One month after the General Assembly convened, state Senate Republicans on Wednesday released a list of their priorities for the remaining two-thirds of the 90-day legislative session.
The members of the Senate Republican Caucus said they want to focus on proposals to relieve the rising cost of living, address violent crime, promote educational opportunities and parental involvement, and champion transparency and accountability in state government.
The GOP priority list comes during a session when Republicans have two fewer seats than they did in the previous term — 13 compared to 15, in the 47-member Senate chamber — and with a Democrat in the governor’s office for the first time in eight years. But GOP lawmakers said they are adapting to the new circumstances and hoping that Democrats will do the same.
“Just as we have approached Governor [Wes] Moore’s legislative priorities with an open mind and found some common ground, we are hopeful that the governor and our Democratic colleagues will approach our legislative proposals in good faith,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Hershey (R-Upper Shore). “In addition to these specific bills, we will promote transparency in the legislative process and focus on holding the Democratic supermajority accountable for their policies and ensuring that Marylanders are receiving the promised return on their significant investment in state government.”
The Republicans said their top legislative priorities are:
Senate Bill 261: Sponsored by Sen. Jason Gallion (R-Harford), this is the GOP’s second attempt to repeal the automatic annual increase to the state gasoline tax, which is pegged to the inflation rate. Last July 1, the gas tax jumped by 19.4% to 43 cents per gallon, fourth-highest in the country.
“To add insult to injury, Maryland’s gas tax is not responsive to market conditions, and does not decrease if inflation decreases,” a GOP statement said. “Repealing the automatic increase is also a matter of transparency and accountability. Every year, the gas tax increases without public input and a vote of the General Assembly. If legislators want to increase the gas tax, they need to follow the legislative process and be held accountable.”
Republicans added it’s “even more concerning” that the same model is being considered for future increases to the minimum wage.
The bill was heard in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 461: A bill sponsored by Hershey to eliminate all income taxes for Maryland retirees. That was a pet issue for recently departed Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and the measure routinely stalled. Hogan and the legislature did agree to a $1,000 tax rebate for retirees last year, and Senate Republicans said they support a proposal from Moore to provide greater retiree income tax relief to military veterans.
The GOP measure is scheduled for a hearing in the Budget and Tax panel on March 1.
Senate Bill 744: The Violent Firearms Offender Act passed the Senate during the 2021 session but died in the House as lawmakers focused mainly on police reform legislation. SB 744, from Sen. Bill Folden (R-Frederick) is a reintroduction of the amended bill that received bipartisan support two years ago.
The measure would increase penalties for offenders who commit crimes with an illegal firearm from three years to five years of prison time and would raise the maximum fine from $2,500 to $10,000.
The bill will be heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, but no hearing date has been set yet.
Senate Bill 745: The bill, also from Folden, is known as the Gun Violence Accountability Act, and has many of the same provisions of SB 744. Senate Republicans say it is supported by Ivan Bates (D), the new Baltimore City state’s attorney.
The bill will also go to Judicial Proceedings, but there is no hearing date yet.
Senate Bill 564: The bill, sponsored by Minority Whip Justin Ready (R-Carroll), would make the theft of a handgun a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and establishes penalties for a first conviction of two to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Subsequent convictions longer sentences and heftier fines.
The measure will go to Judicial Proceedings, but a hearing hasn’t been set. The legislation has one Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Kathy Klausmeier of Baltimore County.
Senate Bill 522: This legislation, from Hershey, concerns the membership of the Accountability and Implementation Board, the body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the expansive and expensive education reform plan. In September 2021, when the accountability board members were approved, “our members were deeply concerned that board did not include representation from any of Maryland’s rural jurisdictions,” a GOP statement said.
SB 522 would require that the board has one representative from Western Maryland, one representative from Southern Maryland, one representative from the Eastern Shore, and one member from each of the jurisdictions with the largest student populations in the state.
The measure has been assigned to the Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment, although no hearing has been scheduled.
Senate Bill 566: The bill, from Ready, is a parents’ rights measure establishing “that a parent has the fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education, care, and welfare of the parent’s child; prohibiting the State or a political subdivision from infringing on a parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education, care, and welfare of the parent’s child unless the State or political subdivision can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence certain factors.”
“Especially in the areas of education and healthcare, it is imperative that state policies always point towards strengthening parental involvement, supporting parents’ primary role in their children’s development, and promoting transparency in how the government engages with their children,” the Republican caucus said in a statement.
Senate Republicans are also pushing for restoration of BOOST funding in the 2024 budget. That’s a program that provides scholarship money to low-income students attending private and parochial schools or being home-schooled. Moore’s proposed budget calls for a $2 million cut in the program — representing a 20% reduction.
Republicans suggested they believe they can get bipartisan support for some of their priorities.
“Good ideas don’t come with a party label,” Ready said. “Our commonsense agenda will protect and improve the lives of all Marylanders.”
Cassilly nominates disbarred brother
New Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly (R) has nominated his elder brother, disbarred attorney Joseph Cassilly, to serve on the county’s Ethics Board, a nomination that could be voted on next week.
The elder Cassilly, who was the county’s top prosecutor for 36 years until his retirement in 2019, was disbarred by the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2021.
At a county council meeting Tuesday night, Council President Patrick Vincenti (R) said a vote on Cassilly and three other nominees to the Ethics Commission could come at the next council meeting on Feb. 14.
In a 104-page opinion disbarring Joseph Cassilly in October 2021, Maryland’s highest court concluded that he intentionally did not disclose exculpatory evidence to John Norman Huffington, who he helped convict for murder, for more than a decade. The court also concluded that Cassilly discarded evidence, sought to have other evidence destroyed, lied to judges and defense attorneys about the exculpatory evidence and, while he was being investigated for disbarment, did not comply with a subpoena to testify under oath.
Huffington was convicted in 1981 of the “Memorial Day Murders” of Diane Becker and Joseph Hudson, though he maintained his innocence through a series of appeals for decades. In the 1990s, federal investigators concluded that there were issues with forensic evidence in the case, as well as the testimony of the FBI agent who testified about the evidence. Huffington was granted a new trial in 2013 after DNA testing showed hair found at the scene of the crime was not his. He was ultimately pardoned last month by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), one of the outgoing governor’s final acts in office.
During public comments at Tuesday’s council meeting, at least two county residents urged the council not to approve Cassilly’s appointment.
The county executive issued a lengthy statement in support of the nomination of his brother on Thursday morning.
“Joe Cassilly served his country with great honor and distinction as an Army Ranger in Vietnam. After sustaining a 100% permanent disability during combat operations, he attended college and law school in his wheelchair,” Robert Cassilly said in a written statement. “For four decades he served honorably as State’s Attorney for Harford County.”
The county executive also called his brother “a model citizen and community volunteer for over 70 years” and indicated he will push forward with the nomination.
“I pledged in my campaign to maintain the highest standard of ethics in my administration. I appointed my brother Joe to the Board of Ethics because he has demonstrated throughout his life a commitment to ethics far surpassing anyone I have ever known,” the younger Cassilly said.
Another glass ceiling shatters
“Watch where you step because there is glass everywhere,” Emily Keller, the outgoing mayor of Hagerstown and Gov. Wes Moore’s new special secretary of opioid response, wrote on Facebook this week.
She was congratulating Tekesha Martinez, who became the Western Maryland city’s first Black mayor after being nominated by her City Council colleagues to the vacant post previously held by Keller, who was the city’s first woman mayor.
“Leaving this role was one of the most emotional things I’ve had to do but my heart is on fire knowing you are taking over,” Keller wrote.
Martinez was sworn in as mayor during Tuesday’s council meeting after the council met in three executive sessions to sort through replacing Keller. Three councilmembers had expressed interest in stepping into the mayor’s role, but Martinez was ultimately unanimously elected to the post.
Martinez had been elected in November of 2020 to the City Council, and along with Tiara Burnett, became the first Black councilmembers elected to serve simultaneously in the city’s history.
The council will now start the process of replacing Martinez on the council.
After her swearing-in, Martinez said she would stick with the shared vision Keller and the council had for the city of 43,000 people.
“I’m going to pick it up from where she left off. …I’m going to do it in a way that is authentic to who I am, but at the same time I’m going to make sure that we continue (what we started),” Martinez said.
New Dem party leader
Vincent Harrington, a campaign strategist from Prince George’s County who most recently was Gov. Wes Moore’s political director, is the new executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Harrington had worked in community relations and other political operations before joining the campaign of Moore and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller.
“We’re confident our unified collaboration with the Moore-Miller administration will only be strengthened with this hire,” said Yvette Lewis, chair of the state Democrats. “Our partnership between the party, the administration, and the General Assembly is crucial and having Vincent on board will no doubt aid that effort.”
In addition to Harrington, the state party has hired Danielle Coates as a digital associate.
Guy Djoken was appointed chair of the Continental African Diversity Leadership Council, the Democratic Party announced.
Continuing at the state party are Meredith Bowman, senior adviser; Brandon Stoneburg, communications director; Justin Butler, organizing director; Jamie Conway, fundraising director; and Tyler Carr, data and technology director.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include a statement from Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly.