On Crossing Day, Senate Approves COVID Response, Parole Reform and Local Tax Bills – Maryland Matters

The Maryland State House is shown beyond the Miller Senate office building in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The Senate on Monday approved the final passage of more than 30 bills, including measures to guide the state’s response to COVID-19, remove the governor of Maryland from the parole process, and allow counties to put implementation of progressive tax brackets.

House unanimously approved $ 152.5 million contingency plan measured this would require the Maryland Department of Health and local health departments to design a two-year coronavirus response and vaccination plan by April 1 and strengthen the response to future public health emergencies by creating a task force on modernizing health infrastructure and public health jobs, among other efforts.

The two-year plan is to examine the COVID-19 testing infrastructure, address unmet testing needs, and allow each local jurisdiction to implement its own contact tracing program. Counties are not required to set up a specific number of testing sites. The immunization plan should include a timeline for each priority category and resources to target communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 Testing, Contact Tracing, and Vaccination Act 2021 relies primarily on federal dollars to fund local jurisdictions. Senator Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) supported the measure, but said there should eventually be an “exit strategy” from strict public health regulations. “When we get to a more manageable situation, we have to be able to break free from restrictions, regulations and come back to a certain level of normality,” he said.

A bill introduced by the House was not adopted by this chamber.

Parole reform is moving forward

By a vote of 31 to 16, the chamber adopted a bill to remove Governor Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and all potential governors from making final parole decisions for those serving life sentences.

Several iterations of this legislation have toured the General Assembly for years. Bill leader Senator Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) expressed gratitude to lawmakers who had tried to get the bill through the chambers in the past; current godmother, Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), for her unwavering tenacity; and defender of the rights of exonerated prisoners, Walter Lomax.

“On behalf of him, I’m very proud of what we’ve just done,” Carter said. “I believe it was a moral imperative.”

Maryland is one of three states that require the governor to approve parole recommendations. And after Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said in the mid-1990s that he would not approve parole for anyone serving a life sentence, every governor up to Hogan followed suit.

Glendening has expressed regret for his decision in recent years.

Instead of the governor’s signature, the bill would require six of the 10 members of the Maryland Parole Board to vote in favor of their release. The bill would also increase the length of time lifers must serve before becoming eligible for parole: 15 years for those currently in prison and 20 years for those who commit their crime after October 1.

Under current law, people serving a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole are eligible for parole after 15 years.

Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick), Ready and Senator Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) fiercely opposed the bill while it was at second reading Friday night, pushing for amendments to change the rules on crimes against children and to increase time served requirements.

Their efforts to thwart the legislation continued on Monday, with Cassilly insisting the bill would allow those currently serving sentences for first degree murder to be released after only 11 and a half years behind bars taking into account the decrease credits.

Carter responded, explaining that the parole process is hotly contested and can take several years. She also pointed out that the likelihood of a person being released on parole after 15 years is slim “because it just didn’t happen.”

“This bill is really designed to address people who have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, but the governors have stood in the way of this being able to be achieved,” she said. “And these are people who… have applied for parole three, four, five times, and been turned down and then ultimately recommended for parole by the Commission and the governor has always said no.”

Hough said there is one group of people that lawmakers have failed to consider during this debate: the victims. He read a victim impact statement written by a grandmother whose husband was shot dead in their bedroom.

“My friend, my five-year-old grandson was closest to Eric, and he doesn’t understand why ‘the bad guys’, as he puts it, shot his poppy,” Hough read. “How do you explain to a five-year-old why his poppy went to heaven? “

Senate Committee on Court Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) thanked Hough for reading the statement on file before countering it with an opinion piece Glendening wrote that was published in The Washington Post earlier this month:

“If I were to give unbiased advice to these three governors today, I would stress that they don’t want to be in this position. It’s a certain opportunity for political controversy, ”Smith read.

“How can it not be political for a governor to have all the power in the decision to release or not a person implicated in a serious crime? “

A similar measured passed 93-41 by the House of Delegates earlier this month. The House and Senate bills differ on the requirement for six votes on the parole board and on how depleted credits are taken into account when calculating time served.

Set local tax levels

The Senate gave its final approval to the “Local Tax Relief for Working Families Act, 2021Which will allow counties to impose local income taxes on a parenthesis basis.

Some county leaders, including Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), have pushed for the change to allow different local tax rates in brackets, to make local tax systems fairer.

But Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) said the bill’s title was inappropriate because it raises the state’s minimum local tax rate – currently set at 1% – to 2.25%.

“There is not a single word in this bill that guarantees that working families will receive tax relief through this bill. It all says that local politicians can change the tax rate, ”said Simonaire. “And on top of that, we had a minimum of 1% that we could impose, which adds a 125% increase to the lowest wages.”

However, no county has set such a low rate.

Worcester County currently has the lowest local tax rate at 2.25%.

Senator James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) countered that although the top tax rate is still the same, at 3.2% the rate could be lowered for low-income residents or ” working families ”.

The bill would originally have allowed counties to set an income tax rate higher than 3.2% for people earning more than $ 500,000, but the committee removed that provision from the measure.

Eleven of Maryland’s counties and the city of Baltimore currently impose the maximum rate of 3.2%.

The bill passed House 32-15.

A similar bill was passed in the House in February.

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