Mayor Byrd Responds to Our ‘Winners and Losers’ Recap

Mikhail Nilov/pexels.com photo.

I agree with Maryland Matters’ post-mortem of the recently completed session of the state legislature [“General Assembly 2021: Winners and Losers,” April 19] when they say that health protocols, Sen. Jill P. Carter, voting rights, public transit, HBCUs, broadband, out-of-state corporations, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, workforce development, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Sen. Sarah Elfreth, Sen. Cory McCray, Del. Brooke Lierman, Sen. Mary Washington, restaurants, craft brewers and Health Secretary Dennis Schrader notched wins in the 2021 General Assembly.

I also agree that bipartisanship, recreational marijuana advocates, grocery stores, hospitals, corporate bad actors, working parents, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the Annapolis economy suffered big losses in the 2021 General Assembly.

But I disagree with Maryland Matters when they say that Speaker Adrienne Jones, Senate President Bill Ferguson, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, public health, Del. Eric Luedtke, state coffers and Sen. Guy Guzzone were “winners” in the 2021 General Assembly.

I also disagree that Del. Dan Cox, Sen. Paul Pinsky, the Fraternal Order of Police and Del. Terri Hill were “losers” in the 2021 session. And I disagree with putting “transparency and public information” in the “push” category. Moreover, while I generally agree with the conclusion that Sen. Washington was a “winner” in the session, I do disagree with some of the commentary on Sen. Washington.

Speaker Adrienne Jones

Speaker Jones passed bills on police reform and HBCU funding, and she passed a bill on sports betting that provided for more minority participation in that industry, but a huge fact that has largely been ignored is that HB 670, her signature police reform bill, will not go into effect until July 2022. This essentially gives police an extra year of the status quo, an extra year of extra rights, and an extra year of less accountability.

Moreover, against the wishes of police reform advocates, the House killed all of the police reform-related bills and amendments introduced by arguably the chamber’s most notable and credible champion of police reform, Del. Gabriel Acevero, who also happens to be a young Black man — the demographic category of person most likely to suffer brutality at the hands of law enforcement.

And, while some pro-tenant bills did pass her chamber at the 11th hour, the decision to prioritize sports betting was a fateful mistake that effectively made tenant/housing issues and recreational marijuana afterthoughts in a session where the pandemic, racial justice and criminal justice reform were supposedly top priorities.

The House also gutted the Climate Solutions Now bill. And Jones’ apparent reluctance to support expelling or otherwise disciplining Del. Dan Cox after his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection raises the question of whether she takes seriously the responsibility of a presiding officer to hold members of her chamber accountable for extraordinary wrongdoing, especially after she restored Del. Mary Ann Lisanti’s committee assignment in spite of Lisanti’s racist characterization of an entire legislative district in Prince George’s County. To add insult to injury, Cox closed out the session comparing a mental health bill to the Holocaust.

Senate President Bill Ferguson

I agree that, in contrast to Speaker Jones’ leadership style that shuts out delegates like Acevero, Sen. Ferguson is a high energy leader who did a good job collaborating with his colleagues, moving the chamber to the left, using talented lieutenants to do so, and sharing credit for the Senate’s accomplishments with many members.

Even so, in the 2021 General Assembly, he voted to confirm Dennis Schrader as Health secretary over the objection of the Senate’s de facto resident public health expert, Sen. Clarence Lam, and Sen. Mary Washington about Schrader’s inequitable handling of the vaccine rollout and in spite of Schrader’s role in the governor’s premature reopening decisions.

Moreover, Ferguson’s chamber was the graveyard for some pro-tenant bills that passed the House, albeit at the last minute. The Senate did not pass HB 1312, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins’ bill that would have prohibited rent increases, prohibited late fees and related fines, and codified protections against eviction.

The Senate did not pass HB 67, Del. Marc Korman’s bill that would have helped require the governor to address myriad concerns about his P3 plan to widen I-495 and I-270 and that would have helped address issues such as local transit funding and the inclusion of a bike and pedestrian lane on the Nice Middleton Bridge in Charles County.

The Senate also killed SB 276, Sen. Carter’s bill that would have prohibited the establishment of a privatized police department at Johns Hopkins University. And, while the Senate did pass a bill to require police to wear body cameras, it will not fully go into effect across the state until July 2025.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary

As the chair of the House police reform work group, Del. Atterbeary helped pass HB 670, the speaker’s omnibus police reform bill, but her decision, along with Clippinger (chair of the Judiciary Committee) and Speaker Jones, to kill some of the police reform bills introduced by other delegates upset police reform advocates. And her vehement opposition to Del. Acevero’s amendments to the police reform bill — which included amendments on community oversight, probing white nationalism in law enforcement, qualified immunity and police in schools — was disappointing.

Greenbelt Mayor Colin A. Byrd. City of Greenbelt photo.

Public health

Several good public health bills passed related to health equity resource communities, young person health care subsidies, health enrollment on unemployment forms, telehealth, and more behavioral and mental health services. But all of that is far outweighed by the Senate’s ill-advised confirmation of Schrader as health secretary even after his horrendous rollout of the vaccine and after his support of and role in the governor’s premature, risky, unsafe reopening decisions.

There is no way that public health and the secretary could both be considered winners in the 2021 General Assembly. That is an oxymoron.

Del. Eric Luedtke

Luedtke helped design key legislation, manage bills on the House floor, deliver closing arguments and diffuse tensions, and he is powerful. But, as majority leader, he, along with Speaker Jones, did not prioritize tenant issues, which is why the House passed sports betting long before passing Del. Wilkins’s sweeping pro-tenant bill and why Del. Wilkins’s bill was watered down before it was passed. And, as the chair of the Ways and Means Revenue Subcommittee, he killed HB 172 and HB 229, bills from Del. Mary Lehman and Del. Vaughn Stewart that would have helped close tax loopholes that benefit out-of-state corporations.

These are bills that were supported by Maryland Communities United, the League of Women Voters, SEIU, the AFL-CIO, the Prince George’s County Young Democrats, Maryland PIRG, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Maryland Legislative Coalition, the AFT, the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, the Maryland Fair Funding Coalition, AFSCME, the Maryland State Education Association and several Maryland-based small businesses, and these are bills that would have netted the state several hundred million dollars over the next five years alone — money that could have helped the state fund many priorities, from education to the environment to much more.

And, most ironically, Del. Luedtke let House Minority Leader Nic Kipke pie him in the face on the last day of session — the same day the House and Senate “ran out of time” negotiating the Climate Solutions Now bill. Apparently, he “won” a social media bet against Del. Kipke, and, under the terms of the bet, Del. Kipke got to pie him. How foolish is that? You win, and you get pied.

Another dumb deal cut by Democratic leadership with Republican leadership in the name of bipartisanship.

State coffers

Over the past couple of months, the state’s coffers have definitely been shored up, but it is important to note that they weren’t necessarily shored up because of action in the 2021 General Assembly. They were shored up by the American Rescue Plan that was passed by Congress.

As I just noted in my discussion of Del. Luedtke, the General Assembly actually failed to pass key revenue raising bills related to closing tax loopholes that benefit out of state corporations.

Sen. Guy Guzzone

Sen. Guzzone helped pass key COVID-19 related relief bills, but he also played a key role in killing bills closing tax loopholes that benefit out-of-state corporations, and adding restrictions to the governor’s P3 plan to widen I-495 and I-270.

Del. Dan Cox

Maryland Matters has Del. Cox listed as a “loser” because of his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection and his statement on the House floor comparing a mental health bill to the Holocaust, and I would agree that things like that make him a loser in general. But I actually think that, because he wasn’t disciplined, there is an argument to be made that he was a “winner” when viewed within the context of the 2021 General Assembly.

Sen. Paul Pinsky

Maryland Matters has Sen. Pinsky listed alongside Del. Kumar Barve as a “loser” because the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 did not pass. But, in doing so, Maryland Matters creates a major false equivalence between Sen. Pinsky’s role in the bill’s fate this session and Del. Barve’s role in the bill’s fate. While Del. Barve raised important concerns about the need to provide energy assistance to poor Marylanders, it was Del. Barve who slow-walked his chamber’s amendments to the Senate version of the bill. It was Del. Barve who gutted much of the bill. And it was Sen. Pinsky who made sure that multiple provisions of the bill, including the one about 5 million tree plantings, made it into other bills that ultimately did pass.

Fraternal Order of Police

Maryland Matters lists the FOP as a “loser” in the 2021 General Assembly because police reform bills passed, but that conclusion neglects the most significant victory that the FOP secured in the 2021 General Assembly: time.

They bought themselves time, and the General Assembly made a huge mistake by giving it to them. Police in Maryland get an extra year of serving with the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights intact, and many police in Maryland get an extra four years of serving without having to wear body cameras. Police also got less community oversight than what advocates sought.

Del. Terri Hill

I agree with Maryland Matters that Del. Hill — also known as Dr. Hill — should not have been in an operating room during a Zoom committee hearing and a Zoom committee voting session, but I don’t think that alone should relegate her to the “loser” category, especially if the safety of her patients was not tangibly compromised.

The fact of the matter is that Del. Hill passed bills to extend the time workers have to file employment discrimination complaints; to make it easier for people to do low-impact landscaping rain gardens, pollinator gardens and xeriscaping; to help low-income Marylanders from losing family homes that they inherit; to protect animals from being used for testing purposes in the development of cosmetics; and to expand property tax credits to help compensate homeowners who have to deal with the effects of living in airport noise zones.

So while the image of her in an operating room during a committee hearing and voting session was a bad look that may preclude her from being in the full-fledged “winner” category, Del. Hill should not be in the “loser” category.

This one’s a “push,” which is poet because I suspect “push!” is a particularly popular refrain in operating rooms in general.

Transparency and public information

Maryland Matters has transparency and public information listed as a “push,” but I think transparency and public information were, unfortunately, losers in the 2021 General Assembly. Granted, the General Assembly made committee voting sessions public, livestreamed House and Senate floor sessions, allowed advocates to participate in committee hearings by Zoom, and made public the list of bills that committees were planning to vote on. But the General Assembly (and especially the Senate) imposed unprecedented caps on the number of witnesses who could testify orally, and the General Assembly’s new bill testimony system was extremely bad, making it impossible for some to sign up and very difficult for others to do so, especially for people who work during the day, people who have disabilities, people of color and low-income Marylanders who are on the worst side of the digital divide, and immigrants (many of whom do not have an email address, as was required).

Sen. Mary Washington

While I generally agree with Maryland Matters’ bottom-line assessment of Sen. Washington as a “winner,” I do differ with Maryland Matters as far as the commentary on Sen. Washington.

For example, it was totally baseless for them to say she is “flummoxed” and “disorganized” on the Senate floor. The striking irony of that characterization is underscored by example Maryland Matters themselves subsequently provided about her brilliant parliamentary maneuver on SB31 (a bill that provides extra energy assistance to low-income households) to deliver a bigger win for consumers and thwart industry lobbyists’ attempts to water the bill down.

That wasn’t the only example of her clear, organized handling of matters on the Senate floor. Sen. Washington also passed bills to create a Commission on Health Equity; to strengthen requirements related to early invention for police officers who are at risk of engaging in the use of excessive force and to provide more training and mental health assistance to police officers; to help more foster care recipients and homeless youth get college tuition waivers; to improve the health department’s outreach on cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia; to support the education of pregnant and parenting students; to help more Medicaid recipients get reimbursed for behavioral health-related services; to update outdated legislative maps; to provide employees with bereavement leave; to expand early voting centers hours of operation; to establish the Hunger-Free Campus Grant Program to address student hunger and basic food needs on college campuses; and to make more pregnant women eligible for Medicaid coverage and coverage that includes dental care.

And on top of that, Sen. Washington’s vote against the confirmation of Dennis Schrader as health secretary will go down as one of the wisest, most important, principled, correct, courageous votes in the history of Maryland state government, especially as Marylanders look back at how various state legislators handled (or mishandled) the biggest pandemic in American history.

Supposedly gone but not really

The Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. As it stands, the General Assembly literally gave the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights another 15 months to live and to possibly make a big comeback in the 2022 General Assembly.

–COLIN A. BYRD

The writer is the mayor of Greenbelt. He also has announced he will challenge U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen in the 2022 Democratic primary.