It was truly a whirlwind, but the 2021 Maryland General Assembly Session has come to a close. Coming to the Senate on the first day of the Session, I quickly became aware of the differences in the House and the Senate and learned a lot of lessons. There were many long nights, but the important work that we did was worth it all. I was pleased to see three bills that I sponsored pass both chambers and now await the signature of the Governor to become law. Senate Bill 607 strengthens penalties for those who intentionally harm service animals, Senate Bill 874 creates a work group to study partial expungement, and Senate Bill 931 helps Prince George’s County preserve much needed education and public safety funding. I was also pleased to secure important state funds for the Calverton School, Dematha High School, Melwood Training Center, and the cities of Chesapeake Beach and North Beach. In addition, the General Assembly acted on many important issues that are extremely timely considering the coronavirus pandemic and the corresponding difficulties that it has created. Information on several of these actions is below. You can also find an informative and wide-ranging 2021 session wrap-up article from the Capital News Service here.
Providing Immediate and Sustainable Financial Relief The first bill passed this Session was the RELIEF Act (SB496), including the MGA’s Recovery Now package, to provide over $1 billion economic stimulus to vulnerable Maryland residents, small businesses, and nonprofits hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the Maryland Senate’s efforts, nearly 40,000 Marylanders who were stuck in Unemployment Insurance purgatory have already received an immediate $1,000 direct payment to help them survive this crisis as their cases are adjudicated. Also included in the RELIEF Act was an historic expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), one of the best anti-poverty tools our State has, for the next three years. We expanded eligibility of both the EITC and Child Tax Credit (SB218) to all taxpaying Marylanders to ensure all who contribute to our State can access these vital credits. When taken together, this stimulus package will allow Maryland to build back stronger when COVID-19 is behind us. Reversing COVID-19 Learning Loss Despite herculean efforts by teachers across Maryland to reach students through distance learning, prolonged disruptions to our public education system have resulted in immeasurable learning loss. Fortunately, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future passed by the MGA last year sets forth a framework for getting our students back on track. The MGA passed a “Blueprint 2.0” (HB1372) this Session to fund intensive tutoring and summer school to improve educational outcomes, add money to the State’s base education formula for educational technology, support students’ socio-emotional health, and ensure the responsible use of federal funds. Bridging Maryland’s Digital Divide Access to reliable broadband and devices that connect to the internet has been a fundamental problem for Maryland families and small businesses throughout the COVID-19 crisis. This lack of reliable and affordable internet access has led to some of the disparities we have seen in educational outcomes and businesses’ ability to adapt. To urgently address this digital divide, Maryland is using $300 million in federal funds to connect 567,000 people to the internet through infrastructure investments to expand broadband, a monthly subsidy to pay for internet service, and funding for free devices to connect to the internet (HB588). Further, we established an Office of Statewide Broadband within the Department of Housing and Community Development to create and implement a statewide plan for broadband expansion, especially in rural areas (SB66). Expanding Access to Telehealth The pandemic has caused many day-to-day services to shift to a virtual format, including telehealth and telemedicine services. For many of Maryland’s patients and healthcare providers, telehealth has improved access to care and increased convenience, all while operating in a safe and distanced way. To preserve and extend the efficiency, safety, and ease of access to telehealth services that have been so vital since the beginning of the pandemic, we passed the Preserve Telehealth Access Act of 2021 (SB3). Those services are also vital for our most vulnerable students, which is why we expanded equitable telehealth access for those students who have been unable to receive in-school healthcare services (SB278). Supporting Maryland’s Local Restaurants Maryland’s local restaurants and bars have been some of the hardest hit businesses by the COVID-19 pandemic. Adjusting to solely carryout and delivery models, and operating at lower capacities has impacted bottom lines to a point that threatens their survival. Allowing for sale of alcoholic beverages like wine, beer, and cocktails for off-premises consumption has been a lifeline for many of these businesses and SB205 will allow that practice to temporarily continue so our restaurants and bars can make it to the other side of this crisis. Supporting Local Departments of Health The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for competent and effective public health programming at the local level. Specifically, we have relied on our local health departments to support the Statewide vaccination campaign and roll-out, and these departments have played a crucial role in getting shots into the arms of Marylanders. The Senate passed a measure to provide State funding to ensure that all local health departments are adequately funded to both meet the moment and continue to protect the health of Marylanders after the pandemic is over (SB563). Additionally, the COVID-19 Testing, Contact Tracing, and Vaccination Act of 2021 (SB741) will require the Maryland Department of Health to partner with local health departments to adopt and implement a two-year plan to monitor and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Supporting Maryland Workers and a Living Wage Rising income inequality continues to be one of the most consequential issues we face as a society that strives for equal opportunity. Unions have long been one of the most effective tools for building our State and nation’s middle class. Collective bargaining is a vital tool in leveling the playing field, which is why we strengthened our State’s unions’ ability to organize and negotiate at the University System of Maryland (SB9) and our community colleges (SB746), in addition to mandating that large state-funded capital projects pay a prevailing and family-sustaining wage (SB35). Making Historic Investment in Maryland’s HBCUs Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities are vital to our higher education ecosystem. Maryland will invest a historic $577 million in our HBCUs over the next decade to end a fifteen year legal battle with the State around program duplication (SB1). This funding will strengthen the State’s entire higher education landscape and provide the needed resources for our HBCUs to develop and enhance high-demand programs for Maryland’s 21st Century economy. Building Safer Maryland Neighborhoods Every single resident of our State deserves to feel secure in their community. Though crime rates decreased in a number of categories over the last year, violent crime remains unacceptably high. The MGA overrode a number of vetoes in February to make targeted, data-driven investments in violence intervention and prevention programming (SB708), create a statewide crime plan (SB907), and increase coordination between State and local agencies (SB929). Additionally, the Senate passed legislation this Session strengthening sentencing options for repeat violent offenders who use a firearm in the commission of the crime (SB852) and expanding educational and vocational training opportunities for individuals re-entering society to minimize recidivism (SB800). Providing National Leadership in Health Care Maryland has been a national leader in health care expansion for years and we continued to make strides this Session. The General Assembly passed measures to expand minors’ access to critically needed mental health services (SB41), tighten standards for Alzheimer's special care units in assisted living programs (SB204), and improve medication accessibility by allowing pharmacists to administer specific injectable medications (SB84). I hope that you have found this information useful. As always, if you have any questions or suggestions relating to the issues listed above, please contact me directly by telephone at 301-858-3700 or by email at Michael.Jackson@senate.state.md.us. I covet your input and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to represent our community in the Maryland Senate. Please never hesitate to contact me if I can ever assist you in any way.