Protecting the Right to Vote Legislative Wrap Up

Protecting the Right to Vote: Janet Millenson, Team Leader

Through our testimony and our partnership with other advocates in the Everyone Votes Maryland and the Expand the Vote coalitions, the League spoke up for protecting the right to vote and expanding access for all eligible voters. The most important successes among the bills we supported were:

  • HB 1048 Election Law – Permanent Absentee Ballot List, Ballot Drop Boxes, and Reports. This legislation allows voters to request permanent absentee ballot status rather than having to apply repeatedly each election cycle. Other registered voters will automatically receive an absentee ballot request form before each primary election. It also establishes criteria for placing ballot drop boxes in locations that are secure, accessible, and equitably distributed both geographically and demographically. Status: sent to Governor.

 

  • HB 222 Election Law – Correctional Facilities – Voter Registration and Voting (Value My Vote Act). Although voting rights were restored in 2016 to felons who have served their sentences and to non-felons currently incarcerated, no program was ever put in place to enable them to exercise that right. HB 222 requires correctional facilities to work with the Board of Elections to provide information and materials for registering to vote and applying for a mail-in ballot. See our testimony here. Status: sent to Governor.

 

  • HB 156 Student and Military Voter Empowerment Act. This legislation improves access to voter registration, voting information, and opportunities to cast a ballot for some relatively underserved populations: college students, residents of retirement communities, and members of the military. Among other provisions, local Boards of Elections will be required to take into account such large residential institutions when establishing precinct polling places. Status: sent to Governor.


Our biggest disappointment was the legislature’s failure to pass HB 1047, the Mail-In Voting Enhancement Act. This bill would have made permanent two popular procedures implemented in 2020 on an emergency basis — ballot tracking and ballot curing (contacting voters who failed
to sign the oath). Unfortunately, the Senate and the House ultimately could not agree on a provision that would have allowed pre-processing of mail-in ballots to start before Election Day. Going forward, we want to turn our efforts toward several issues that either failed to pass this
year or were not adequately addressed in the first place:

  • Circuit Court judges: selection process; contested vs. retention elections
  • Special elections to fill legislative vacancies in a timely fashion
  • District voting rather than at-large for certain representatives
  • Mail-in voting: early canvassing; ballot curing procedures; security concerns (e.g.,signature verification); voter registration database improvements
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Cross-over Update - Police Accountability Legislation

You may have heard that it’s Cross-Over time in the Maryland General Assembly.  This is when bills that originated in one chamber, pass that chamber and now it’s the other chamber’s obligation to consider passing them.  Bills that started in the Senate retain the SB label even though they have crossed over and are now in the House.  The same is true of bills that were passed by the House -they retain the HB prefix, even though they are being discussed by a Senate Committee.

 Four of the bills that the League of Women Voters of Maryland and the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability (MCJPA) support have passed in the Senate with amendments.  Now, it’s time for the House to hold hearings and vote on these bills. They were assigned to the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing on March 25th

The League submitted testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on SB 627  Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) - Repeal and Replace, SB 626 Use of Force and SB 178 Anton’s Law.  We support SB 627 but asked that it be amended to remove the weakening changes made to this bill as originally submitted by the Senate sponsor. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee had removed citizen oversight of police conduct. We asked that SB 627 LEOBR Repeal be amended by the House Committee to allow communities to create real independent external community oversight boards with actual investigatory, subpoena and discipline powers. We also asked the House committee to remove the weakening amendments added to SB 626 Use of Force by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and instead include the use of force language that the House Judiciary committee included in HB 670 Police Reform Accountability Act. We supported SB 178 as passed by the Senate.

The fourth bill that was sent to the House by the Senate, SB 786 Control of the Police Department of Baltimore City passed out of the Senate with a unanimous vote on the Senate Floor.  The fifth reform to policing that the League was supporting is to eliminate the $10 million annual subsidy that the state provides school districts to hire armed uniformed police officers to work in schools. The two House bills the we testified in support of were HB 1089 and HB 486. Neither bill received a vote in committee.  There was no cross-filed bill in the Senate.  Advocates plan to continue to educate legislators about this issue during the interim and come back with legislation and more data next session.

On the House side, most of the reforms we supported were incorporated in to an omnibus bill HB 670 - Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 that was submitted by Speaker of the House, Adriane Jones.  There were many good proposals in this legislation, but it fell short in some of the key areas of reform that the League and MCJPA are supporting.  We signed on to a letter asking for amendments to strengthen the reforms.  The section on Use of Force was amended to be a much better definition of what kind of force is allowable under what circumstances.  HB 670 passed on the House floor 96 yays to 40 nays. That bill will now be heard by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

It is likely that different versions of final bills will come out of each chamber. If this happens, the bills will be assigned to a conference committee that will propose a combined bill for passage.

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LWVMD Supports the Climate Solutions Act

Action on climate change is based on the LWVUS position to support comprehensive legislation to control climate change, and support for predominant reliance on renewable resources. The League’s positions on natural resources date back to the 1920s.

The focus of climate activists today is switching from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources. We need to move to 100 percent clean and renewable energy, greatly expand public transit and accelerate the conversion to electric vehicles, retrofit existing buildings, construct “zero emissions” new buildings, and sequester carbon pollution in forestry and healthy soils. We will need to do so in a way that protects workers and invests in communities that are on the frontlines of the climate crisis or have historically seen racial discrimination.

LWVMD is supporting SB 414 – Climate Solutions Act which is the first step in that work by strengthening our climate plan in 2022. This Act will align our emissions reduction targets with the world’s leading science and reposition Maryland as a climate leader. It will require fixes to our state’s flawed climate plan and take some immediate climate actions, from planting millions of new trees to increasing energy efficiency. And it will lay the groundwork for an equitable transition to a new, clean economy. Read our supportive testimony here.

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Following Up on LWVMD Legislative Day

On Tuesday, March 2nd LWVMD hosted its first virtual Legislative Day.  We were so pleased to virtually see everyone!  Following up on the days discussion we have some additional information to share with you.  Our guest speaker, Darius Stanton provided League members with a list of bills that the Maryland Black Caucus Foundation is tracking. You can find the list here

In addition, to our discussion on police accountability we have provided research about school resource officers and it can be found here

If you were unable to attend the event a video recording can be found here.     

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LWVMD Testifies for Redistricting Standards

LWVMD Testifies for Redistricting Standards

POSTED BY Beth Hufnagel· March 5, 2021

Hearings on Constitutional Amendments to Strengthen Redistricting Standards

Congressional Redistricting Standards

A hearing on setting standards for the Congressional redistricting process, HB410 Congressional Districts – Standards (Anti-Gerrymandering of Maryland’s Congressional Districts) was held on February 22, 2021. You can watch the presentation by the sponsor, Delegate Malone, the witness testimony and legislator discussion here, starting at about 25 minutes into the hearing. HRU Committee Session, 2/22/2021 #1 - YouTube

The standards in this bill are the same as those the Maryland constitution already applies to legislative districts, and we think that they are equally appropriate for Congressional districts. Adjoining and compact districts give the voters a much better opportunity to know their representatives and to engage in political discussions. Setting territorial standards in the redistricting process would help to restore the faith of voters in their elected officials.

Maryland Legislative Redistricting Standards

At the same time, the Committee also held a hearing on HB339- Legislative Districts – Standards. You can watch the presentation by the sponsor, Delegate Malone, the witness testimony and legislator discussion here, starting at about 25 minutes into the hearing. HRU Committee Session, 2/22/2021 #1 - YouTube

Election maps are adjusted every ten years after the Census to account for population shifts and ensure each district has substantially equally populations. However, since 1812 US politicians on both sides of the aisle have also used the redistricting process to provide their party with an advantage in elections for the coming decade. Using our current technology, politicians today can achieve this with unprecedented precision. This bill would attempt to remove that temptation by removing consideration of political affiliation of voters from the process.

http://www.lwvmd.org/

Support Fair Maps

 

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LWVMD Issues Strong Position Supporting #FairMaps

Every ten years, the US Constitution requires that a census be taken and be used to reapportion voters into Congressional, state and local districts. The 2020 Census results will be available by May 2021, and the redistricting in Maryland must be completed by early 2022. The LWVMD and LWVUS have strong and long-held positions for how to draw People-Powered Fair Maps. The Maryland General Assembly will work on redistricting after their 2021 Session, probably in a Special 2021 Session.  The League is active now and is watching the process closely.

To learn more and how you can help Maryland get Fair Maps for the next decade, please read the League's Issue Paper!

If you have questions or want to volunteer, contact Beth Hufnagel, Lead of the LWVMD Redistricting Advocacy Team ([email protected]).

LWVMD Redistricting Team - #FairMaps

http://www.lwvmd.org/

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Legislative Update - Police Accountability Bills

Hearing on Disciplinary Records

A hearing on the first of the 5 Reforms that LWVMD is supporting, SB 178 - Public Information Act - Personnel Records - Investigations of Law Enforcement Officers (Anton's Law) was held on January 21st.  You can watch the presentation by the sponsor, the witness testimony and legislator discussion here

This bill would amend Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA) which prohibits disclosure of disciplinary files.  It would change the law to state that investigation of misconduct by a law enforcement officer, including an internal investigatory record, a hearing record and records relating to a disciplinary decision would not be considered personnel records and therefore remove police discipline files from the “shall deny” section of the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) and put them in the “may deny” section of the MPIA. This would allow the possibility of investigating how a complaint of police misconduct was handled.

Future Hearing on Mental Health Services in Schools

The next hearing on one of our priority bills: HB 496 Primary and Secondary Education - Mental Health Services - Expansion (Counselors Not Cops Act) will take place on Wednesday, February 3 in the House Ways and Means Committee.  You can watch the hearing live, or wait until I send you the link to the exact portion of the hearing that addresses this bill. It would divert the $10 million dollars that the state now gives to local school districts to hire armed police officers to work in schools on a regular basis and instead require that those funds be used to contract with school psychologists, social workers and counselors or to expand the availability of other mental and behavioral health services.

To learn more about the reforms to policing that LWVMD is supporting, read our Issue Paper. Or register to attend our Winter Workshop on Saturday, January 30th from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.

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LWVMD Supports Impactful Public Education Reform

Pre-K to 12 Public Education Funding and Reforms

Over the past several years, education funding in Maryland has fallen below what is needed to provide an adequate and equitable education for all students. While evident before, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequities and raised awareness of how differences in access to learning resources diminish the opportunity to learn.

In 2016, the Maryland General Assembly created the Kirwan Commission to provide recommendations on how to rewrite Maryland’s school funding formula and provide policy proposals for improving education. After hearing from experts and gathering information on best practices, the commission recommended investments in early childhood education, high quality and diverse teachers and leaders, college and career pathways, more resources to ensure student success (a guaranteed base for all students, increased amounts for students at risk who need tutoring and wrap-around services) and an accountability system. Strong Schools Maryland provides a graphic description of the Kirwan plan. HB 1300 The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future phases in these plans over a ten-year period. It passed with a veto-proof majority just before the General Assembly adjourned early due to the Covid19 pandemic but was vetoed by the Governor. The override of the veto is especially important to avoid further delay in implementation of these reforms.

Since the 1970s Maryland League members have been concerned about adequate and equitable funding of public education. Our studies show that because of differences in local wealth, some counties have a harder time raising the money needed to provide a well-rounded education for all students. Our State Constitution says that “The General Assembly…shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance.” Over the years, many commissions have recognized the inequities and inadequacies of school funding and recommended funding formulas that required a base amount per pupil (the foundation), adjustments for special needs and a larger state contribution for low-wealth counties.

LWVMD education advocacy is based on several positions. Our Financing Education position recognizes that the primary responsibility for funding public elementary and secondary education lies with the state. We support:

  1. A foundation program based on a weighted per pupil formula supported from general state revenues at a level high enough to eliminate inequities.
  2. Some local leeway to provide additional funding for education.
  3. Continuation of local control over the schools.
  4. The encouragement of increased federal funding for education.

 

Our Children’s Services position supports a comprehensive range of child-centered services to ensure all children a chance to grow toward stable, productive adulthood. Under our Competent Teachers position, we support the state aiding local school systems in attracting and retaining competent teachers. And the state should ensure that students have an opportunity to pass high school graduation tests.

For the 2021 General Assembly, legislators must override the Blueprint veto.

We are a member of the Coalition for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future which supports legislation that makes technical fixes to ensure that the Blueprint funding phase-in and implementation timelines are not delayed, clarifies certain provisions and improves equity. We will provide more detail when bill(s) are introduced.

The League is also a member of the Maryland Education Coalition (MEC) which supports a “Companion Bill” that would address other education problems, especially those caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, schools need relief from the effect declining enrollment could have on education aid. The pandemic highlighted the effect of the digital divide, caused by affordability for devices and internet connections in urban areas and lack of infrastructure in rural areas.

In addition to passing new legislation, we will need to carefully examine the Governor’s budget to be sure that it includes the funds needed for the Blueprint and technical fixes.

Challenges to Passing This Legislation

One challenge is the House of Delegates’ plan to hold only virtual hearings until mid-February when they will convene and consider veto overrides. That leaves less time to enact technical fixes and other companion legislation. The other of course, is revenue. The Governor vetoed several new taxes intended to pay for the Blueprint. Since costs are projected to be almost $4 billion more per year by year ten of the phase-in of the Blueprint, it is also important to override these vetoes. See our Action Blog on Progressive and Adequate Fiscal Policy.

Summary

LWVMD believes that we must support the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future to prepare our children for the 21st century workforce, strengthen Maryland’s economic future and have an educated workforce to attract business to our state.

 

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LWVMD Focused on Protecting the Vote

Election bills have always been of keen interest to the League. We were established in 1920 to help newly enfranchised women use their ballots effectively, and we have a long tradition of supporting laws that remove barriers to voting.

Dozens of election-related bills have already been pre-filed, and we anticipate more to come. Some of the topics that were addressed in bills considered during the 2020 session of the General Assembly have been reintroduced, including:

  • Voting by mail
  • Increasing access to voting for students and other under-served groups
  • Facilitating voter registration for people newly released from prison and those in custody pending trial or for misdemeanor convictions who are still eligible to vote
  • Special elections to fill vacancies in the General Assembly
  • Nonpartisan elections for Circuit Court judges
  • Employers’ obligations to give time off for voting
  • Restricting who may return an absentee ballot on a voter’s behalf

None of these bills passed last year, in part due to the abbreviated session. For certain bills, concerns were raised that may be addressed in the revised versions submitted this year.

In general, the League will be supporting bills that make voting easier and more accessible and opposing bills that would impose constraints on voters. Increasing voter participation is not sufficient, however — it is also essential to maintain the operational safeguards protecting the integrity and security of elections and the privacy of voters. Another consideration is the fiscal impact of implementing a particular bill, which can be a hurdle to passage by the General Assembly. Along with submitting formal testimony, the League can provide useful information to legislators as they draft or evaluate bills.

We will provide more detailed information on selected bills through blog postings as well as through action alerts. Information on all bills is available directly from the General Assembly website at https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/ 

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LWVMD Supports a Progressive & Adequate Fiscal Policy

Introduction

A budget is a policy document that reflects priorities and allocates scarce resources.  The challenge for 2021 is twofold:  1) The State starts with a “structural deficit,” and 2) the Covid-19 pandemic has placed unique pressures on the budget, both in terms of revenues and expenses. The Constitution of Maryland, unlike the Federal government, requires a balanced budget:

Maryland League members have, since the 1950s, understood the importance of the relationship between various revenue sources available to state government and the services provided by those revenues. Promoting a sound economy and maintaining an equitable and flexible system of taxation are among the League’s basic principles. The hallmarks of the LWVMD’s position are: 1) a progressive tax system, and 2) an equitable and efficient fiscal structure.

The General Assembly’s Spending Affordability Committee is charged with making recommendations for state spending, new debt authorization and state personnel levels.  In December 2020, the Committee examined the most current projections.  Their Report reveals that the State was in a stronger position than imagined when the pandemic first hit, which is not to say that there are not significant budget strains.  Their recommendation would leave about $1 billion in the reserve fund at the end of the 2022 fiscal year, an amount equal to 5 percent of state general fund revenues. Traditionally, 5 percent of revenue has been reserved in the Rainy-Day Fund, but recently the state has been holding 6 percent.  

Relevant Events in 2020

Two Constitutional ballot questions that passed in 2020, and several Gubernatorial vetoes will impact both 2021 and out years.

Constitutional Amendments

Question 1 authorized the Maryland General Assembly to increase, decrease, or add items to the state budget if such measures do not exceed the total proposed budget submitted by the governor.  This will not take effect until FY 2024.  At that time, it will reshape the process and end the Governor’s status of wielding the strongest control of the purse of any colleague in the country.  The LWVMD supported this amendment.

Question 2 authorized sports and events wagering with the revenue intended to fund public education.  In 2021 how this is implemented will be a legislative consideration.

Gubernatorial Vetoes to Follow

The Governor proclaimed he would veto legislation that mandates an increase in spending or taxes, especially considering the pandemic.  One critical bill he vetoed was designed to continue implementing the Kirwan Commission educational reforms, the "Blueprint for Maryland's Future" LWVMD has been a strong supporter of the Blueprint. 

The legislature also passed several new taxes to pay for the Blueprint plan.  These taxes included a tax on digital downloads such as Netflix and video games; a corporate tax change intended to bring in tens of millions each year; a new tax on vaping products and a doubled tax on cigarettes. They also passed a first-in-the-nation proposal to tax the targeted digital advertising on giant online platforms such as Facebook and Google.  All these tax bills were vetoed.

At some point during the 2021 session the General Assembly will vote on overriding the vetoes.  An override required two-thirds majority of both houses.  The potential overrides will be a major event during the session. 

 Legislation to Follow in 2021

As indicated, the potential override of The Blueprint veto will be a major issue in which the LWVMD will be involved through its membership in the Maryland Education Coalition and the Coalition for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future

The future of the Blueprint will largely depend upon revenues.  The LWVMD collaborates with the  Maryland Fair Funding Coalition.  We share many but not all views in common regarding a progressive and efficient tax system.  As critics say:

           Do not tax you.  Do not tax me.  Tax the guy behind the tree.

           One man’s “loophole” is another man’s legitimate deduction.

The areas up for consideration for major tax legislation will fall in the following areas:

  • Closing Corporate Loopholes – Combined Reporting and “Pass-through” businesses
  • Ending Ineffective Business Subsidies – Enterprise Zone tax credits
  • Fair Share – estate tax on multi-millionaires, capital gains treatment, and “carried interest”
  • Digital Tax

Summary

Whether it is a household or a state budget, the balancing of revenues and expenses – especially during a pandemic – is a challenge.   Already, much of our overall service level has been hollowed out.  There will be a demand for specific services, education through the Blueprint being a major one.  Where it ends up and how the services might be paid for will be major considerations during the session.

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