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Roundup of Marathon Senate Session: Collective Bargaining, Mail-in Ballots and More

The Maryland Senate held about seven hours of floor sessions on Thursday. File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

With “Crossover Day” fast approaching in the Maryland General Assembly — the deadline to guarantee that a bill that has passed out of one chamber of the legislature will be considered in the other — senators held two marathon floor sessions Thursday.

Dozens of bills won preliminary approval or moved out of the chamber quickly, but a few were the subject of lengthy debates. These included:

Collective bargaining rights for community college employees

After some pushback from Republicans, the Senate by a party line vote of 32-15 gave preliminary approval to a bill that would grant collective bargaining rights to Maryland community college employees.

“This is a policy decision that we are making as a state legislature that it is fair and equitable for the employees of our community colleges, regardless of their geographic location in the state, to be given the opportunity, if they choose to do so, to participate in collective bargaining,” said Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), the floor leader for the bill, which was sponsored by Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard).

While four community colleges already have some collective bargaining rights in state law, this bill would expand those rights statewide. More than 200,000 Maryland public employees have the choice to unionize, including employees at the University System of Maryland and public schools. This is the eighth year that this legislation has been introduced and the first time that it has advanced this far.

However, Republicans criticized the proposal, contending that bringing collective bargaining to community colleges would significantly impact smaller counties and would lead to increases in student tuition.

Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) said she heard from the president of Wor-Wic Community College and local elected officials who were concerned about the fiscal impact of the proposal. Community colleges depend on the state, local government and student tuition for funding. And smaller rural counties cannot weather the additional costs that wealthier jurisdictions can, Republicans argued.

“This is not as simple as Montgomery county with their $6 billion operating budget throwing a couple hundred thousand dollars at a community college to keep tuition down,” Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) said.

Democrats pushed back that such a negative impact is only speculative. Wages are only a very small part of the collective bargaining process, and it is usually more about healthy and safe working conditions, said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), who used to serve on the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, local community college costs “are anticipated to be minimal and absorbable within each local community college’s overall operating budget, totaling $36,600 per election cycle.”

The House gave preliminary approval to the identical cross-file Thursday without discussion.

“I am ecstatic that the legislation has passed from second reader to third reader in both chambers,” Del. Keith Haynes (D-Baltimore City), the lead sponsor who has consistently introduced the bill since 2014. “It’s 2021, let’s get it done.”

Absentee ballots

The Senate also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would create a permanent list of voters who would like to receive mail-in ballots during every election. Proponents of the legislation, sponsored by Kramer, said the state’s mail-in ballot program, necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, had been highly successful and boosted voter turnout.

But Republicans argued that widespread use of absentee ballots open up the election process to the possibility of greater fraud.

“We have two kinds of ballot security in this system,” said Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford). “If you’re there [voting in person], awesome security. If you’re not there, we just have no idea.”

Republicans seemed particularly worried about the concept of “ballot harvesting,” citing a case during the 2018 election cycle where a political consultant working for a GOP congressional candidate collected thousands of absentee ballots and was accused of illegally tampering with them — forcing the election results to be invalidated.

Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll) introduced an amendment on the floor that would limit the number of absentee ballots an individual could collect. But Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said the practice of ballot harvesting is already illegal in Maryland.

“You can’t do what happened in North Carolina,” he said. “It’s against the law.”

The debate was paused in the afternoon so lawmakers could get a reading from the state Attorney General’s office about what current election law says about the practice, but when the Senate reconvened in the evening, legislators suggested that the legal advice was inconclusive.

“There’s something there for both sides to seize on to,” Ready observed, as other Republicans argued that even sealed absentee ballots can be tampered with. Senate Finance Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) was incredulous.

“Not everything that’s possible is feasible,” she said.

Ready’s amendment failed, 14-31. The bill will likely have a final Senate vote on Friday.

Bill preventing delays in solar project proposals

In order to put up solar panels over two megawatts of capacity, applicants must submit a request that is reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of the Environment, in consultation with local jurisdictions. The state agencies then forward their recommendations to the Public Service Commission, which ultimately decides to approve the project or not.

But applicants have waited as long as two years without a report of recommendation going to the PSC, causing backlogs, Pinsky said.

“Fewer projects are being forwarded to the Public Service Commission, and actually some of the solar companies are not even filing because they figure it’s a waste of time,” he said. The Clean Energy Jobs Act, which the legislature passed in 2019, requires the state to get half of its energy from renewable sources, making these solar projects critical.

Senate Bill 417 would give MDE and DNR six months to review a solar project application and forward their recommendations to the PSC.

In the past, local governments have tried to pass local zoning codes to prohibit solar farms from being built. But in 2019, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the PSC has the final say in approving power plant projects.

Hershey said he was concerned that some counties, especially on the Eastern Shore, have been absorbing most of the state’s utility scale solar projects. He noted that the state agencies may need extra time to find the appropriate locations for these projects.

The proposal allows the PSC to waive the six-month deadline for a “good cause.” It received initial approval from the Senate.

Juveniles convicted as adults

In one of its last moves of the long day, the Senate gave final approval to a bill, sponsored by Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County), that would require courts to impose a sentence below the minimum when sentencing a juvenile criminal offender as an adult.

Supporters of the legislation argued that it would give juvenile offenders a greater chance at redemption, while opponents said some crimes are so heinous that the offender does not deserve leniency, even if the offense was committed when they were a juvenile. Several cited the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, the juvenile half of the “Beltway Snipers” duo who terrorized people in the Washington, D.C., area and Maryland during the fall of 2002.

The bill passed 32-15 — with West and Republican Sen. Edward R. Reilly of Anne Arundel County supporting it and Sens. Katherine A. Klausmeier of Baltimore County and Katie Fry Hester of Howard County the Democrats who voted in opposition.

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s), has been heard in the Judiciary Committee but has yet to move.

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Roundup of Marathon Senate Session: Collective Bargaining, Mail-in Ballots and More