Senators Press State Insurance Chief About Her Views on Abortion, LGBTQ Rights

Maryland Insurance Commissioner Kathleen A. Biranne during a Hogan administration promotion last year encouraging mask wearing. Maryland Insurance Administration Twitter photo.

The confirmation process has been fairly sedate for most of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s nominees for state posts, judgeships and commission members this General Assembly session, but the calm was briefly interrupted Monday evening when two senators sharply questioned the head of the Maryland Insurance Administration about her views on abortion and LBGTQ rights.

Kathleen A. Birrane has been serving in the job on an acting basis for 10 months, since the previous insurance commissioner, Alfred W. Redmer Jr., resigned in May. She served as counsel to the agency for several years until 2012 and her father, Edward J. Birrane Jr., was Maryland’s insurance commissioner from 1976 to 1982, and was a well-known expert on insurance issues.

But even though Birrane has been quietly leading the agency for almost a year, two senators used her confirmation hearing before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee Monday to ask her pointed questions about five-year-old social media posts — which have since been taken down — in which she expressed her views on abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The posts were first publicized in early 2020 when Birrane was nominated by Hogan to serve on the University of Maryland Medical System Board.

Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) said he had concerns about Birrane’s “anti-choice, anti-LGBT posts” and asked her whether her personal views as a devout Catholic would guide her decisions as head of the Maryland Insurance Administration. Birrane quickly moved to attempt to quell any controversy.

“I don’t have some of the views I think you’re concerned that I have,” Birrane protested. She went on to say that as insurance commissioner, “My oath of office is to faithfully uphold the laws of the state.”

Asked by Lam what “safeguards” she would offer to bolster that argument, Birrane insisted that she would never attempt to impose her personal views on the job, and said one way to judge how serious she is about the mission and stability of the MIA is the fact that she hasn’t changed personnel or policy at the agency.

“Mostly what I’ve done is I’ve not changed anything,” she said. “I’m not sure what controls I’d put in place.”

Lam, a physician, noted that one of the jobs of the Maryland Insurance Administration is to uphold the tenets of the Affordable Care Act, which include guaranteeing women’s access to health care. He asked whether Birrane supported the state doing business with “an essential community provider” — Planned Parenthood, which provides both women’s health care but also access to family planning and abortion services. She replied that Planned Parenthood was the very first provider she contacted when Hogan nominated her to be commissioner.

“I wouldn’t want Planned Parenthood to go away,” she said. “My personal views, my moral views, have no impact on my responsibility to support the law.”

Birrane compared her philosophy of balancing personal beliefs with official duties to President Biden, another devout Catholic who supports abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said the discussion about Birrane’s personal views “gives me some heartburn,” and said just because the nominee has vowed to uphold the law doesn’t mean that certain rights can’t be eroded.

“We’re not a static government, nor a static society,” Kelley said, later adding, “Sometimes our belief systems do impact our ability to be fair.”

Executive Nominations Chairman Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) quickly cut the debate short, saying the hour was getting late. He offered to postpone the rest of Birrane’s hearing until the next committee session next week, but Kelley said she was finished with her questions and no other senator expressed an interest in questioning the nominee.

At the conclusion of Monday night’s interviews, the committee ultimately ended up supporting Birrane’s nomination, with Lam abstaining and no one objecting.

Maryland Environmental Service chief on glidepath to confirmation

Another Hogan nominee who has been running an agency for several months had an easy confirmation hearing Monday evening — even though the agency he leads was the object of controversy and criticism last year.

Charles Glass has been the interim leader of the Maryland Environmental Service since late last spring, when the previous MES director, Roy McGrath, left to become Hogan’s chief of staff. But controversy erupted when McGrath was found to have been paid a six-figure severance when he was leaving the agency, even though he was taking a high-powered and high-paying job with the governor.

McGrath’s tenure in the State House did not last long, as board members of the MES, a quasi-governmental agency, suggested he had coerced them to authorize the severance payment by implying Hogan supported it — a contention the governor later denied.

Glass has been leading the MES through a period of great scrutiny. The legislature is currently working through a measure to reform the governance of the agency, which includes changing spending practices, curtailing severance payments, and altering the composition, selection and duties of board members. The bill has passed unanimously in the Senate and passed in the House, 130-7.

Glass told senators he is committed to running MES in “a responsible, accountable and transparent manner.” A handful of lawmakers — including some of McGrath’s greatest critics — suggested that Glass will be confirmed easily.

“We have someone who is open and willing to work with us,” said Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s).

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.