Legislative Roundup: UMMS, Handgun Review Board, Retiree Benefits and More

Maryland State House

Maryland lawmakers are moving forward on legislation that would reconstitute and reform the University of Maryland Medical System’s board of directors in the wake of a self-dealing scandal.

The House of Delegates voted 137-0 Wednesday night on a bill from Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) that would prohibit financial arrangements between the institution and members of its board, who will all be removed from their posts before Jan. 1, with the opportunity to re-apply.

The Senate is moving forward on a similar bill introduced by Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City). Carter introduced the measure early this session, which prompted a Baltimore Sun investigation that brought insider deals to light, including a $500,000 UMMS contract with Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) for the sale of children’s books while she was a member of the board.

Carter’s bill, as amended in committee, incorporates the House bill and includes additional provisions.

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel), who has been advocating for the bill while Busch remains hospitalized for pneumonia, applauded the measure’s passage in the House.

“In all my years in public service, I have never seen a more blatant and disgusting violation of the people’s trust than the acts committed by some of the members of this Board,” Kipke said in a written statement. “While I believe the members of the board must account individually for their actions, I’m supporting this legislation as it will help the University of Maryland Medical System move forward with a new and more thoroughly-vetted Board with strong safeguards to make sure this never happens again.”

Coincidentally, Kipke led the prayer in the House chamber before Wednesday night’s session. In it, he asked his colleagues to pray for the people of Baltimore City and for the city’s “good” political leaders.

Final passage of Carter’s bill is likely on Thursday in the Senate.

During Wednesday’s debate, Sen. Andrew Serafini (R-Washington) asked whether the bill could be broadened to apply to other state entities that could use the same sunlight.

“I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned… that we could and should apply elsewhere in the state,” the floor leader, Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) responded.

For now, though, the bill remains focused on the UMMS board, which everyone agrees needs the scrutiny. “It’s a very troubling, troubling, troubling situation,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said.

Miller also thanked Carter for introducing the bill. “That’s what the role of the Senate is. You see a problem and you address it,” he said.

Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore) asked whether the bill could address political contributions, not just prohibiting financial conflicts by board members. “I’m trying to quantify influence,” she said.

The bill doesn’t deal with that issue specifically, but would allow the Legislature to review new disclosure forms to be filled out by the new board members, Feldman said.

Meanwhile, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), who has already called on Pugh to resign, referenced the scandal during the Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, ripping the “self-dealing and backroom politics” involved.

Franchot also used the occasion to blast Busch and Miller, with whom he has frequently feuded – and who have engineered legislation to strip Franchot’s office of key regulatory duties. He accused them of displaying “mock outrage” about the myriad problems at the UMMS board.

When State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who is appointed by the legislature, chimed in that the reform legislation would not be moving without Miller and Busch’s assent, Franchot suggested it was insufficient.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to rely on the state prosecutor to get to the bottom of what’s going on up there and my fear is that we have only barely broken the skin of the apple,” he said.

Here is a look at other key legislative developments from Wednesday:

Handgun board repeal

Late Wednesday evening, the House Judiciary Committee voted favorably on Senate Bill 1000, which would repeal Maryland’s Handgun Permit Review Board. The Senate passed the measure last week and the House panel made no changes to the bill, which means it could be passed through the Legislature before lawmakers adjourn for the year on Monday.

The panel, to which citizens can appeal concealed carry applications that have been modified or denied by the state police, has come under fire for the number of times it has overturned the decisions of law enforcement personnel.

The bill would abolish the board and instead send appeals of Maryland State Police concealed carry permit decisions directly to the Office of Administrative Hearings ― where appeals of the board’s decisions are already ending up.

Judiciary Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) has sponsored a bill for the last couple of years to get rid of the board. She said it was unfortunate that the committee vote was along party lines because she thinks it’s a logical and efficient change to existing law. While the bill’s opponents argue that the board serves as a civilian check on police, Atterbeary said the board’s political persuasion could be changed one way or another by gubernatorial appointees.

“Process-wise and legally, I think this bill is the best option,” she said after the vote.

Retiree benefits

The House and Senate voted nearly unanimously to approve compromise legislation Wednesday to address prescription drug benefits for state government retirees.

As passed, Senate Bill 946 creates three plans to try to keep retirees “as whole as possible,” Del. Benjamin Barnes (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel) said.

Under the bill, all retirees would be given counseling and information about enrollment in Medicare Part D. They would also be eligible for certain state supplemental plans.

Those who retire before Dec. 31, 2019, would have access to a plan with an out-of-pocket expense cap at $1,500. Retirees after that date would have a cap of $2,500.

All retirees would have access to a life-sustaining prescription drug plan in which the state would pick up the costs for critical medications that are covered by the state’s current plan but not Medicare Part D. Lawmakers have tasked state government with creating a program that would provide instant or near-instant reimbursements to retirees after they pass the annual out-of-pocket cap.

The amended bill has an estimated cost of $3 billion over time, Barnes said. Maintaining the state’s previous retiree prescription drug program would have cost an estimated $11 billion over time.

A half-dozen bills were introduced this year to address the benefits program, which was substantially changed as part of comprehensive pension reform passed in 2011 but only broadly understood in 2018. A lawsuit challenging the 2011 remains pending and a judge has ordered that the old program remain in place until the case is resolved.

Water liens

The House gave unanimous approval to Senate Bill 96 from Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), which would permanently ban the tax lien foreclosures in Baltimore of houses and religious properties exempt from taxation. The measure makes permanent a current law that has been in place since Oct. 1, but is set to expire at the end of this year.

Foam ban

Maryland lawmakers passed the country’s first statewide ban on the sale of food in foam containers and cups.

The bill’s chief sponsors this year were Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery). House Bill 109 crossed the finish line first, when 100 delegates voted Wednesday evening in favor of the measure.

Similar bans already exist in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Baltimore City, Annapolis and Washington, D.C., among other nearby jurisdictions.

Tobacco 21

A bill to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco in Maryland to 21 is headed to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s desk. House Bill 1169 passed the House of Delegates 101-35 on Wednesday afternoon. The bill includes the age restriction on e-cigarettes, which have seen a sharp increase in use by teenagers, but exempts active duty military members from the age limit.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report. 

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.

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