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Legislative notes: Freedom to Read Act and bills on paint recycling, utility transparency and crisis hotline advance

A Maryland state flag flies outside the State House in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

House and Senate budget negotiators may be at an impasse, but other bills continue to move in the churn leading up to Sine Die next Monday.

House Bill 785, the Freedom to Read Act, received final approval Tuesday by a largely party-line vote of 100-36 in the House.

The bill sponsored by Del. Dana Jones (D-Anne Arundel) leads a “decency agenda” championed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), which is part of a national conversation on what books and other materials should be publicly available in schools and libraries.

A voice vote was taken by the House to concur with a few technical amendments approved by the Senate last week.

The bill would require public schools and public libraries to adhere to state standards that books, library resources and other materials are not to be removed from a catalogue “because of partisan, ideological, or religious disapproval.” The bill also would prohibit “governing bodies of certain libraries from retaliating against employees performing their job duties consistent with the state standards…”

Materials that a person or group objects to being in a school would be reviewed but must remain available for students and school personnel until the review process has concluded.

Last year, Carroll County school officials pulled nearly six dozen books off shelves so the school board’s reconsideration committee could review the literature’s content.

This year, that county’s school board unanimously approved a policy stating that “aside from the instructional materials approved for instruction related to family life and human development or as otherwise approved by the superintendent, all other instructional materials…shall not contain sexually explicit content. Sexually explicit content is defined as unambiguously describing, depicting, showing, or writing about sex or sex acts in a detailed or graphic manner.”

The Freedom to Read Act would require school and county library officials to adopt state standards, which would be developed by the Maryland State Library Board.

If state standards aren’t followed by a county library, regional resource center or metropolitan cooperative service programs, then the state comptroller must withhold state money until compliance is certified by the state Library Board.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), could be approved by the House on Wednesday.

Once Gov. Wes Moore (D) signs the measure or allows it to become law without his signature, Maryland would be one of the first states in the nation with major protections for access to books and materials in libraries and with penalties against governing bodies who don’t follow state standards.

Because the bill is designated as an emergency measure, it would go into effect immediately.

“I can’t wait to talk to all the librarians and the parents and the advocates who worked with me the last 12 months,” a smiling Dana Jones said after the House passed her bill. “They love literature. They love helping people find books that are right for them.”

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) said the legislation isn’t about discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community, race, or any other demographic.

“It’s about understanding that people who read books, just like people who watch movies, it has to be age appropriate,” he said. “You don’t let your 7-year-old go to an R-rated movie, or an X-rated movie. There are some books that are in public libraries and school libraries [with] at least some passages of those books [that aren’t age appropriate]. Local librarians have the right to be informed about that and protect kids from being exposed to that when it’s not appropriate for their age.”

Paint recycling approved

In February, several lawmakers debated paint — specifically, a statewide program for people to reuse certain paint and not throw it away with household waste.

There wasn’t much debate Tuesday as the House approved Senate Bill 325 by a vote of 100-37. The bill sponsored by Sen. Benjamin Brooks (D-Baltimore County) would require a producer, distributor or retailer of architectural paint to participate in a paint recycling program approved and managed by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).

Architectural paint is defined as interior or exterior coatings sold in containers of five gallons or less. It doesn’t include industrial, specialty, or original equipment coatings.

Beginning on April 1, 2026, a company must submit an annual report to the department that details how it is complying with the program and includes a description of the methods used to collect, transport and process paint. It must also include the volume collected, disposed and reused in each county and the total cost to implement and sustain the program.

Companies must pay an annual fee as well as a plan review fee to MDE for approval, a process that could take up to six months.

According to the department, some counties collect household hazardous waste (HHW) such as paint, pesticides, and batteries only once a year. The state doesn’t regulate that type of waste as strictly hazardous waste, but federal law allows it to be disposed in household trash.

“Due to the potential for HHW to cause physical injury, contaminate septic tanks or wastewater treatment systems, and present hazards to children and pets, MDE recommends the proper recycling and disposal of HHW materials at local HHW collection programs,” according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

Before she voted against the measure Tuesday, Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) called it a “paint tax.”

“I don’t think this is an efficient program. I think it’s a bad deal for Marylanders who want to paint their house,” she said. “This will be taxing the middle-class people [who] are trying to improve their homes.”

Because the Senate approved the identical House version, sponsored by Del. Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City), by a vote of 34-11 on Friday, the bills will now go to the desk of Gov. Wes Moore (D) for his signature.

Utility transparency bill loses a few teeth

A bill requiring Maryland’s electric utilities to disclose votes they take on committees operated by the region’s electric grid operator is moving closer to the governor’s desk. It’s a novel approach that was first floated last year in an effort to seek more transparency from PJM, the entity that operates the electric grid in 13 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

While utilities are already required to reveal their representatives’ votes on the full PJM board, consumer and climate advocates argue that some of the most consequential votes and debates take place on the board’s committees.

The legislation as originally drafted would have required the utilities to provide written explanations for their representatives’ votes on PJM board committees, but a Senate amendment removed that provision.

“At least we’ve got the votes,” Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the House version of the bill, said in an interview. “It’s not as comprehensive as we wanted.”

Two other states in the PJM network, Pennsylvania and Illinois, are also considering legislation that would require more disclosure of utilities’ activities on PJM boards.

In Maryland, versions of the bill have passed in both chambers of the legislature. The amended bill, without the provision on written explanations for committee votes, is going back to the House for final consideration.

Fees to fund crisis phone line to Moore’s desk

A Senate bill seeking to provide new funding to Maryland’s crisis hotline known as 9-8-8 is heading to the governor’s desk after the House approved the measure Tuesday.

SB 974, sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), creates a $3-a-year fee on wireless mobile phone lines to provide additional funding to the 988 Lifeline — previously called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The funding mechanism is similar to how Maryland funds the 9-1-1 system in the state.

SB 974 passed with 110 delegates supporting the bill, but 26 Republicans opposing it.

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) said that the intention behind the legislation is worthy, but he would rather see the funding come from a different source than another fee increase.

“It would be my hope that we could have found a way to pay for this extremely worthy program,” Buckel said. “Perhaps through using some 9-1-1 funds, perhaps through using some other funding mechanisms that we could find in a $63 billion budget, to assist with mental health and suicide prevention issues for individuals who are dealing with this.”

He said that there is a “wonderful purpose” behind the bill and that those who voted against the bill are not necessarily against the 9-8-8 program.

“I want people to understand, those who hit the red button on this, have absolutely no qualms with the purpose of the bill. They just think and hope that we could have found a better more economical way to pay for it, rather than imposing an additional fee,” he said.


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Legislative notes: Freedom to Read Act and bills on paint recycling, utility transparency and crisis hotline advance