By Deborah Bailey, Special to the AFRO

The 2018 Session of the Maryland General Assembly ended this week with a mixed report on legislation impactful particularly in Maryland’s Black community.

Minority Access to Medical Marijuana Industry

Caucus members were front and center in well publicized victories with the passage of legislation to increase minority participation in the medical marijuana industry. Currently no licenses are issued to minority medical marijuana growers in Maryland.   A similar bill, also co-sponsored by Delegate Cheryl Glenn, failed passage in the closing hours of the 2017 session.

State  Center Project

Legislation requiring community input into plans to revive the mid-town Baltimore State Center Project, also passed the House and the Senate with the hope of breathing new life into the billion-dollar project, put on hold by Gov. Hogan shortly after he took office. The legislation calls for State agencies to remain anchor tenants, “to the extent possible,” of the new Project and expands the scope of the complex to include retail, restaurants, grocery stores, green space and additional parking.  The bill has not yet been presented to Hogan’s office.  After it is presented, Hogan has 30 days to act on the bill or the legislation becomes law without his signature.

HBCU’s

Several major bills supporting the state’s four public HBCU’s, including the Blount-Rawlings-Britt HBI Comparability Act and the HBCU Equity Act of 2018, appointing a special advisor for HBCU’s, failed consideration by the General Assembly this year. Despite repeated declarations of support for HBCU’s by the Legislative Black Caucus, the timing of gathering support for the bills didn’t push the HBCU agenda to the top of the pack, said Delegate Charles E. Sydnor (BC-44B), House sponsor of the HBCU Equity Act.

Criminal Justice    

Despite vigorous opposition by Baltimore criminal justice reform advocates, some elements of Governor Larry Hogan’s massive crime bill, were repurposed and made more palatable with the support of Black Caucus members, making it into law after heated debate.

One of the more controversial measures passed was a repackaged bill requiring mandatory 10-year minimum sentencing for people convicted of repeat violent offenses while in possession of an illegal gun, a provision that divided the Legislative Black Caucus.  Delegate Talmage Branch (B-45), whose 22-year old grandson was shot to death last year, sponsored the sentencing provisions, significantly diluted from the original mandatory minimums included in Hogan’s crime bill package.

“We have an issue here in Baltimore. We have 342 murders in 2017.  That’s 342 families. We have to do something,” Branch said.

Local community advocates including Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the grassroots think tank, adamantly opposed the language in the mandatory minimum measure and were outspoken about maneuvering used by lawmakers to link legislation mandatory sentencing minimums with expungement provisions.

“SB 101 was originally an expungement bill that had NOTHING to do with mandatory minimums. This sneaky tactic was a POLITICAL STUNT to claim a FALSE VICTORY on crime in MD,”  stated LBS via Twitter.

An additional crime package provision passed allowing certain felonies to be expunged after 15 years.

Branch also championed a measure that infused $3.6 million in new funding for Baltimore’s Safe Streets Program, aimed at supporting youth in neighborhoods with high levels of gun violence. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and The Baltimore City Council hailed the measure, eager to expand Safe Streets to more communities across the city.

Maryland lawmakers also passed legislation creating a state commission with the authority to probe corruption in the Baltimore City Police Department. The bill received widespread approval in the House and Senate after numerous indictments and convictions of members of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force left city residents shaken and distrustful of local police.  Mayor Catherine Pugh, miffed by enhanced state oversight of local police criticized the measure as “unnecessary duplication.”

K-12 School Funding

State legislators handed Baltimore schools a victory, passing legislation taking decisions on school funding out of the hands of the State’s three-member Board of Public Works – Hogan, State Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp. The new process mandates school construction decisions to be made by a commission with appointees designated by the Governor, Speaker of the House and Senate President.  Legislators overrode Hogan’s veto of the school funding bill in one of their last acts before leaving Annapolis April 9.

Finally, in a measure sponsored by Senator Joan Carter Conway (B-43), lawmakers will ask Maryland residents to amend the state’s constitution by creating a “lock box” to ensure casino money goes to support K-12 schools on the Nov. ballot. Marylanders approved slot machines in 2008 and table games in 2012 with the understanding that revenues would be used for ailing schools, but the funds have been used for other state funding priorities over the years.

Conway clarified that the constitutional amendment would ensure the amount of casino money designated for schools is over and above the required state funding formula. The state funding formula is one of the major issues now under consideration by the state appointed Kirwan Commission.