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Steve's News from Annapolis

2016-02-08

As the volume and pace of our work as legislators’ speeds up, I often reflect on the reasons why you elected me and my responsibilities to you and the people of Maryland.

The General Assembly is the policy making body in the state. The laws we pass address some of the state’s most difficult issues and set the direction for our state’s future.  This year’s legislative agenda will tackle criminal justice reform, environmental protections, strengthening public education and health care and improving conditions and opportunities in Baltimore City.  My committee has been receiving briefings on a range of environmental and transportation issues and has begun to hear bills. I have had numerous meetings with advocates, industry representatives and constituents to discuss bills I am introducing.

The Governor’s State of the State Message

I appreciated the bipartisan tone of the Governor’s State of the State. Democrats and Republicans have, and must continue to, work together to address our needs and challenges. I hope that the reality begins to match the Governor’s words.  I was excited to hear about his commitment to the Chesapeake Bay and cleaner air for all Marylanders. I look forward to working with his staff on important pieces of legislation like the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act.  The Governor’s kind words for the work of the Justice Reinvestment Council were encouraging, as well. I haven’t seen whether he will support the Council’s recommendations to make our criminal justice system more just.

There were a few things, however, on which I wish the Governor would have commented. The Governor boasted that he’s the first Governor to fully fund education in his second year. But, that was done because the General Assembly mandated that he fully fund education last year. Yet, he continues to hold $68 million dollars in education funding that he could be used to help struggling schools and students across the state. If Maryland is truly “open for business” I wish the Governor would have committed not to cut important higher education and transportation projects that drive economic development in order to speed up construction of his new jail.

I also didn’t hear the Governor mention Maryland’s middle class or address their concerns about college affordability, equal pay or retirement security. General Assembly Democrats have an agenda that will help Maryland’s middle class.

School Construction Funding

I attended the Board of Public Works meeting where Dr. Dance made a pitch for additional funds to renovate, upgrade and air condition four high schools and other, older county schools. The County has made significant investment in air conditioning and adding more classroom seats. There are still too many schools without air conditioning and where overcrowding remains a problem. Unfortunately, most of the discussion at the meeting turned into a debate about whether to install new air conditioning systems or installing box units in buildings at a cost of nearly $10,000 per classroom but not undertaking other building improvements.

Dr. Dance has agreed to re-examining air conditioning needs and to determining whether there are intermediary steps that can expedite the installation of A/C.

Support for the Middle Class

College Affordability

One legislative focus will be on the student debt issue that has become a national and local problem. The average debt of a college graduate in Maryland was over $27,000 last year. With less discretionary income available over the past decade, the use of Maryland’s College Savings 529 Plan has become increasingly difficult for middle-class families.

Education Affordabiity Act of 2016 [SB676]

  • To make early college savings more accessible for middle-class families, legislation will incentivize investments in 529 plans by providing a State match. This bill would impact up to 20,000 Maryland families to encourage working families to begin saving for their child’s higher education costs and reduce the amount of future debt.
  • The bill will also assist middle class college graduates and families with student debt exceeding $20,000, based on debt-to-income ratios.
  • The bill also incentivizes students to take 30 credits each year so they can graduate on time in four years, saving students time and money.

Student Loan Refinancing Study - there is no bill yet

  • This is a study bill to determine whether the State can establish a way to refinance student loan debt to more manageable payments, and to report back to the General Assembly in 2017. 

Pay Equity

In 2016, women make an average of 78 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men. At the current rate, it will take 45 years for men and women to be on equal pay footing. In Maryland in 2014, a woman who held a full time job was paid, on average, $49,000 per year, while a man who held a full time job was paid $57,000 per year.

Equal Pay for Equal Work Act - there is no bill yet

Legislation will strengthen “equal pay for equal work” laws in Maryland and expand them to all employers by ensuring that businesses cannot penalize employees for discussing salaries.

  • The bill will provide greater transparency of currently existing pay disparities and broadens existing State standards used to determine whether unlawful compensation discrimination exists.
  • The bill specifies that the Attorney General can enforce pay discrimination claims.

Retirement Security – 

Employer-sponsored retirement plans are in decline. Many Maryland employees only have Social Security to rely on. It is critical to find a path towards economic stability in retirement. An estimated one million Marylanders lack adequate retirement savings and are at risk of financial distress when they eventually retire. More than a third of those who are within ten years of retirement have saved less than $10,000.

Retirement Security- there is no bill yet

  • Last year, the House Speaker and Senate President established a workgroup on retirement security & savings to work with the federal Department of Labor to identify ways that Maryland can help families save for retirement.
  • Legislation is being finalized to establish a program to incentivize employers who do not already offer retirement options to provide retirement savings plans to all employees.

Some of My Bills

As in past years, I am introducing legislation on a range of issues that impact my constituents and Marylanders. In fact, a few of the bills were brought to me by people who live in 42A. Here are a few that will have bill hearings in the coming weeks:

HB 178 –Roadside Trees- Preservation and Protection. 

Trees provide environmental, ecological and economic benefits. Efforts are needed to protect the unnecessary removal of trees, to better ensure that there is a replanting and to remove or repair any residual hazards are removed.

  • The bill sets direct standards for removal, excludes the removal for aesthetic purposes and requires that remaining pedestrian trip hazards are repaired quickly.

HB 243 – Standing to Challenge Comprehensive Zoning Decisions.

Last April, the Maryland Court of Appeals determined that a person who wants to challenge a comprehensive zoning determination by a local government must establish “taxpayer standing”. This requires a person to show an increased tax burden or specific pecuniary damage.

  • My bill will reestablish the right of a property owner to go to court to challenge comprehensive zoning changes that the owner believes has harmed her/him. It provides the right to use the courts to protect one’s property and rights.

HB 132 – Pollinator Habitat Plans

Bees and other pollinators have been lost in large numbers over the past few years.  It is estimated that 60% of the bee population in Maryland died off in 2014-15. One of the reasons is the absence of sufficient habitat.

  • This bill requires state agencies that own or manage land to develop pollinator habitat plans to encourage and support pollinators. They are to include best management practices for creating, maintaining, enhancing and restoring pollinator habitat.

HB 214 – Motor Vehicles Passing Bicycles

The number of people riding bicycles has increased. So, too, have conflicts with motor vehicles which have resulted in more bike riders sustaining serious injuries and death. Current law requires that when overtaking a bicycle, the vehicle is to pass safely at a distance of at least 3 feet. Bicyclists and motor vehicles have a right to share the roadway in a safe manner.

  • This bill removes an exception to the 3 Foot Rule when passing a bicyclist. It also requires that, when passing, it must be done at a reasonable and prudent speed that is safe under the conditions.

I welcome your comments about any of the bills I have mentioned or any other bills that are of interest or concern to you. I can be reached at Stephen.Lafferty@house.state.md.us or at 410-841-3487.

Best wishes,

Steve