ROCKVILLE – The 2019 Legislative Session had a solemn tone as long-time Speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael E. Busch, died, just before it ended on April 8.
For many politicians in the state, losing the 16-year incumbent House Speaker was blow to leadership, in the middle of a tightly-packed legislative session with limited time to pass bills.
Among the biggest achievement for Democrats in the 2019 session, was the passage of the $15 per hour minimum wage. For the Montgomery County delegation, increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour was a top priority, given that the Montgomery County Council had already passed legislation to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour.
For many Montgomery County elected officials, raising the minimum wage for the state was key, so that Montgomery County would not have an unfair advantage over its neighboring counties.
“Some of my colleagues believe that it’s just kids who work at the Dairy Queen or the Dunkin’ Donuts, but truly we know that grown-ups, that people who are trying to support themselves or maybe a child or two, rely on a minimum wage to support their family,” said Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-17).
While the bill was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), it passed with a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly. Hogan claimed that increasing the state’s minimum wage would hurt jobs such as smaller, family-owned businesses could not afford increased wages for their employees.
The bill gradually increases the minimum wage over years. Businesses with 15 or more employees have until 2025 to raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour, while smaller businesses have until 2026.
For Montgomery, “fair share” for school funding is always a top issue. In this legislative session, the General Assembly passed $500 million in school construction funding, with $119 million going for capital projects in Montgomery County.
The funding, which has been a contentious issue between Montgomery County representatives and politicians from other parts of the state, passed this year, with Montgomery County delegates claiming victory for themselves.
“This session the Senate Delegation stood together to secure record-breaking education funding for our County,” said State Senator Craig Zucker (D-14).
One of the most-notable headlines coming out of the session is the General Assembly’s decision to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, with members of the military being exempt from the bill. While Hogan has yet to decide whether he will sign the bill, it comes as a measure to combat the rise in smokeless tobacco products, such as vape pens, which have been popular among younger people.
“Too many people who are addicted to tobacco, to nicotine, start when they’re young. So, if we can make it a little harder for them to get access to that addictive drug, we can try to save lives and to reduce health care costs,” Kagan said.
Another bill awaiting the governor’s signature is authorizing a prescription drug affordability board. The bill, sponsored by Montgomery County delegates Bonnie Cullison (D-19) and Al Carr (D-18), would create a panel that could place price limits on certain drugs, based on their necessity. If made law, Maryland would become the first state with such a board.
Following the lead of environmentally-minded Takoma Park and Montgomery County, the Maryland General Assembly passed a ban on polystyrene, the plastic foam containers used for food packaging. The bill, which was passed with a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly, gives businesses one year to comply with the new law.
Hoping to cut the tax burden for more families in the state, the General Assembly passed a bill expanding the child-care tax credit. The new bill now allows families making less than $143,000 a year, to be eligible for the credit, as compared to $50,000 annually previously.
Like many, this one also awaits the governor’s signature.
For much of the past year, debate over the Kirwan Commission, and its potential negative impacts on Montgomery County have worried many parents and legislatures. The Kirwan Commission, also known as the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, was created to provide recommendations for improving public education in the state.
While most of the concern centers on the committee’s future recommendation about changing the state school-construction funding formula, the General Assembly passed one of the commission’s recommendations, which was to give incentives to local school boards to raise teachers’ pay and to add funding for special education programs. While, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill passed with little push back, the more-contentious debate will likely come in the next legislative session.