As you may know, I just wrapped up my first session in the Maryland State Senate. Thank you for the honor of serving District 17, Rockville and Gaithersburg. The past 90 days in Annapolis have been busy and filled with opportunities to learn about important policy issues facing our state. I am writing with an overview of how the decisions we made might affect you and your family.
Negotiating a Responsible Budget:
In January, Larry Hogan introduced his first budget as Maryland’s new Governor. It didn’t contain many surprises, but it did present significant challenges to our Democratic-led legislature. Some budget items, like cutting education funding and rescinding cost-of-living wage increases for State employees were loudly criticized. The legislature modified these provisions while crafting a balanced budget for our State. Because Montgomery County schools faced some of the toughest cuts, our delegation stood united to advocate for adequate funding for our public schools.
Policymaking in Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee:
There are four standing committees in the State Senate; each of us is assigned to serve on one and develop expertise in that committee’s jurisdiction. My assignment to the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee (EHEA) offered me the opportunity to learn about a broad range of some of Maryland’s most important policy challenges. As of last week, EHEA had considered 457 bills, a full 33% of those heard in the Senate this year.
Ensuring Educational Excellence: Charter School legislation was a top priority for Governor Hogan, who proposed making major changes in licensure and oversight. Our committee significantly amended his bill to allow new approaches while maintaining collective bargaining and oversight by local school boards. Montgomery County should not be forced to approve Charter Schools if there isn’t local support for such enterprises. Ultimately, I was the lone dissenting vote on the Charter Schools bill. I believe that public monies should be spent on our public schools and that local jurisdictions should control how that money is spent. Our committee also considered limiting the amount of student testing; training for school counselors; delaying school start times; shifting the burden of proof in special education; and many more proposals.
Safeguarding Our Health: In committee, we heard from midwives seeking to practice independently in our State, which we passed. Maryland has the 3rd highest number of residents living with HIV; legislation has been enacted to increase our testing rates to identify and treat patients who may not know that they have this now-manageable disease. Other issues, which were tabled for further study, include allowing the practice of dry-needling by practitioners other than acupuncturists, radiology self-referral by oncologists, and proposals on Sickle Cell, teletherapy, and healthy eating by children in our schools.
Protecting Our Environment: One of the biggest environmental issues was a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking.” After considering testimony from all interested parties, the General Assembly voted to extend the fracking moratorium until October of 2017. As the legislature prepared to pass a plan to restrict farm use of fertilizers high in phosphorus and nitrogen (primarily chicken manure), the Governor responded to the pressure and issued new regulations to report current use and phase out fertilizers that can cause algae blooms and dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. A lengthy hearing and contentious debate on the topic of labeling food items treated with neonicotinoid pesticides resulted in setting the issue aside for further study. Finally, we voted to modify but retain the stormwater fee (or “Rain Tax” we heard about during last year’s campaign), since the State would face steep fines from the federal government for not implementing measures to clean and restore the Bay.
Examining a Plethora of Other Issues: In addition to the issues described above, EHEA also has jurisdiction over election and campaign finance laws, every county’s local delegation bills, alcohol bills, and almost everything related to Maryland’s 157 cities and towns. Phew– we were busy!
Moving My Legislative Agenda:
I was the primary sponsor of six bills. Five won passage by the General Assembly and await the Governor’s signature to become law. One died in the House despite passing the Senate by a healthy 39 to 8 vote. Below is a summary of the legislation I sponsored:
Enhancing Organ Donation Rates (SB 415): Did you know that Maryland ranks 27th among states in the percentage of people registered as organ donors? SB 415 will increase the pool of donors by allowing people to register when getting a marriage license or filing a will or living trust. I worked with Donate Life Maryland, the Clerks of Court, and the Registers of Wills to create new entry points to register (aside from the MVA). The legislation also offers registrants a choice as to whether or not to have the heart symbol displayed on their driver’s license. Expanding the registry will save lives by moving people off the transplant waiting list more quickly.
Mandating “Fertility Parity” (SB 416): When marriage equality became law in Maryland on January 1, 2013, it created a disparity in mandated insurance coverage. Married heterosexual couples are covered for In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), while married lesbian couples are not. Policyholders paying the same premiums are not getting the same benefit. Lawsuits against the State and insurance companies have already been filed. SB 416 creates equality while helping the State to avoid costly litigation. This bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support, awaits the Governor’s signature.
Making State Government More Accessible (SB 758): Maryland’s population is increasingly diverse, but our State government has not sufficiently acknowledged this reality. After discovering that almost 83% of State websites are published exclusively in English, I proposed that all agency websites used by the general public be accessible in any language spoken by 3% or more (based on the most recent U.S. Census data) of our State’s residents. At present, only Spanish fits this criterion. People with Limited English Proficiency do important business with our government. They pay taxes, start small businesses, apply for permits and licenses, and seek insurance through the Maryland Health Exchange. Websites that are inaccessible require more time to answer an influx of phone queries. SB 758 passed the Senate but did not get a vote in the House. In the coming months, I will be encouraging agency leaders to make these important updates. And if that doesn’t do it, we will be back in 2016!
Funding Important Local Projects:
I was the primary sponsor on three bills to ensure capital funding for important projects in Rockville, Gaithersburg, and greater Montgomery County.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in the City of Rockville needs modifications to enhance disabled access to the parking area and back entrance. I worked with District 17 Delegates Kumar Barve, Jim Gilchrist, and Andrew Platt to secure $175,000 from the State for this $900,000 project. The City of Rockville has already budgeted the remaining cost in its current budget.
We also sought $100,000 for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes to rehabilitate several residential properties around Montgomery County. These small group homes provide independent living facilities for people with disabilities, regardless of faith. I am delighted to report that we were allocated the entire $100,000.
I led the successful effort for the City of Gaithersburg on an emergency bill to restore state funding for Bohrer Park ADA-compliance upgrades that had been in the works.
Other initiatives I co-sponsored included initiatives for Interfaith Works, Jubilee Association, and The Writer’s Center. Each of these Montgomery County nonprofit organizations was rewarded matching funds for their worthy projects.
Paying for Our Transportation Needs:
Every jurisdiction is allocated money from Highway User Revenue funding, which is raised through tolls, auto registrations, and fuel taxes. These funds pay for transportation priorities including pothole repairs and major construction improvements. Midway through the session, municipalities faced draconian cuts, but I pushed hard to have the funding formulas restored. Rockville and Gaithersburg got their money back.
Improving Our Business Climate:
Last year, the Senate President and House Speaker appointed a prestigious panel to evaluate the business climate in Maryland. Chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO (and Montgomery County resident) Norm Augustine, it became known as the “Augustine Commission.”
In February, the group released a preliminary report that recommended five legislative proposals for the General Assembly’s consideration. Among these were bills that would create an apprenticeship pilot program for mentoring and job training; generate standards and training within state agencies to provide better customer service; develop an advisory council to review the impact of regulations on small businesses; and more.
As the Senate debated, I proposed various amendments to include non-profit organizations, municipal governments, and federal agencies with a significant presence in Maryland. Many leaders are unaware that there are over 32,000 non-profit organizations of all sizes and missions located in Maryland. These organizations employ 1 out of 10 Maryland workers and are critical to the economy of our State. As the Augustine Commission continues its work, it will expand its focus to consider some of these constituent entities so vital to our economy.
Supporting Our Students With Scholarships:
I am happy to remind you that we continue to offer Senatorial Scholarships to students in District 17. Please visit www.CherylKagan.org/scholarships to learn more and apply.
MS Walk: Rockville 2015 Tomorrow!
I will be cutting the ribbon and participating in the “Walk MS 2015” in Rockville’s Town Center tomorrow, Saturday, April 18, and I would be grateful for your support. To donate to Multiple Sclerosis or join me on the walk, please visit my WalkMS page.
Working For You…
I hope this letter provided you with helpful insights on some of the work of this first legislative session of the four-year term. Throughout the summer and fall, my Annapolis staff and I will remain available to handle constituent concerns, attend community events, and work on legislation that I will consider introducing in the 2016 session. I look forward to seeing you at various events in the coming months. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or needs.
You can keep up with news, upcoming events, and legislative developments by visiting our website, www.CherylKagan.org. Stay in touch with me via Facebook at State Senator Cheryl C. Kagan, on Twitter at @CherylKagan, and on Instagram at @CherylCKagan.
Cheryl C. Kagan
State Senator, District 17
Rockville & Gaithersburg
PS: Do you know about my concert series, “Folk ‘N Great Music,” that showcases national touring singer/songwriters? My next concert features two incredibly talented guitarists and storytellers. On Sunday, April 26, 2015 at 4pm, I will be hosting Jack Williams with special guest Jacob Johnson. Learn more and get tickets here. To be invited to future concerts (100% of the suggested ticket price goes to these performers), you can email me here.