From State Sen. J.B. Jennings:
As we usher in a new year, so marks the start of the 2017 legislative session. Yesterday, Maryland’s 437th General Assembly convened to act on thousands of bills, including the State’s annual budget. These bills will affect the lives of all Marylanders, and I feel a tremendous sense of pride and great responsibility as your representative in Annapolis. Session is always an exciting time, and I’m ready to get down to business for the people of the 7th District. Following are a selection of key issues I will tackle over the next 90 days.
When the 2016 General Assembly adjourned in April, the state was in great shape. A balanced $42.3 billion balanced budget was approved, $1 billion was in the Rainy Day Fund and there was a $400 million surplus. However, recently revised revenue figures by the Board of Revenue Estimates tell a different story. According to the latest round of revised revenue projections, Maryland has a $400 million deficit. In fact, over $820 million in tax money expected over the next two years will not materialize. There is bi-partisan agreement that we will not solve the shortfall with a tax increase. We will have to make budget cuts. And that will not be easy since 80% of budget spending is mandated and grows every year. Projecting revenue is not an exact science because anything could happen to throw projects off. Predicting incoming revenue is much like predicting the weather. Future uncertainty makes these predictions educated guesses, at best. The General Assembly must grapple with projected spending that exceeds projected revenue.
Governor Hogan has called for a repeal of the Transportation Open Investment Decisions Act of 2016 as one of his top priorities. The law takes the decision authority regarding transportation projects away from local government and the Governor by requiring the Department of Transportation to score or rank any transportation project costing over $5 million, taking into consideration factors such as how many people would benefit, increases in highway or transit capacity, safety and environmental benefits. One doesn’t have to be a prophet to realize that mass transit and urban projects will score higher than rural roads. Under the scoring system, the Governor will have the power to choose a lower scoring transportation project over one with a higher score, but would have to justify in writing. There is talk about a compromise, using the Virginia system which divides the state into regions where projects are scored differently.
PAID SICK LEAVE
Despite repeated rejection of paid sick leave legislation, it will be on the 2017 agenda. Only this time, it will be a Hogan administration bill. Many see this move by the Governor as an effort to keep a much broader bill from being approved by the legislature. The administration bill applies to only companies that employ at least 50 employees who work at least 30 hours each week. The broader bill applies to companies that hire 15 or more employees, as well as a greater number of part-time workers.
SHACKLING & STRIP SEARCHING OF JUVENILES
The Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, Sam Abed, has defended the routine shackling and strip searching of juveniles who are neither an escape risk nor likely to be violent. Secretary Abed has said that these practices are necessary to maintain safety and security in the state’s 14 juvenile facilities. However, the Department’s statistics revealed that of 4,300 juveniles in these facilities, 70% were neither risks for violent behavior, nor for escape. The Assembly established a 19-member Task Force to Study the Restraint Searches and the Needs of the Children in the Juvenile Justice Systems. The Task Force recommendations will be examined by the 2017 Assembly. Those recommendations limit the situations in which juveniles accused of crimes can be shackled, but stop short of recommending sweeping reforms to drastically eliminate the practices. Another recommendation limits the amount of time a juvenile can be shackled to 8 hours with a 5-minute break every four hours. The panel recommended banning strip searching unless there is “articulated reasonable belief” a youth is concealing drugs or anything that could be used as a weapon.
RAPIDLY SOARING PRESCRIPTION DRUG PRICES
Rising drug prices are making it nearly impossible for medium and low income Marylanders to afford necessary prescription drugs. The price of EpiPen, a life saving drug for millions whose allergies can send them into severe shock, has increased 17 times since 2007. It now sells for $608.61 for a pack of two doses, which is a 548% increase. Legislation will be introduced to require drug companies to disclose how they determine their prices, notify the public of significant price hikes and authorize Maryland’s Attorney General to take legal action to prevent price gouging. Vermont recently approved a similar drug transparency law. A poll taken by Opinion Works found that 84% of Maryland voters want prescription drug transparency.
For many years in Maryland and nationwide, advocates have been trying to change the bail system. All too often, the current system leaves poor people in jail for months, awaiting trial, while those with the same charges against are not confined to jail awaiting trial simply because they can afford to pay bail. The Governor’s Commission to Reform Maryland’s Pretrial System has called the state’s bail system grossly unfair if not unconstitutional. Brian Frosh, Maryland’s Attorney General, has stated it’s most likely unconstitutional to set the amount of bail higher than the defendant can afford. In 2015, more than 8,000 people were jailed in Baltimore City pending trial at a cost to taxpayers of $100 to $159 per day. The upcoming 2017 session will consider legislation to prohibit Maryland judges from setting bail too high for a poor defendant to pay, unless the defendant is a flight risk or a danger to society.
MENTAL HEALTH BED SHORTAGE
The severe shortage of mental health beds has been developing over the past ten years. The root of the problem is threefold:
1. There is an increase in the number of people with mental illness being arrested and booked into jails without a corresponding expansion of mental facilities.
2. Patients are staying longer in facilities for acute illnesses.
3. Private care providers are refusing to accept former criminal defendants who need ongoing help.
It should be noted that 90% of patients in state health department facilities are referred by the criminal justice system – up from 38% 15 years ago. The union that represents hospital staff claims this increase has contributed to making the workplace more dangerous for healthcare employees. The shortage of mental health beds exists in the state’s juvenile facilities, it’s five mental hospitals, and inpatient care for drug addiction.
Again, these are just a handful of issues I will be addressing over the next few months. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about them, or if you have other matters of concern to you and your family. Your input is important to me, and helps me represent your interests accurately. As always, I welcome and encourage your feedback.
Michelle, J.W., Kate and I wish you and yours a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.