General Assembly completes its work, mourns loss of Speaker Busch

ANNAPOLIS — With flags flying at half-staff in honor of Speaker Michael Busch, who died from complications of pneumonia at age 72 on Sunday afternoon, the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate finished their work on Monday and adjourned.

The 2019 legislative session was filled with heated debates on what direction to take the state regarding the minimum wage, guns, energy and even oyster sanctuaries, which Busch sponsored legislation on in his last session. The Senate voted on Monday morning — following the House on Friday — to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) veto of Busch’s bill.

In all, lawmakers considered 2,497 bills this session. Hogan will pick up his pen soon to begin signing some into law, but he canceled a scheduled bill signing Tuesday to mourn Busch.

“Our focus really is on mourning Speaker Michael Busch. He’s a great man, just an incredible leader, and it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to close out this 439th legislative session without a guy who has been the leader of the House for the past 16 years,” Hogan said on Monday.

Lawmakers shed tears early in the day for Busch, but then worked through the night to finish their legislative obligations to the state.

Crimes and penalties

Lawmakers and Hogan have worked together since 2015 to overhaul the criminal justice system in Maryland.

A comprehensive review of how the state classifies and penalizes crimes will take place over the next two years thanks to Republicans Sen. Michael Hough and Del. Dan Cox, who represent Frederick and Carroll counties.

The Task Force to Study Crime Classification and Penalties will look at all crime classifications — felony,

misdemeanor or civil offenses — and their sentences. It will also consider if a system should be established to guide the classification and sentencing of crimes in the future.

“I think that there are a lot of important task forces, but that is a crucial one,” said Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County).

Zirkin and Hough previously worked together on a comprehensive review of crimes that should be eligible for expungement under the Justice Reinvestment Act. The state does not have a list of nonviolent misdemeanor crimes, so they went through offenses one by one and decided whether it should be eligible for expungement, Zirkin said. A consequence of that approach was that all but the lowest-level burglary crime became expendable.

“Had we had this, it would have been so much easier and made so much more sense,” Zirkin said.

Each chamber independently approved the task force unanimously, but up until the final day of session it was unclear whether the bill would get through both chambers.

The Senate passed Hough’s version of the bill on Feb. 14, but the House Judiciary Committee had not voted on the bill as of the final day of the session. Instead, the committee advanced Cox’s identical version of the bill, which then passed the House on Saturday.

“My chairman, God bless him, moved it for a vote and it passed unanimously,” Cox said.

Zirkin said the bill likely got overlooked because many task forces are recommended each year.

“This one happens to be a very large bill despite it being a task force,” Zirkin said.

In a rapid series of events, the House version of the bill was referred on Monday to the Senate rules committee, Judicial Proceedings Committee and finally to the floor, where the full Senate voted 45-0 in favor of the bill just before 10 p.m. The bill will now go to the governor’s desk.

The task force would not require the state to adopt a new penal system. The task force would make recommendations, which would then have to be acted on legislatively.

“This is a broad bipartisan review, and after that report comes out, then the Legislature ... can enact it,” Cox said.

Renewable energy

In a late push to clean Maryland’s power supply, the General Assembly agreed to increase to 50% renewable energy by 2030.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act passed the Senate with a vote of 31-15 and the House 95-40, after several doomed amendments were debated on the chamber floor.

One amendment was by Cox to remove trash incineration and increase hydroelectric power, which was voted down by the House 94-39. Hough has championed the same cuts to incineration in the Senate in multiple sessions, and it passed the chamber 34-12 this session but was struck by the House.

Hough said it was “ridiculous” that the General Assembly was increasing the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard again without removing subsidies for trash burning or standing up to the House.

Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, was also frustrated to see trash incineration remain an eligible source of energy in the state’s renewable energy portfolio. More lawmakers have joined the opposition to incinerators each session, though, which is a promising trend, he said.

Politics and the timing of the bill in the 2019 session wasn’t conducive to removing the power source this year, Tulkin said. There are still wins, however, in the bill for clean energy.

“This bill has significant carve-outs for solar energy and offshore wind power, which are the cleanest sources and they constitute instate generation and instate jobs,” Tulkin said.

Maryland utilities will strive to increase Maryland from 1.95% solar energy today, to 5.5% by the end of 2019 and 14.5% solar by 2028 and beyond.

Senate Minority Whip Stephen Hershey Jr. of the Eastern Shore led the opposition to the bill. He asked the members to wait for a report from the state Power Plant Research Program before increasing the Renewable Portfolio Standard and consider where the new solar panels would be installed.

“I wish we’d be more caution. This bill is a big bill,” Hershey said.

The amended Renewable Portfolio Standard will take effect on Oct. 1, as long as the bill is not vetoed by the governor. Hogan vetoed the last increase in 2016, which the General Assembly voted to override in 2017.

Concealed carry

One of the most hotly contested items of the session was the elimination of the citizen Handgun Permit Review Board.

Majorities in the House and Senate agreed to immediately abolish the board, which was created in 1972 to adjudicate appeals of denied or restricted concealed handgun licenses. The board was scrutinized by lawmakers this session, after it was discovered it was overturning the Maryland State Police’s decisions 82% of the time upon appeal.

All appeals will now be sent to the Office of Administrative Hearings, where a judge will hear the case.

Opponents of the bill in the House tried at the last minute to instead eliminate Maryland’s standard of needing a “good and substantial reason” to be issued a concealed carry permit or to move the burden of proof to the Maryland State Police that a person didn’t need a gun in order to derail the legislation.

Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard), vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, defended the “good and substantial reason” as well-established case law. She told the opponents to return with a bill to change the law, but not to try to do it in the bill to repeal the board.

However, a bill to change Maryland’s concealed handgun standard was submitted this session. Hough submitted a bill to add “personal protection” and “self-defense” as good and substantial reasons, which would have, in effect, made all residents eligible for a concealed handgun. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 7-4 against the bill on March 13.

Local ethics

Reforms to Frederick County’s ethics law, however, were approved unanimously by the House and Senate.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed an ethics law that required members of certain Frederick County boards to resign within 48 hours of opening a campaign finance account. The bill was silent, however, on what should be done with accounts that were already open.

Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) sought to clarify the procedure for closing campaign finance accounts when a resident is appointed to the Board of Zoning Appeals, Ethics Commission, Planning Commission and liquor board.

Pippy resigned as chairman of the liquor board in August 2018, after conflicting legal opinions on his existing campaign account were written. One of his first bills filed this session was to prevent the same confusion in the future.

Pippy’s original bill required appointees to close their campaign finance account before beginning to serve on the board. However, lawmakers amended the bill so that appointees will be prohibited from raising or spending money from an existing account except for under certain circumstances.

The amended ethics law will take effect on July 1.

Poultry papers

Greater transparency on the origin of birds sold at live poultry markets will also go into law later this year.

The General Assembly granted the secretary of agriculture broader authority this session to begin annually licensing live poultry market operators, production facility operators and poultry dealers who buy, sell, transport or transport live birds. This will provide the Department of Agriculture with better documentation of where birds are coming from and help it swiftly respond to suspected cases of avian influenza.

Former State Veterinarian Michael Radebaugh testified in support of the bill at the start of session, before retiring in March.

At the time, his team at Animal Health was testing birds in southern Maryland after a duck was found during surveillance at an auction market to carry a strain of flu that was not pathogenic, but could easily morph into a strain that could be passed between birds.

Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder thanked the Legislature on Monday for expanding his department’s ability to ensure the health and safety of Maryland poultry.

“Under this new legislation, [the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s] Animal Health inspectors will be able to monitor emerging poultry markets like swap meets, flea markets and internet sales. Animal health is one of our agency’s top priorities and we commend the General Assembly for passing this important legislation.”

The new law will take effect on Oct. 1.

Milk labeling

Lawmakers also approved more stringent requirements for labeling plant-based beverages.

Maryland became the second state on Monday to approve a ban on the use of the term “milk” on beverages that come from any source other than hoofed mammals. But the ban will not take effect unless nine other states adopt similar standards.

Lawmakers required the 11 states to reach agreement on labeling so as not to disrupt interstate commerce laws, which are regulated and enforced at the federal level.

The Maryland Farm Bureau supports the legislation, and hopes it will ultimately prompt the FDA to enforce its definition of “milk.”

“We fully support this movement to try to reduce some of the mislabeling out there, and, quite frankly, to get the federal government to enforce their own rule that they should be enforcing,” said Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.

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