Maryland Catholic Conference Wraps Up 2016 Session

ANNAPOLIS, MD. 04-13-16---The 436th legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly ended on April 11 after 90 days’ consideration of more than 2,800 bills introduced in 2016. The legislature approved 834 measures. Gov. Larry Hogan signed over 100 bills into law yesterday at the first of four scheduled signing ceremonies.

The Maryland Catholic Conference advocates the Church's public policy positions for the 1.2 million Catholics living in the state. Many of the major initiatives addressed by the Conference during the 2016 legislative session resulted in a successful outcome.

The Conference supported several versions of the Maryland Education Credit this year, including bills introduced by Sen. Ed DeGrange (D-Anne Arundel County), Del. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore City) and Gov. Hogan. With the support of House leadership, a bill creating the BOOST tax credit was sponsored by Del. Keith Haynes (D-Baltimore City). The Senate version of the tax credit passed the Senate but did not receive a vote in the House of Delegates. However, after 10 years of advocacy, a $5 million scholarship program was created in the budget which requires the Maryland State Department of Education, with the guidance of a seven-member BOOST advisory board, to administer a scholarship program for students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch to attend nonpublic schools that participate in the textbook program. Scholarships will be available for the 2016-17 school year. 

“This is something that we have been pursuing for years and years,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “We have a lot of champions to thank. From the very start, Sen. Ed DeGrange has been a real hero in advocating for this and never giving up and pushing very hard year after year. I don’t think we could have accomplished this without his leadership and that of the Senate president, Mike Miller, who has been a strong supporter of this effort. Given the unrest in Baltimore City, I think House leadership finally agreed that we had to pursue every possible avenue we can to give students more opportunities. The end result is exciting for poor families in the state of Maryland.” 

The Conference opposed the End of Life Options Act, which would have legalized physician-assisted suicide. The measure was defeated for the second year after Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick County) withdrew the bill once it became clear there were not enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide coalition (www.stopassistedsuicidemd.org), which includes advocates from the disability, elder abuse, medical and suicide prevention communities as well as faith groups, led the fight against the bill.

“People came together in a significant way to combine forces to make sure this bill doesn’t pass,” added Russell. “The success of the advocacy is owing to all of those partners, the disability advocates, people fighting elder abuse, people concerned about those who already don’t have adequate access to health care and assuring that those populations will not be endangered by the passage of this bill.” 

For the first time in four years, the House passed the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act, which was supported by the Conference, with a veto-proof majority one week before the end of session. The Senate did not act on the bill but it is likely that there is sufficient support for the bill to pass next year.

“I certainly hope that is true. The issue is really important to the Church because it is one of fairness to working families,” Russell said. “It helps lower-income families keep food on the table. Thanks to the tremendous advocacy of Melissa Broome (Job Opportunities Task Force) and so many other partners, they can’t say no another year.”  

Lawmakers also passed the Justice Reinvestment Act which was also supported by the Conference. The bill will refocus the state's treatment of nonviolent offenders upon restoration, rather than punishment, with the goal of reinvesting the potential savings in drug treatment and other efforts to reintegrate ex-offenders into society. 

The Maryland Catholic Conference represents all three dioceses with territory in the state – the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Diocese of Wilmington.