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Government & Politics

Floor Action Roundup: United House Passes Tax Bills, Senate Debates Judicial Transparency, and More

The Maryland State House is shown beyond the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The House of Delegates gave unanimous approval Thursday to a trio of bills that would cut sales tax on commonly used baby care and diabetic treatment items.

The three bills passed Thursday were part of a “Family Budget Boosters” proposal backed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).

House Bill 288, sponsored by Dels. Dana C. Jones (D-Anne Arundel) and Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s), would exempt baby bottles, baby bottle nipples, and infant car seats from the state’s sales tax. It passed 129-0. A second bill from the pair, House Bill 282, would create a sales tax exemption on diapers and could come up for a final vote in the chamber on Friday.

Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said that by his own calculations, his family would have saved about $47 per child as a result of the bills. “This is good … but in my opinion, it just doesn’t go far enough,” he said, citing the state’s historic budget surplus.

House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said the bill will reduce the sales tax burden on working- and middle-class families. “I think this is a big victory for families across the state,” he said.

The other bills in the Democrats’ package that also passed unanimously on Thursday were:

House Bill 364 from Del. Shaneka T. Henson (D-Anne Arundel), which would add now-critical medical devices to the state’s sales tax exemptions, including medical-grade face masks, thermometers, pulse oximeters and blood pressure monitors; and

House Bill 1151 from Dels. Alonzo T. Washington and Julian Ivey (both D-Prince George’s), which would exempt diabetic care products from the sales and use tax.

The remaining two bills from the “budget boosters” package — House Bill 2 and House Bill 492 — are up for final votes on Friday.

House Bill 492 from Del. Steven C. Johnson (D-Harford) would remove the state sales tax on oral hygiene products like toothbrushes and toothpaste.

House Bill 2 is the biggest part of the Democratic proposal, sponsored by Luedtke. That bill would create a Maryland state match for the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which incentivizes employers to hire workers who have trouble finding work, including veterans, people with disabilities, the long-term unemployed, those on state financial assistance programs, and people who have completed terms of incarceration.

Senate moves judicial transparency bill forward

The Senate advanced a bill from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to expand judicial transparency in sentencing on Thursday.

But Republicans say that a committee measure to aggregate sentencing data by county moves Hogan’s policy away from its original intent.

“We’re watering down the transparency with this amendment,” Senate Minority Whip Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) said.

In its original form, Senate Bill 392, or The Judicial Transparency Act of 2022, would require a comprehensive annual report on the sentencing decisions by individual judges, including details on sentences outside of the Maryland Sentencing Guidelines.

The legislation, which had been introduced in prior sessions, was initially drafted as an emergency bill.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee debated the policy during a voting session on Tuesday, ultimately removing the emergency status and amending the bill to aggregate the published sentencing data by county or circuit, to avoid singling out any individual judge.

Maryland’s jurisdictions are grouped into eight judicial circuits.

Some jurisdictions have several judges, which would maintain their anonymity under the amended bill. But Caroline, Somerset, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Garrett counties each only have one sitting judge.

Noting that Maryland still elects its circuit court judges, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Williams C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), said that grouping the smaller counties by circuit removes politics from the data analysis.

As such, counties in the first and second circuits on the Eastern Shore and the fourth circuit in Western Maryland were grouped together under the bill, while other jurisdictions would report at the county level.

Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) said that counties or circuits with five or six judges maintain enough transparency under the intent of the bill.

But in larger jurisdictions, like Baltimore City — which has 36 judges — “you’re not going to get any level of granularity at all,” he said.

“It would be like saying, … instead of you getting a report card in your class of 30 kids, we’ll just send every parent home the average,” he continued. “So the class average was a B. How’d my kid do? Well the class average was a B.”

The amendment passed in spite of calls from Ready to resist. Final debate for Senate Bill 392 is expected within the next week.

Education discipline reform bill passes Senate

The Senate voted 30-16 on Thursday to pass a bill that would a rescind a state education law that allows children to be arrested for disturbing school activities.

Republican lawmakers have opposed the bill, arguing that teachers need more help with classroom management. Democratic supporters of the bill said it should be repealed because students can be caught in the criminal justice system for “typical adolescent behavior” like storming out of class or talking back.

“These laws, we know, are discriminatory,” said Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), the Senate sponsor of the bill.

She noted that, if this provision of law is repealed, students could still be suspended under school policies or, if conduct rose to a certain level, arrested for existing crimes.

Cassilly argued against the bill.

“We have to have no tolerance for violence in our schools. Our schools should be orderly places of learning and not survival camps,” he said.

The bill passed the Senate 30-16, with Democratic Sen. Kathy Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) joining the Republican caucus. Earlier in the week, Klausmeier said her daughter, an educator, had shared concerns about teachers needing more support to deal with disruptive students.

The cross-file of the bill passed the House of Delegates 94-42 last week after extended debate.

Public Defender unionization bill moves forward

Both chambers advanced bills this week that would add the Office of the Public Defender to the list of state agencies whose employees can collectively bargain.

The Office of the Public Defender employees are currently “at-will” workers, which means that they work “at the will” of their employers and can be hired or fired for any reason or for no reason at all.

House Bill 90 passed the House 95-38 on Thursday.

The crossfile, Senate Bill 255, was debated in the Senate on Wednesday.

During the debate, Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) introduced an amendment that would allow collective bargaining rights only after the current public defender leaves their position and is replaced.

But Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Montgomery) said it would not be fair to create a “two-tiered” system in which some employees are eligible for collective bargaining and others are not. He said that the office was losing its employees, as there were 97 vacant positions at the end of 2021 — a 25% increase in vacancies during the same period in 2020.

“We don’t want to keep losing good, experienced attorneys who are overworked and overburdened and we don’t to create a two-tiered system where some of the attorneys in that office benefit from the opportunity to have collective bargaining and the most senior ones — the ones we want to keep — will not,” he said.

Reilly’s amendment failed in a 14-28 vote and the bill received preliminary approval. A final vote could come as early as Friday.