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Government & Politics

Roundup: Safe Harbor passes, help for Charlotte Hall, racing bill amended, Fair Wages Act passed, and speaker honors society members

The Maryland State House dome is seen through a window near the Tiffany glass dome in the Miller Senate Office Building. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The House of Delegates unanimously gave final approval Tuesday on “Safe Harbor” legislation that would protect minors from being prosecuted for prostitution and other offenses based on sex and human trafficking.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), Senate Bill 292 would provide that persons 17 years old and younger not be prosecuted for certain offenses if the crime resulted from the minor being a victim of trafficking.

Meanwhile, the Senate granted preliminary approval Tuesday on House Bill 297, crossfiled with the Senate bill and sponsored by Del. J. Sandra Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel).

After her colleagues voted on the Senate version, Bartlett waved and blew kisses toward the gallery at Jessica Emerson, director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

“She’s been working on this [trafficking prevention work] longer than I have. I’m just picking up the ball and taking it across the goal line,” Bartlett said after the House session. “There’s been a lot of work and advocacy that has gone into this work. I’ve had some excellent advocates. We’ve been working together and been able to get that bill out.”

The House version has one minor change based on an amendment recommended last week by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Both bills give a court 30 days to determine whether a minor is a victim of sex or human trafficking and committed an offense “as a direct result” from being trafficked.

If evidence presented shows that is true, then the court would dismiss the “charge for any qualifying offense…” Instead of charge, the House version had “case.”

Bartlett said the word change makes sense, especially if a particular case also involved a more serious crime such as murder.

Last year similar bills failed after the House passed legislation, and the Senate passed its version with amendments.

“I feel very confident that it’s going to get passed,” Bartlett said.

Waldstreicher agreed.

“Victims of human trafficking and sex trafficking are just that: victims. They should not be treated as criminals in our criminal justice system,” he said Monday. “I’m so honored to carry this bill, which was supported both by the public defenders and by our prosecutors. We’re going to make history this year and I’m ready to get it done.”

Horse racing amendments

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee unanimously approved a heavily amended bill Tuesday that would establish the new Maryland Thoroughbred Operating Authority, with wide-ranging powers over Maryland horse racing.

The committee also voted to include four non-voting ex officio members — three community representatives and a member of the Maryland Racing Commission — on the proposed nine-member panel, sending the legislation to the full Senate for approval.

The new authority is being established to oversee the stalled plans for improving the Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park tracks and to be a fail-safe for running the tracks, should the owners shut down racing July 1, the day after an agreement for operations expires.

That private agreement is between The Stronach Group, the Canada-based track owner operating here as the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC), and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

The Thoroughbred Operating Authority would oversee a new Maryland Racing Operations Fund, which would include money transferred from the existing Racing and Community Development Facilities Fund that is intended for the track improvements.

The new fund eventually would also include proceeds from the sale of $375 million in bonds that were authorized in 2020 by the legislature for redeveloping the two tracks, but never sold.

The Maryland Stadium Authority would still be responsible for construction of any new facilities.

As part of the original legislation three years ago, Maryland Jockey Club was to convey the Bowie Race Course Training Center property to the City of Bowie by Dec. 31, 2023. In turn, the city of Bowie was to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Bowie State University for use of some of the land.

The committee amendments, however, would put off the land transfer for a year, until Dec. 31, 2024, and give the city $100,000 for an environmental assessment of the site.

Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) suggested that the new authority also include a member of the Maryland Racing Commission. Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City) said he could not vote for the legislation unless it included members representing the three affected communities – Pimlico, in Northwest Baltimore, and Bowie and Laurel in Prince George’s County.

After some discussion, the committee voted to include those four members as non-voting, ex officio members.

The authority initially was proposed to have one member from the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association; one member of the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association; three others who have relevant industry, business or government experience. One of the five would serve as chair. The five unpaid members would be appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the Senate.

In addition, the authority would include the chair or executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, now charged with overseeing redevelopment of the tracks; the chair or executive director of the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO); a non-elected member nominated by the president of the Senate; and one non-elected member nominated by the speaker of the House of Delegates.

Charlotte Hall help 

A bill mandating enhanced reporting standards for state-owned nursing homes will head to the full Senate this week. 

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 974 on Tuesday, minutes after a sponsor-only hearing. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jack Bailey (R-Calvert and St. Mary’s) was filed last week in the wake of reports of abuse and neglect at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home. 

The St. Mary’s County facility that cares for nearly 300 honorably discharged veterans or their spouses is currently the only state-owned nursing home.  A second facility is planned for construction in Sykesville. 

Last month, Gov. Wes Moore announced he had fired the operator of the facility, South Carolina-based HMR. The company has run the facility since 2002. 

Moore said he was alarmed by reports from federal regulators highlighting abuse and neglect of residents. Other reports noted $266,217 in fines between 2020 and 2022. 

Bailey’s bill and the identical House Bill 1301, sponsored by Economic Matters Vice Chair Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) requires operators of state-owned nursing facilities to provide near immediate notice for any citations issued or enforcement actions taken by state or federal regulators. Notices would be sent to the Senate Finance and House Health and Government Operations Committee, the governor, the state agency responsible for the facility and lawmakers who represent the district where the nursing home is located. 

Within 30 days, operators of state-owned nursing homes would be required to provide a statement of deficiencies, a plan for correcting them and all letters from regulators. 

The proposal would also require the Department of Health to provide an annual report on all state and federal regulator reviews and enforcement actions on a state-owned nursing home. 

The Maryland Department of Health filed a letter supporting the proposal. 

Fair Wage Act passes

Gov. Wes Moore (D) celebrated the passage of the Fair Wage Act of 2023 on Tuesday — even though the bill was stripped of a key provision preferred by the governor.

As passed, the bill will accelerate the state’s move to a $15 minimum wage. Under the legislation, which Moore will sign, the minimum wage will climb to $15 an hour for most workers in January 2024, rather than in 2025, as in current law.

But the legislature struck a provision from Moore’s bill that would have tied future annual increases to the consumer price index.

The Fight for $15 coalition estimated that the amended bill would still accelerate raises for 163,000 Marylanders. The total increase in wages for 2024 was estimated at $128 million, or an average of $782 per worker, by the coalition.

“I’m proud to announce that our Fair Wage Act has passed the Maryland House and Senate with bipartisan support,” Moore tweeted. “The North Star of our administration is creating pathways to work, wages, and wealth and this legislation will lift up hardworking Marylanders statewide.”

Speaker’s Society honors 

It felt like a valedictory.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) handed out four annual awards to distinguished Marylanders on the House floor Tuesday morning. But the bulk of the attention went to Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery), the chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee, and the presentation of his award became the emotional highlight of the proceedings.

The presentation of the awards coincides with the annual Speaker’s Society dinner in Annapolis, which brings together current and former members of the House of Delegates.

Jones gave out the Speaker’s Medallion, for outstanding contributions to the state, to two trailblazers: retired Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, the first chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, and T. Eloise Foster, the first Black woman to serve as Maryland budget secretary, a position she held under former Governors Parris Glendening (D) and Martin O’Malley (D).

Jones said Barbera “was committed to creating a judicial system that was equal, timely and looked like the state it served.” Jones credited Foster with reforming the state’s pension system, improving health benefits for state government workers, and implementing a progressive tax code.

Foster name-checked Howard “Pete” Rawlings, the late, legendary former chair of the House Appropriations Committee, as a role model.

“Pete was my friend and he was my mentor,” she said. “He played an integral role in shaping my career, and I think he did for many people in the House.”

Jones then bestowed the Thomas Kennedy Award, named for a House member who served in the early 18th Century and handed out to someone for their personal courage and dedication to the principles of liberty and freedom, to recently retired state Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), whose political career began in the House in 1987.

“He was a fearless fighter for consumers, for environmental justice and for Maryland’s most vulnerable communities,” Jones said.

But the biggest cheers came when Jones presented the Casper R. Taylor Jr. Award, named after one of her predecessors and given to a current House member for “steadfast public service,” to Barve. She hailed Barve, who was first elected to the House in 1990, for his work on health care, technology and environmental justice and called him “a former majority leader and a consistent thought leader.”

Barve was the first Indian-American and the first Hindu elected to a legislative office anywhere in the U.S.

Although there have been no announcements and no public acknowledgements, there is widespread speculation in Annapolis that this could be Barve’s 33rd and final legislative session, so the presentation seemed a little like a fond farewell. Barve’s wife, Maureen Quinn, the chair of the Maryland Workers Compensation Commission, introduced him to the House — as if he needed any introduction.

“This institution gave him nothing less than his identity,” she said, recalling the isolation he experienced growing up around people who did not look like him. “Kumar found his voice from the moment he took his seat on the House floor.”

“I have literally spent half my life in this legislature, 32 years, and I’ve actually loved every minute of it, even the bad parts,” Barve told his fellow delegates.

He thanked several people, including Jones, Taylor and the late Speaker Mike Busch (D). He noted that he started at the same time as Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s) and sat on the House floor during his first term next to Chris Van Hollen (D), who is now a U.S. senator.

“We live the American democratic experiment every day,” he told his colleagues.

Editor’s Note: This has been updated to correctly describe T. Eloise Foster as the first Black woman to serve as Maryland budget secretary.  


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Roundup: Safe Harbor passes, help for Charlotte Hall, racing bill amended, Fair Wages Act passed, and speaker honors society members