Md. legislature moves on key bills before 'crossover' deadline

Monday , March 20, 2017 - 5:40 PM

Josh Hicks and Ovetta Wiggins

(c) 2017, The Washington Post.

Maryland’s House of Delegates on Monday gave preliminary approval to bills that would strictly limit the ability of local police to cooperate with federal immigration agents and bar pharmaceutical companies from drastically raising prices for essential drugs.

The Democratic-controlled House also gave preliminary approval to a measure that prohibits housing discrimination against individuals who use public assistance and restricts use of the far left lane on any highway in the state for passing slower vehicles.

The votes came as the House was working through its first of two lengthy floor sessions for “crossover day,” the date by which legislation must pass out of at least one chamber to have a reasonable shot at reaching the governor’s desk.

A House committee rejected a proposal from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) that would require independent commissions rather than state officials to draw voting districts in Maryland, a measure intended to prevent partisan gerrymandering.

The Senate did not schedule a Monday floor vote for the legislation, which means the bill probably will die for a second straight year, despite strong public support for redistricting reform and a vocal public push by the governor.

The immigration measure, known as the Trust Act, would bar local law enforcement agencies from aiding federal immigration-enforcement efforts except in cases involving judicial warrants.

Frederick and Harford counties, which have agreements to collaborate extensively with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would be exempt from the restrictions.

The House rejected an amendment from Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, that would have allowed exceptions for individuals who are suspected of terrorism, espionage or posing a danger to national security.

“We are handicapping the state of Maryland’s ability to protect our citizens from the worst violent criminals who may be in our country illegally,” Kipke said.

Del. Carlo Sanchez, D-Prince George’s, argued against the amendment, saying immigration agents “should have no problem going to a federal judge and getting a judicial warrant” for any undocumented immigrant who poses a serious threat to the public.

The price-gouging bill, which Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) requested this year, would prohibit pharmaceutical makers from raising the price of prescription drugs by more than 50 percent if three or fewer companies are producing them.

The housing legislation would ban landlords and real estate agents from refusing to rent or sell units based on an individual’s source of income. The goal is to prevent discrimination against those who rely on public-assistance, including federal housing vouchers and disability payments.

Lawmakers voted down an amendment from House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore County, that would have exempted jurisdictions that have rejected similar legislation at the local level. She noted that Baltimore County, which has a Democratic-majority council, voted 6 to 1 against such a measure.

“Our council has had a very healthy debate on this issue, and the people of the county spoke - it was a very, very active issue,” Szeliga said.

Democratic lawmakers argued that jurisdictions should not be able to exclude themselves from anti-discrimination laws, which in this case are designed to make sure neighborhoods are not economically segregated.

“This is a deconcentration of poverty,” said Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr., D-Prince George’s.

The traffic legislation would designate the far-left lane on any roadway with at least two lanes in one direction and a speed limit of at least 55 mph for passing purposes only. Fines would range from $75 to $250, depending on the number of offenses. Exceptions would apply for drivers using the far-left lane to exit or turn left, and when congestion had slowed the pace of traffic to at least 10 mph below the speed limit.

The Senate, which like the House was scheduled to meet Monday night, was expected to take preliminary action on Hogan’s $43.5 billion budget, which now includes $112.3 million in spending that the governor planned to cut.

The Senate is also scheduled to take an initial vote on a controversial bill that could overturn a recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals to eliminate bail for defendants who cannot afford to pay it.

The bail-bond industry has lobbied intensely for the measure, which would overhaul the bail system and would allow only those charged with misdemeanors to be released on personal recognizance.

Last week, the Legislative Black Caucus voted 18-13 to encourage the House and Senate judicial committees to take no action on bail-reform measures this year. The Senate panel moved the bill to the Senate floor Friday afternoon, and the full Senate delayed action until Monday night.

The caucus’ legislative review committee decided late Monday afternoon to rescind the full caucus’s earlier vote and be ready to act on the bill if it makes it out of the Senate and is considered in the House Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“It would be irresponsible for us as a Legislative Black Caucus not to do anything,” said caucus chair Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore. “We don’t want the court rule to be rolled back at all.”

Also on the Senate agenda is a bill that would bar expulsions of pre-kindergarten students and limit suspensions and expulsion of students in kindergarten through second grade. Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery, said the measure is a step toward shutting down what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, the practice of pushing children out of school and toward the juvenile justice system.

“You can’t suspend or expel for petty behavior or because a child is disruptive,” Smith said. The bill says a student would have to pose an “imminent threat.”

Senate lawmakers also planned to consider a measure that would make possession of firearms on college campuses a civil offense. The bill calls for a $1,000 fine for those found with a gun on college property.



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