Thank you for the privilege of representing you as a District 16 State Delegate to Maryland's General Assembly. I wanted to offer a brief overview of the recently concluded 2011 legislative session. I am proud of the progress we made to advance a strong economy, secure families, and safe and healthy environments. Here's a brief summary of where we stand today:
The State Budget
While we faced a daunting structural budget deficit of $2 billion at the start of the session, we were able to pass a responsibly balanced budget that protects key services for Marylanders while reducing the structural deficit by 42 percent, and retaining $730 Million in cash reserves. Maryland also maintains its triple-A bond rating despite the recession, making ours only one of eight states with that status. Of particular interest for our district, I passed a bill to secure funding for the Jewish Social Service Agency to enable them to increase their capacity for serving our elderly, disabled, and unemployed community members.
As a member of the Health and Government Operations Committee I worked to move forward President Obama's health care reform plan. We passed bi-partisan legislation establishing the framework for Maryland's Health Benefit Exchanges, making us one of the first states to have this program in place. I also sponsored and passed a consumer rights bill that expands the definition of life insurance to allow for a rider to extend coverage during periods of unemployment regardless of ability to pay. In a major victory for women's and children's health, a bill I co-sponsored (introduced by Delegate Heather Mizeur) will expand access to family planning services to women up to 200 percent of the poverty level, preventing as many as 7,980 unintended pregnancies annually. We also defeated 11 anti-abortion pieces of legislation, and successfully defended from attack Maryland's stem cell research fund. Unfortunately, two key pieces of legislation to help children with autism failed, including my bill to extend habilitative services coverage for young adults up to age 26. We did successfully secure desperately needed funding for developmental disabilities through an increase in the state's alcohol tax.
Electrical Utilities Accountability
After power outages in January left many residents throughout District 16 without power again, I worked with my fellow legislators to hold Pepco accountable for its unacceptable service record. I co-sponsored The Electric Companies Service Quality and Reliability Standards Act, which passed both Houses by a wide margin. This bill requires the Public Service Commission to adopt regulations about service quality and reliability standards for the delivery of electricity allowing for sizable financial penalties, and prevents power companies from charging ratepayers to recover the cost of any penalties levied against them if they fail to meet these standards.
I was disappointed that the General Assembly failed to pass Governor Martin O’Malley’s proposed Offshore Wind Energy plan. This bill would have set Maryland on a path toward embracing our natural resources for cleaner forms of energy. I will continue to work within the General Assembly to build support for this issue next year. The House did pass another important bill I co-sponsored, the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Act, which creates an advisory committee to look into the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – to mine natural gas. The Senate, however, failed to pass this bill. We did successfully include $23.5 million in the budget for for the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund and preserved most of the funding for Program Open Space. We also took small steps toward embracing more forms of renewable energy. We passed a bill creating a tax exemption for people who use solar panels or residential wind energy equipment on personal property. And we also expanded our ban on the toxic chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA) to include infant formula containers used in the WIC program.
Despite the difficult fiscal situation, the Montgomery County delegation worked hard to secure a $40 million increase in educational funding for our schools, and successfully advocated for an additional $30 million to fund MCPS school construction projects. As an MCPS parent, I am concerned with crowding I see in our excellent schools, so this special construction funding, $9 million of which requires no local funding match, could not come at a better time. I am also concerned with nutrition in schools, which is why I co-sponsored a bill that would have encouraged Maryland schools to use open space for school gardens, and another successful bill initiated by my colleague Delegate Eric Luedtke to strengthen the Jane Lawton Farm-to-School Program that gets fresh produce in our schools. There were victories for parents of older students as well. This year's budget provides funding for state colleges and universities to limit tuition increases to 3 percent. We also passed the Maryland Dream Act, legislation that allows specific students, included undocumented immigrants, to receive in-state tuition rates under certain circumstances at community colleges (and subsequent four-year programs) when they graduate from Maryland high schools. Maryland now joins 10 other states that already have similar policies.
Human Rights, Equality, and Medical Marijuana
In addition to the Dream Act, we also considered several other hot-button “social” issues this year. While the Senate passed the marriage equality bill, the House did not have enough votes to pass the measure. Words cannot describe my disappointment with this defeat, particularly after so many lesbian and gay rights advocates worked so hard on this legislation. The everyday folks who advocated for this bill and Maryland's brave lesbian and gay legislators deserve special recognition for their tremendous work. Next year, I do believe we will have enough votes to pass the bill. I was lead co-sponsor on another civil rights bill the House passed, the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Antidiscrimination bill. Unfortunately, the bill did not come up for a vote in the Senate. To protect the victims of human trafficking, the House and Senate both passed legislation that allows human trafficking victims to have prostitution charges levied against them vacated, and another bill that will increase awareness efforts and provide more educational information about human trafficking. Both the House and Senate also passed a bill that will help patients who choose to use medical marijuana to treat their illness. This plan is scaled back from the original bill I co-sponsored, but is a step in the right direction. It sets up a workgroup that will develop a blueprint for legislation to provide oversight and responsibility for a medical marijuana program in the State, including specifics on dispensing and regulating marijuana for medical purposes. In addition, the legislature included an affirmative defense pleading, which allows patients using marijuana for medicinal purposes to not incur a criminal record.
Wine and Dining
We finally passed a direct wine shipping bill! The compromise legislation permits the direct shipment of wine from wineries around the country to Maryland consumers, but out-of-state retailers are still not permitted to ship wine directly to Maryland consumers. We failed to pass a bill that would have allowed patrons to pay a corkage fee to bring their own bottle of wine to restaurants. We also passed legislation that allows willing restaurant owners to establish a policy for patrons to bring dogs with them to outdoor eating areas.
I realize that in a brief summary, I cannot cover everything of interest to my constituents, so I have written about the issues I heard about most from you. If you would like to learn more about any of these issues, or other issues before the Maryland General Assembly, please feel free to contact me anytime. Again, thank you for allowing me to represent you in the Maryland House of Delegates.