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Friday’s Legislative Roundup

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Wireless election network moratorium advances

The House of Delegates voted unanimously Friday on a bill that would place a moratorium on any wireless wide area network or cellular networks to transmit data from polling places.

The bill responds to a controversial requirement by the Maryland State Board of Elections that the state’s six largest jurisdictions use a new cellular wireless technology to transmit voter information to the state headquarters on 2020 election days. The policy has since been curtailed, following security concerns and complaints by local boards of elections, which had to pay for routers they considered to be an unfunded mandate.

Elections officials initially said the routers were needed to transmit same-day voter registration changes in time for a post-election absentee canvas. Later, officials said the routers also allowed for real-time monitoring of potential problems in precincts.

Most recently, the state board decided to keep the purchased routers and press them into use as a hub for pollbooks, even if counties choose not to transmit data outside of the polling places over them.

Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City), sponsor of the bill, said the changing explanations were “unbelievable.”

“We have not received any substantive reasons as to why they need these routers on and active. We know that we’ve had problems with them in the past,” Mosby said, referencing a slowdown related to the new networks during the special primary in the 7th congressional district last month. “And to utilize this primary election as a guinea pig test when there is no known reason as to why we need them just seems very problematic.”

On Thursday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) introduced a supplemental budget that shifts the $1,947,990 bill for the routers from local governments and allows those expenses to be covered by a federal grant.

Also on Thursday, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee included language in its proposed state budget requesting a report on plans to “improve coordination” between state elections staff and the state board, and restricting a portion of the agency’s budget until regular reports on information technology projects are delivered to the General Assembly.

Horse track bill clears Senate

Efforts to get the Maryland legislature to rebuild the state’s aging horse tracks last year collapsed amid geographical animosity and a lack of consensus.

That was then.

On Friday, the state Senate advanced an ambitious plan to pump $375 million into improvements at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park. There was no discussion and no debate — and the vote was 44-1, with only Anne Arundel County Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R) dissenting.

“What a difference a year makes,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) with a slight chuckle as he watched the votes pop up on the Senate scoreboard.

Senate Bill 987 would authorize the Maryland Stadium Authority to float $180 million in bonds to rebuild Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes, and $155 million to rebuild Laurel, the state’s busiest and most lucrative track.

If the measure is adopted into law, the Preakness, the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, will remain in Baltimore in perpetuity, backers of the legislation have said.

Both facilities have fallen into disrepair. Last year’s Preakness was marred by the last-minute closing of grandstands deemed unsafe for public use; Laurel’s worker housing has long been a source of alarm.

The bonds will be repaid through the state’s share of slot machine revenue and lottery proceeds.

The new Pimlico will feature athletic facilities and community space that will be available to the surrounding community 11 months a year.

The measure also:

  • provides $2.4 million a year for the Park Heights Renaissance, Inc., a neighborhood organization in northwest Baltimore;
  • transfers control of the Bowie Training Center to the City of Bowie, for eventual use as a nature preserve and ballfields for Bowie State University; and
  • creates an Equine Health, Safety, and Welfare Advisory Committee.

Alan M. Rifkin, a lawyer for the company that owns the two tracks, called the legislation “historic and transformational.” He was part of a small group that met privately for several months after the collapse of the 2019 rescue plan.

The measure now heads to the House of Delegates, where it is also expected to pass. The lead sponsor in that chamber is Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).

Sunday liquor sales in Baltimore County a no-go

The Baltimore County House delegation on Friday voted down a measure that would have allowed for Sunday package liquor sales in the county.

Fourteen delegates voted in favor of a motion to kill the bill, and just four voted against it: the bill’s sponsor, House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R), and three other Republicans: Dels. Lauren Arikan, Robin L. Grammer Jr., and Ric Metzgar.

The bill had been the subject of a lengthy and emotional hearing in the Baltimore County delegation a week earlier. Some local liquor store owners and representatives of Beltway Fine Wine and Spirits, which is affiliated with the Total Wine & More national liquor chain, testified in favor of the measure, which would have lifted the county’s long-standing tradition of banning Sunday package liquor sales. But other liquor store owners and several restaurateurs testified against it.

Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) also weighed in in favor of the measure.

Szeliga said she is hoping to work out a compromise that would be agreeable to both sides.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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Friday’s Legislative Roundup