Maryland Catholic Conference Wraps Up 2017 Legislative Session

ANNAPOLIS, MD. 04-12-17---The 437th legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly ended on April 10 after 90 days’ consideration of more than 2,800 bills introduced in 2017. The legislature approved nearly 950 measures. Governor Larry Hogan, along with Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker of the House Mike Busch, signed 120 bills into law yesterday during the first signing ceremony in the State House.

The Maryland Catholic Conference advocates the Church's public policy positions for the more than 1 million Catholics living in the state. Many of the major initiatives addressed by the Conference during the 2017 legislative session resulted in a successful outcome.

“We were very pleased with the outcomes of the legislative session,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “We saw a number of successes that were very high priorities for us.”

The Conference opposed the End of Life Options Act, which would have legalized physician-assisted suicide. The measure was defeated for the third consecutive year after Senator Guy Guzzone withdrew the bill once it became clear there were not enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The Conference is part of the Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide coalition (www.stopassistedsuicidemd.org), a diverse group of healthcare professionals, disability rights advocates, mental health professionals, advocates for Seniors, and members of faith communities in opposition to the legislation.  

“Two things were evident this session by the time the bill was withdrawn,” Russell said. “One is that the coalition working in opposition to the bill is growing stronger and becoming much more diverse. The number of groups who have very serious concerns about this bill really are beginning to emerge. Secondly, it became more and more apparent to legislative leadership that there is very strong opposition in the General Assembly. The votes are not there to pass the bill and that is why the bill got withdrawn. I don’t see that changing.”

The General Assembly approved the state's $43.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program has been funded at $5.5 million, $500,000 more than this year. The increase to the budget, together with the remaining funds from the current program, will provide nearly $6 million for BOOST scholarships for the 2017-18 school year. In 2016, the General Assembly expanded educational options for low-income students, who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, to attend the school best fit for their educational needs by providing scholarship assistance toward attending a Catholic or nonpublic school. The program is helping nearly 2,500 students this school year.  

“It was great to see the program continued and somewhat expanded,” Russell said. “We are very relieved that current students who for the first times in their lives have the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, will be able to continue their scholarships. It is also great that the program will be expanded to new students, with new funds to be given out on a priority basis to students coming from public schools.”

On April 4, Gov. Hogan signed House Bill 642, a bill that will allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse until age 38 to file a civil suit against an accused perpetrator or public or private employer of the perpetrator.  The last time the state extended the statute of limitations on civil child abuse cases was in 2003, when the age of plaintiffs allowed to file suit was extended from age 21 to age 25.  While the Church over the past few years has opposed similar legislation, the Maryland Catholic Conference worked this year with the bill’s sponsor, Delegate C.T. Wilson and others, to craft a fair compromise that the Church could support.  

“There were three key aspects of the bill that enabled us to support this year’s version,” Russell said. “First, it applied fairly to both public and private institutions. Past bills only applied to private institutions, which meant survivors of abuse in public institutions would not benefit from the bills. Secondly, it is prospective only, and will not open decades-old cases that leave institutions unable to defend themselves due to stale or missing evidence and a lack of witnesses. And finally, the sponsor and legislative leadership publicly agreed this issue will now be put to rest, and not revisited again every year. We have great sympathy and admiration for Delegate Wilson and other survivors who have worked on this issue over the years, and recognize the courage Delegate Wilson had to summon every year to testify for the bill. We are grateful that he will not have to endure that in the future, and that he was able to achieve an important victory for the survivors on whose behalf he was advocating.”    

The General Assembly passed the Earned Sick and Safe Leave bill, which will allow those working for businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to five days of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.  The bill passed both chambers with veto-proof margins.

“We are very pleased to see the bill finally pass after five years of advocacy work by a really strong coalition,” Russell said. “It is great to know that many more people in the state now don’t have to worry about missing a day’s pay or coming to work sick.”

The Conference supported the Law Enforcement Trust Act, legislation that would outline the parameters under which local law enforcement would cooperate with federal immigration officials when apprehending individuals without legal status in the country. An amended version of the bill, passed the House, and was further weakened in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPR). The committee did however amend certain provisions of the Trust Act onto another bill supported by the Conference that would better enable immigrants to obtain a “U visa” through the cooperation of local law enforcement when an immigrant is a victim of a crime. The bill passed by JPR failed to reach a final vote on the Senate floor before the end of the legislative session. 

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.