Transportation, Equity, and Accountability

As the current Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated, multiple functioning transportation systems are important elements that help keep our state operating for essential workers, are key to environmental justice, and oil our machinery of democracy. The League has long advocated for systems of transportation that address our concerns of protecting the environment and preserving natural resources while encouraging the coordination of governments at multiple levels all with emphasis on equity among populations.

Issues of transportation are woven throughout action of LWVMD. Transportation is not just about cars, buses, trains, trucks, pedestrians and bikes. It is about voting and how people get to polls to cast their ballots, how lines are drawn for redistricting, where houses are built and the land that is used for development, how money is spent for transportation and if funds from the trust fund are involved, whether all portions of our population are given equitable access to our economy, educational opportunities, healthcare, and of course the impact on our environment.

Maryland Transit Administration – Funding has been pre-filed in both the House and Senate. MTA funding impacts specifically the Baltimore area plus many other parts of the state and advocacy will be continued as in past years. This bill, and others that may be filed, encompass many aspects of equity and accessibility to the greater economy. Of the 50 largest transit agencies in the country, Baltimore is the only area that is governed and operated by a state agency without a board of directors.

The Public Private Partnership agreement to expand I-495, the American Legion Bridge, and I-270 has been hotly contested. LWVMD advocated in the past for a number of bills that would add oversight, better define agreements, or create equal treatment around the state, but all outcomes of advocacy would promote a cleaner environment. Decisions about this very large project are made at the state level and the legislature has little input, but several bills have been put forward to increase accountability. I-495 and I270 Public-Private Partnership - Partnership Agreement – Requirements is again being proposed. League has long advocated for a strong code of ethics with an open process that “ensures transparency, accountability, positive community impact and preservation of the common good when considering the transfer of governmental services, assets and/or functions to the private sector.”

Converting our transportation system to clean energy has been advocated for in the past and we expect more bills this year. One bill that has been proposed is Maryland Transit Administration – Conversion to Zero-Emission Buses. Since transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in our state and country, many efforts to tackle the immense challenge in reducing transportation emissions focus on electrification of a vehicle fleet. Here, as in many bills, costs of implementation are a key challenge.

Importance of requiring cooperation of the transportation sector to include and prioritize climate impacts as part of the environmental review is stressed. Solutions may include investing in better transit services, encouraging smart roadway pricing, and better syncing transportation with land use. Some of the biggest challenges in transportation can be solved through better land use. Bringing essential trips closer to where people live is a vital part of transportation. Legislation may address the alarming safety trends for pedestrians and bikes and encourage a “smart street design” where safety takes precedence over speed. Instead of shovel ready projects, investments by the state should be made into shovel worthy projects. Priorities should include rehabilitation of key assets, with a focus on transparency; address historic harms inflicted on marginalized communities; prioritize environmental justice; and our environment generally so together we may implement a smart transportation system.

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COVID-19, Eviction Prevention and the Maryland General Assembly

The LWV of United States Impact on Issues states: ”When families or individuals cannot afford decent housing, government should provide assistance in the form of income and/or subsidized housing.”

The COVID pandemic has caused thousands to lose their jobs and be unable to pay their rent.  While there is a federal moratorium on evictions through January 31, renters must prove their inability to pay is as a direct result of loss of income, and it does not prevent other actions by landlords that can cause a family or individual to lose their rental home. Marylanders also have some protections under an order by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., which put a halt to certain evictions for those who took a financial hit due to the coronavirus pandemic. That order will be active as long as Maryland’s state of emergency continues.

The state allocated $30 million in federal relief funding toward eviction prevention and rental relief earlier this year, but advocates have warned that it’ll take much more than that to curb evictions. The second Federal COVID  relief package recently passed contains $25 Billion in rental assistance but it will take time for that assistance to filter down to states and to those who need it. 

Up to 204,000 Maryland households are at risk of eviction, according to estimates from the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout. While tenants are protected by state and federal stays on certain evictions, some are still losing their homes. Over 115,000 eviction cases were filed from July to November in Maryland, and Maryland District Court Judge John P Morrissey said there were about 2,571 evictions in Maryland during that time period.. 

Renters United Maryland said 36% of Black households are not current on their rent, compared to 14% of white households.  About 30% of households earning less than $50,000 are also behind compared to just 10% of those earning more than $75,000. 

Housing bills will most likely be heard in the House Environment & Transportation Committee, and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

A Housing Justice Package of 5 bills for the upcoming session was unveiled Dec. 28 by a statewide coalition of rental housing advocates and state representatives: 

  • Eviction Diversion and Defense, sponsored by Baltimore City Del. MelissaWells and Sen. Charles Sydnor requires pursuing early rental assistance before suing to evict. It establishes a formal, two-phase proceeding and Eviction Diversion Program, which enables renters and landlords to engage financial and legal services. This proposed bill provides renters time to seek counsel, to raise a defense and to prepare for trial — also giving judges broader power to delay eviction in emergency situations, according to the package.
  • Court Fee Reform bill, sponsored by the Attorney General's Office, establishes an eviction surcharge that effectively raises Maryland courts’ rock-bottom $15 court fee for evictions to the national average of $120.The idea would be that a surcharge creates further incentive for landlords to work with renters on payment plans, while also lowering the state’s volume of eviction litigation. It could also relieve state courts and free up tax revenue to be used on court infrastructure or services, according to the package. The proposed legislation would prohibit the pass-through of that eviction surcharge onto renters, and it directs the surcharge revenue to funds for civil legal services.
  • Right to Counsel sponsored by Del. Wanika Fisher and Sen. Shelly Hettleman would provide low-income renters with the right to an attorney in eviction cases. The package argues right to counsel largely reduces housing displacement and stands to save the state "significant costs." One study cited showed an investment of $5.7 million in right to counsel in evictions, in Baltimore City, would save the state $18.1 million in Medicaid and foster care spending alone.
  • COVID-19 Eviction Relief Act of 2021 sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins and Sen. Will Smith expands and extends the Hogan/CDC orders to protect renters from eviction throughout 2021.It provides financial relief for landlords through a statewide program that matches state/county funds. It prohibits lease non-renewals without a good cause, rent delinquency and lease expiration are not considered good causes for lease termination. It prohibits late fees, interest charges, and rent increases throughout the emergency.
  • Emergency Homeowner Protections sponsored by Del. Vaughn Stewart and Sen. Jill Carter would extend a foreclosure moratorium through the state of emergency, for both homeowners and small landlords, across state and federally-backed mortgages. The proposed bill requires mortgage servicers to grant forbearance relief through the state of emergency and — for both homeowners and small landlords who have exhausted forbearance options — to establish a default repayment option such as deferring missed mortgage payments to the end of the loan. Late fees would be banned. Prompt notice would be required of all the rights to homeowners and landlords. A private right of action would be created for homeowners to sue servicers who violate the law. For a year following the emergency, servicers could not furnish negative credit information to consumer reporting agencies related to mortgage payments.

                                                                            

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LWVMD Supports Police Accountability Reforms

Following the video recorded death of unarmed George Floyd who was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis in May of 2020, thousands of protestors took to the streets in cities all across the nation to call for an end to the long legacy of racial injustice and police brutality experienced by people of color in our nation.  

On June 25, 2020 at the National Convention of the League of Women Voters of the United States the following resolution that was proposed by 47 state and local Leagues was adopted nearly unanimously: The League of Women Voters shall advocate against systemic racism in the justice system and, at a minimum, for preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement. We also call for prompt actions by all League members to advocate within every level of government to eradicate systemic racism, and the harm that it causes.  We resolve second, that the League help our elected officials and all Americans recognize these truths to be self-evident; that Black, Indigenous and all people of color (BIPOC) deserve equal protection under the law; and that we demand solutions for the terrible wrongs done, so that regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and gender identity or sexual orientation we may truly become a nation "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. 

In 2015 the ACLU released a report on deaths during police encounters in Maryland from 2010 to 2014.   Key findings of that report included: 

1) At least 109 people died in police encounters in Maryland between 2010-2014. These deaths were dispersed throughout the state in 17 counties and Baltimore City.

2) Sixty-nine percent of those who died in a police encounter (75 people) were Black. Blacks make up 29 percent of Maryland’s population.

3) Five Black people died for every White person who died, when the size of the Black and White populations were taken into account. Put another way, the rate at which Blacks died by a police encounter (deaths per population size) was five times that of Whites.

Following the death of Freddy Gray in 2015, numerous pieces of legislation to address the issue of policing were introduced in the 2016 and subsequent sessions of the General Assembly. A summary of those pieces of legislation was presented in a briefing to the Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland.  However, these modifications to the law were not getting to the heart of the problem which is why House Speaker Jones appointed the work group. 

Meanwhile a group of advocates that included individuals and family members who have been impacted by police violence, civil rights activists, religious leaders, law centers and advocates for a whole host of marginalized groups, came together to agree on five reforms that they believe would make a significant improvement to police practices in Maryland. These reforms were widely circulated and nearly 100 organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Maryland, signed on to support them. 

Currently legislators are working with advocates to finalize language for bills for the 2021 session of the General Assembly to enact these reforms. When the bills have been assigned bill numbers and sponsors, an update will be sent out to interested readers of this report.

These are the five areas of change in policy that are being sought by legislation:

  1. Repeal the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights: The Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) is the state law that governs the process for police discipline in Maryland. It gives special rights to police officers that other state employees to not have and it prevents communities form investigating misconduct that could lead to discipline. Maryland was the first state to pass such a law. While some states have similar laws on the books, most states do not. Maryland’s law is considered one of most extreme in the country. Because of LEOBR it is very rare for complaints about police conduct to result in consequences. 
  2. Restore Control of the Baltimore City Police Department to the residents of the City of Baltimore Since the 1860’s the Baltimore Police Department has been under control of the state of Maryland, not the city of Baltimore. The residents of Baltimore have the right to a police department that is accountable to them, not the state. Local officials lack the authority to enforce accountability and policing reforms, some of which were mandated by the Justice Department following the death of Freddie Grey.
  3. Increase Transparency in the Investigations of Police Misconduct If an individual files a complaint of police misconduct, they do not have the right to know how the complaint was investigated. They are only informed of the outcome of the investigation and whether any disciplinary measures were imposed.  The public does not know whether the investigation was thorough.  For example, what evidence did they look at, who was interviewed, did they review body camera footage?  Secrecy about investigations is undermining the trust that police are being held accountable for their actions. 
  4. Remove law enforcement from our children's schools. Studies have shown that police presence in schools does not reduce school shootings or school-based violence.  National studies show that students in schools with a police officer are five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct and twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement for infractions such as fist-fights than students in schools without a police presence. The state allocates approximately $10 million annually to help subsidize School Resource Officers.  We are supporting legislation to reallocate that funding to provide behavioral and mental health specialists in schools.
  5. Limit the use of force by law enforcement Maryland is one of only nine states without a statewide use of force law. However, no state or federal law meets international standards for police use of force. Use of force in Maryland is governed by two Supreme Court cases.  In 1989, the court authorized use of force when it is “objectively reasonable.”  The other authorizes lethal force to prevent a person who is incarcerated from escaping if there is probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of being violent. There needs to be a clear definition of lethal and non-lethal force and the circumstances under which they may be used. 

One of the challenges to passing this legislation is the perception that it is anti-police.  However, the coalition recognizes that the vast majority of police officers are committed to performing their duties in a professional and ethical manner. These reforms will hold those police who are guilty of misconduct accountable and possibly remove them from policing. In turn, that will increase confidence and trust in police and thus make their jobs easier. Another concern is that these reforms will reduce safety.  Even if school resource officers aren’t assigned to be in schools on a regular basis they can still be called if a serious incident warrants their intervention. However, instead resorting to law enforcement as a first resort, it will require schools to apply more appropriate approaches first. 

As was mentioned in the opening of this article, policing in America has had a troubled history of discrimination and abuse.  At last, the public is waking up to the fact that tolerating practices that further the inequalities in our society must not be tolerated.  Police have enormous power and authority which must be used in a responsible and ethical way. We must make sure that policing is equitable, transparent and democratic.  

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The New LWVMD Legislative Action Report

After much consideration and deliberation about the most effective way to inform and engage our supporters on the issues before the Maryland General Assembly that are of interest to members of the League of Women Voters, we have decided to retire the publication Report from State Circle (RSC). 

The RSC was created by LWV volunteers  more than four decades ago to provide citizens who wanted to follow Maryland legislation with a way to access information about the General Assembly proceedings and documents. At that time, only by having a physical presence in the capitol could citizens obtain copies of bills and witness hearings and floor debate. Since that time, the General Assembly has created and continually upgraded its online platform to allow the public to track the progress of bills and watch or listen to committee hearings and floor sessions in real time -- thanks to grassroots advocacy LWVMD has participated in.  In addition, numerous other publications have emerged to help inform us about legislative activity and social media allows users to get breaking news within minutes. 

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