Black Caucus Looks to Push Police Reform, Economic Justice and the ‘Black Agenda’

Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), flanked by Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore City) in 2019. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Following a year fraught with social unrest wrapped in a global pandemic, members of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland have their eyes focused on equity in education, criminal justice reform, public health, housing justice and economic opportunity during the 2021 legislative session.

“This has not been an easy [year] for any of us, but the work that many of you have done on a policy level and in your communities has won my heart,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore City), a member of the caucus, said at a virtual news conference Monday afternoon.

In large part, the caucus’ priorities encompass a package of bills that Jones has dubbed the “Black Agenda.”

Jones’ agenda seeks to reduce race-based problems based in economic opportunity, public health and housing. Key bills in the package include:

  • Legislation sponsored by Del. Pamela E. Queen (D-Montgomery) to stop credit and loan applicants from being denied if they can prove their creditworthiness in some other form;
  • A bill sponsored by Del. Benjamin T. Brooks Sr. (D-Baltimore County) to help first-time homebuyers afford down payments through tax-free savings accounts;
  • A bill sponsored by House Ways and Means Committee Vice Chair Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) to increase the ability of minority-owned businesses to compete for state contract bids through the creation of a Certified Business Enterprise program;
  • Legislation sponsored by Del. CT Wilson (D-Charles) that seeks to alter the state’s procurement process and provide more resources for minority-owned businesses;
  • A bill sponsored by Del. Darryl D. Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, that would give minority business owners more opportunities by directing $10 million to the TEDCO Builder’s Fund;
  • Legislation co-sponsored by Dels. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s) and Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s) to set up Health Equity Resource Communities;
  • A bill sponsored by Health and Government Operations Vice Chair Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk that would declare racism a public health crisis and require medical professionals to undergo bias training during their licensing process; and
  • A bill sponsored by Jones that would order companies that receive $1 million or more in state funding to prove that they have a racially diverse board and mission, mandate companies with state contracts to show diversity on their boards by 2023 and implement an equity scorecard to measure corporations’ spending with minority businesses.

Funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Following Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s 2020 veto, Jones is again sponsoring a bill that seeks to settle a 2006 lawsuit that found the state had been continuing the practice of segregation by duplicating programs offered at its Historically Black Colleges and Universities at traditionally white universities.

Cosponsored by Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), this legislation would order the state to provide an additional $577 million in funding to Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, over 10 years.

An iteration of this legislation passed both chambers of the General Assembly in 2020 but was vetoed by Hogan.

Sydnor said Monday that the bill passed “overwhelmingly” in both the House and the Senate last year, adding that only two lawmakers, Dels. Susan W. Krebs (R-Carroll) and Nino Mangione (R-Baltimore County), voted in opposition.

Sydnor said that he looks forward to the legislature passing, and Hogan signing, the hard-fought legislation.

“If he decides that he doesn’t want to sign it, we look forward to a real quick veto override,” said Sydnor.

Comprehensive police reform

Following the death of George Floyd in late May, Jones convened the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland, and on Monday announced her intent to introduce legislation based on its recommendations.

Echoing recommendations expected to appear in this omnibus bill, the Legislative Black Caucus’ Criminal Justice subcommittee identified three policy priorities for the 2021 session, including:

  • A bill cosponsored by Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) and Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) that would establish a statewide use-of-force standard;
  • Legislation cosponsored by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) and Carter to fully repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights; and
  • Carter and Acevero’s re-introduction of Anton’s Law, which this session is poised to amend the Maryland Public Information Act to make certain officer misconduct records available for public review.

“The expectation of humane policing is a human right and a constitutional one,” said Davis. “Maryland cannot have humane policing, without transparency and accountability.”

Economic opportunity

While Jones’ Black agenda covers a lot of economic bases, the caucus’ Economic Development and Minority Business Subcommittee has taken up other pieces of legislation seeking to ensure that Black Marylanders have a legitimate shot at business development and economic recovery in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, including bills dealing with sports betting, eviction relief and small business recovery.

Health equity

Beyond the bill in Jones’ package that would declare racism a public health crisis, the Legislative Black Caucus supports House Bill 28.

Sponsored by Peña-Melnyk and Del. Robbyn R. Lewis (D-Baltimore City) this legislation would require licensed health professionals to undergo implicit bias training when they apply to have their licenses renewed.

Peña-Melnyk said that it has been proven that racial and ethnic minorities experience health disparities “as a consequence of the social determinants of health,” and that these disparities have been laid bare during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is the way we live — we live in crowded places; It is that we are essential workers and make minimum wage; It is that we take public transportation; It is the environment we live [in]; It is a lack of education,” she explained. “It goes back to slavery — it goes back to the Jim Crow laws. This is really racism and systemic racism.”

Housing justice

The Legislative Black Caucus supports the Maryland Housing Justice package, which seeks to:

  • Limit a landlord’s ability to increase rent, pursue late fees or refuse to renew leases based on delinquent payments;
  • Ban mortgage late fees until the state of emergency has been lifted; and
  • Establish a tenant’s right to counsel in eviction court and raise the cost landlords must pay to file a lawsuit against their tenants.

“Home is health; It is safety; It is a lifeline for every single Marylander,” said Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery). “Black Marylanders were already the most cost-burdened population prior to COVID-19, when it comes to the cost of housing, compared to income and now, not only are black residents facing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, but also at risk of losing the roof over their heads.”

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