorities as a State. Access to affordable and accessible transportation is critical to those who live in the most neglected and isolated neighborhoods. A reliable and efficient system fosters economic development, job creation, and provides access to health care, child care and educational opportunities to those who most need it.

In 2015, Governor Hogan canceled the East-West Red Line in Baltimore City, a venture that would have benefited and connected many of the city’s Black neighborhoods, created jobs, and provided the area with billions of dollars of much-needed economic development. Years later, many residents must depend on an unreliable and inadequate bus system, now facing massive cuts due to COVID-19.

When Governor Hogan pulled the plug on the Red Line, he also blessed the construction of a 16-mile light-rail system through the suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Plagued with delays and massive cost overruns, a judge ruled this week that the Line’s builder may quit, leaving the State scrambling to keep the project afloat.
Latest Election News
Voting in November’s election is critical, but it can also be confusing. Therefore, it is essential that we each make a plan to ensure that our ballots are counted. Baltimore will offer 24 voting centers and another 8 Early Vote centers. In addition, ballot drop boxes will be offered at 31 locations. You can see all the voting sites in Baltimore here.

While Maryland’s original ballot vendor quit last week, another printing company has stepped up to ensure that ballots are printed and delivered to those who request them. In addition, you likely received a postcard from the U.S. Postal Service with instructions for casting a mail-in ballot. Please disregard the instructions on the postcard as they conflict with Maryland’s voting directives. For guidance on how to vote by mail or in-person, you can visit the Maryland State Board of Election website.

Please note: Ballots being printed for City voters contain a mistake on a referendum question that was discovered too late to fix. Voters will receive an insert with corrected language when they receive their mail-in ballots and notices will be posted in all city voting booths.
A Complicated Economic Outlook
While it is positive to see news that Maryland’s economic hit from COVID-19 was not as dire as we feared this spring, the long term outlook for the state is complicated to say the least. As mentioned above, Maryland is facing an $800 million deficit this year and $3.4 billion deficit next year.

It is fantastic that the State ended the year with a slight unexpected surplus, but it is too early to rejoice. We have many difficult months ahead of us, and the General Assembly will be watching the numbers carefully in order to be nimble and responsive to the budget impact from the pandemic.

At the same time, Baltimore City has taken a harder hit from COVID-19 and is asking to withdraw $25 million from its Rainy Day Fund to cover a $14.3 million deficit. The additional funds will give the City a cushion to safeguard the budgets of the Fire, General Services, Health, and Housing Departments.
More Highlights
In an effort to allow lawmakers more time to deliberate on the most important issues confronting Marylanders, I have worked with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle to propose a new rule limiting the number of bills allowed to be introduced each legislative session. The 25-bill limit balances the need for senators to advocate for their constituents and the State with our committee and legislative staff’s ability to focus on the most complex legislative issues before them.

The University of Maryland, College Park has fittingly renamed its women’s studies program, The Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. This is the first time a UMD division has honored an individual in its title and, in doing so, acknowledges the profound impact the Maryland native has had on our state and the nation.

Dr. Bruce Jarrell has been named the new president for the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He has served as the University’s interim president since January and has been a critical part of the planning and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Words matter. The Hogan Administration’s attempt to pressure Black leaders to stop using the term “Police Brutality” in favor of “Systemic Racism” is an explicit attempt to soften the speech describing the experience of too many people in our communities of color. Weakening the language is a semantic ploy that fails to recognize the reality facing too many residents as they drive, walk, and, yes, sleep in their own beds in Maryland and across the country.
Please do not hesitate to contact my office if there is anything we can do to help via email at bill.ferguson@senate.state.md.us, or phone via 410-841-3600.