END OF SESSION LETTER
The Maryland General Assembly (“MGA”) recently concluded our 445th Legislative Session and made historic progress for the State as we go through a generational leadership transition. For the first time in decades, Maryland swore in new individuals to every statewide constitutional office. That changing of the guard, including a new Governor, Lt. Governor, Comptroller, and Attorney General, has created a more cohesive State government with a level of partnership between the executive and the MGA that has not existed for nearly a decade.
As a result of that increased level of collaboration, we were able to truly make the most of our 90-day legislative session despite an increased level of economic uncertainty and difficult budgetary decisions. Because it is the first year of a term, one of our goals was to put Maryland on a path to better economic stability while creating more opportunities for upward mobility for middle-class and working families. Additionally, we made strides in the top three issues for nearly all Marylanders, namely public education, healthcare, and public safety. We also made progress in the next set of top issues including the environment, voting rights, and taxes.
Finally, as always, I stayed laser-focused on the specific financial needs of Harford County, including ensuring increases to local aid to the County’s budget and numerous important capital projects. Below, I will highlight in each of the eight categories referenced in this introduction just a few of the important bills and budget decisions that I supported, and the MGA addressed or enacted in 2023.
Support for Middle Class and Working Families
Increased Wages, Lowered Taxes, and Access to Banking: Maryland’s working families continue to bear the brunt of inflationary pressures and a slowing economy. Although federal funding and the temporary expansion of benefit programs to support vulnerable Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic are ending, Maryland is stepping in to alleviate the burden that these families and individuals face. A livable, family-sustaining wage is foundational to reducing the impacts of poverty. That is why the MGA set our State on the path to a $15 an hour minimum wage in 2019 and expedited its statewide implementation to January 1, 2024, this Session (SB555/HB549). In addition, the MGA made the expansion of Maryland’s Earned Income and Child Tax Credits permanent (SB552/HB547), understanding that equitable tax relief will help to reduce childhood poverty in our State. Finally, access to banking and capital is vital for generational wealth building. The Access to Banking Act will alleviate bank deserts in low- to moderate-income communities throughout the State (SB550/HB548).
Strengthening Maryland’s Paid Medical and Family Leave System: Paid family and medical leave is imperative to the well-being of Maryland families and workers. Access to paid family and medical leave ensures that Maryland families have adequate resources to support a new child or other loved one who requires care. Marylanders should not have to choose between being with a parent during their last days and putting food on the table, which is why we passed the Time to Care Act last Session, establishing a system for paid medical and family leave for our State’s residents. The fiscal sustainability of that program is imperative for it to be effective at supporting Marylanders, which is why we strengthened its funding mechanism in a way that is affordable for employees and employers (SB828).
Developing a 21st-Century Workforce: Meeting the demands of a 21st-century economy means developing alternative pathways to our State’s workforce. Our economic future depends on Maryland employers' ability to build a dependable and skilled labor force. The Senate firmly believes that one of the most robust opportunities for workforce development is through scaling up registered apprenticeship options, both for individuals after graduation from high school and those currently disconnected from work. Apprenticeships allow individuals to earn a living wage while they learn the necessary skills for the job. The MGA is creating the Apprenticeship 2030 Commission, which will determine strategies to grow our current number of apprenticeships from 12,000 a year to 60,000 by 2030 (SB104).
Leveraging Public Service Opportunities for Young Adults to Gain Employment and Skills Training: For young people just graduating from high school or within a few years of graduating, this new initiative will create and help subsidize 1 or 2-year service opportunities for those who have been underrepresented in higher education and higher skilled employment where participants will receive a stipend along with mentorship, professional development, job training, financial literacy skills, and other supports while providing community services in areas such as healthcare, restoration of State and local parks, and historic preservation (SB551/HB546).
The largest part of the State budget (other than healthcare, which receives nearly a 50% share from the federal government) is public k-12 education. Maryland has enshrined the right to a “thorough and efficient” free public school education in our Constitution (Article III-Education). When I was first elected in the 1990s, we passed the Thorton Commission’s Bridge to Excellence in Education, which for the first time helped level the financial playing field across all the counties of Maryland. There was a guaranteed amount of State aid to each of our jurisdictions.
Nearly 25 years later, the MGA tasked a new group, the Kirwan Commission, to modernize the way education is provided across the State so it is aligned with the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century, most notably that we are in a global world, interconnected by computers, technology, markets, supply chains, and competition. As Thomas Freidman wrote in his book The World is Flat, “Your kids and mine aren’t just competing for jobs across the U.S., but across the world.” And because of the ever-increasing pace of change, not only high schoolers but also most young people and many adult workers will have to constantly be upgrading their skills and knowledge throughout their working lives.
In response to the Kirwan Commission’s report, which was a multiyear effort that brought together not only our public school leaders, but also leaders from community colleges, four-year institutions, workforce training centers, and many in the business community, the MGA, in 2020 and 2021, enacted the sweeping education bill known as The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (“The Blueprint”) which will take at least ten years to fully implement. It has five major components:
1. North Star
-college and career readiness
-college-level coursework, dual enrollment/credit, career credentials
-support plans for students for post-graduation success
2. Early Childhood Education
-expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten
-working with private pre-kindergarten providers
3. Student Support
-behavioral health services
-community schools and health centers
-English language learners
4. Elevating Educators
-hiring and retaining high-quality and diverse employees
-creation of a career ladder for teachers
-talent pathways for future educators
-accountability- including an independent Accountability Board
Throughout the next four years, I will provide legislative updates regarding the progress of the Blueprint. In this wrap-up, I just want to highlight the paradigm shift of having high schools required to ensure that all students, by 10th grade, be on either a college path or career training path (which will also likely require post-secondary skills training). In other words, it is no longer enough for high schools to pass students out with just their diploma. From the start of ninth grade until the end of 12th, educators, in partnership with the students and their families, must be preparing teenagers for either college (including having students take, free of charge, advanced coursework or college courses through dual-enrollment and have a plan to start college) or work hand-in-glove so each child has a plan to either start college after high school or be ready for a career path (including having students participate with workforce training centers to obtain job-ready skills, apprenticeships, and, if need be, ready these students for job credential programs right after graduating).
Long before Governor Wes Moore said he wanted to leave no one behind, Maryland had begun a blueprint to do just that for all the children that attend public schools.
There are several distinct and important aspects to healthcare in Maryland that benefit everyone and result in our State being able to provide world-class medical care. First, Maryland has an exemption from the federal government (the only state that does) regarding Medicaid, and the bottom line is that we receive more money so the State can innovate when it comes to designing our program. For example, hospitals are not reimbursed for individual services but rather for patient outcomes (Did the patient get better? Healthier?). This allows hospitals to work with primary care doctors and others in delivering preventative care and at-home care for instance. Secondly, Maryland has a very integrated healthcare system so that the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) has hospitals throughout the State along with urgent care facilities to help people get treated for major and minor healthcare treatments that meet the standards of our premier hospitals.
Harford County’s Newest Hospital in Aberdeen: As part of our integrated health system, Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and Upper Chesapeake Hospital in Bel Air are both part of UMMS. Although I fought for many years to keep, expand, and modernize Harford Memorial Hospital, it ultimately became unfeasible. Fortunately, UMMS realized that southern Harford County must still have a 21st-century medical center which is now opening in Aberdeen, which I just finished touring. I am very proud that I was able to secure $500,000 for the new 75-acre campus. Our hospitals will be able to offer emergency care, and both observation and behavioral health rooms, all of which with virtual capacity, will allow not only on-site doctors but medical specialists from throughout the UMMS system to provide consultations. The hospital also is expanding the number of primary care doctors and has a wellness pavilion.
Behavioral Health: The COVID-19 pandemic led to an undeniable and acute behavioral health crisis in Maryland and throughout the entire country. An increased sense of isolation and disruptions to healthcare services have put a strain on the entire healthcare system, but nowhere has that been more evident than in Marylanders seeking behavioral care. Going into the 2023 Legislative Session, one of our top priorities was to pass policies that accomplished the dual objectives of improving access to care and modernizing the system of delivery. The Senate advanced a bipartisan behavioral healthcare package, including:
Fully funding the 9-8-8 crisis hotline with $12M per year (SB3/HB271);
Extending collaborative care between primary and behavioral healthcare providers (SB101/HB48);
Expanding wraparound services for children and youth most at-risk (SB255/HB322);
Creating systems for comprehensive community behavioral health clinics (SB362);
Preserving affordable access to telehealth services (SB534);
Allowing for creative healthcare for Maryland’s highest-need patients (SB581); and
Planning for a 21st century behavioral care delivery system (SB582/HB1148).
As we are all tragically reminded weekly and sometimes daily because of mass shootings and increasing numbers of suicides, including among younger people and children, meaningfully addressing behavioral health is also part of how we need to address public safety.
Protecting Reproductive Rights and Healthcare: In 1992, the voters of Maryland overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure ensuring that women, along with their doctors and loved ones, would make the decision on whether to continue a pregnancy. Many thought the referendum which passed with 62% of the vote was unnecessary because the Supreme Court had never in this country’s history taken away a constitutional right. But that is exactly what the Supreme Court did last year in its Dobbs decision by overturning decades of law since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. As dozens of states around the country have moved not only to restrict what was previously a fundamental right, but also pass laws to prosecute and punish women, their doctors, and their loved ones, Maryland is moving to further protect patients and providers from out-of-state investigations (SB 786/HB 812 and SB 859/HB 868) and to enshrine the right to reproductive freedom in the Maryland Constitution (SB 798/HB 705).
Let me start with some good news locally about public safety. The Harford County Sheriff’s Department’s website shows that our local law enforcement has done a good job in keeping us safe. Over the last several years, violent crime (and most categories of crime) have been trending down. At the State level, we recognize that we are a partner with the County and increased State aid by over 6% providing $3.9 million for police and public safety this year.
Statewide, the MGA did even more. The 2024 budget contains $86 million in public safety and victim services enhancements including an additional $46 million above the required amount to fund police and $40 million in increases to support domestic violence victims and rape crisis centers.
As I mentioned under the healthcare section, mass shootings, school shootings, and suicides (over half of which are done by guns) are alarmingly high and increasing. Many categories of violent crime, including murders, have ticked up in areas outside of Harford County, especially in cities and urban settings. We hear regularly on the news of murders (including the murders of children) in Baltimore City, the vast majority by handguns. With this in mind, the MGA added additional penalties for illegal guns, expanded the sensitive places guns are not allowed, and enhanced gun safety training.
Illegal Handguns: The MGA supported a bill by the City’s new State’s Attorney, Ivan Bates, to increase the penalty for possession of illegal handguns to a five-year prison sentence and a fine up to $2,500. Additionally, both the Senate and the House overwhelmingly supported an omnibus public safety bill (HB 135) which, among other things, made all gun thefts felony crimes. Currently, felony theft has to involve a value of over $1500, and the vast majority of guns (and those most often used to commit crimes) are well below that value. For reasons completely unrelated to the support for this bill, it did not pass the House of Delegates in time to become law this year, however, I fully expect it will pass next year.
Additional Sensitive Places Guns are not Permitted and Additional Qualifications and Training for Concealed Carry Permits: There were about six bills in the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPR) of which I am a new member that consumed a great deal of my time and required extensive research. Two are discussed here and were in response to the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, which is a very complicated, controversial ruling in which the Court threw out decades of jurisprudence and created a brand-new test for evaluating the constitutionality of a gun regulation, a test never before used to review any other constitutional right. Before Bruen, all constitutional rights were put through a balancing test, namely, whether the regulated conduct is protected under a Constitutional right, and if it is, whether the government’s reason for enacting the law outweighs the burden created by the restriction.
While the Bruen decision of 2022 was specifically about New York’s law (dating back to 1911) requiring an individual to have a “proper cause” (a specific reason they are vulnerable) for a concealed carry permit (Maryland had a similar law known as a “good and substantial reason”) which the Court struck down. But Justice Clarence Thomas, the main author of the Bruen opinion, went much further than just the case at hand. Instead, Thomas spends the vast majority of his 63-page opinion creating what is being called the “historic analogue” test which requires legislators and courts to comb through gun laws going back to 1789 (the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified) and possibly 1868 (when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified which applied the Constitution to the states) to see if any restrictions were in place that could justify a regulation in today’s modern world. While Justice Thomas tore down every single historic gun regulation proposed as an analogy, he provided little to no guidance as to what criteria and circumstances are sufficient for a state, in meeting its obligation to provide public safety, to restrict firearms in public. Legal scholars almost universally agree that Bruen is no panacea and rather than clear up anything, it has injected far more confusion.
It is important to note that both Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito wrote separate concurrences to make it clear that Bruen does not undo the types of legitimate gun restrictions that were addressed in the two earlier Supreme Court decisions, Heller and McDonald, which acknowledged that the Second Amendment does not entitle a person “to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” They recognized the legitimacy of longstanding prohibitions on who can possess firearms and forbidding their possession in sensitive places, such as schools and government buildings, and specifically noted that these regulatory measures were only examples and not exhaustive.
The MGA used the Kavanaugh/Alito guidance, such that it was, to fashion one bill to codify existing sensitive places in Maryland and add some additional locations that were consistent with the established criteria of protecting children (schools, daycares, etc.), the vulnerable (hospitals and nursing homes), government buildings, and certain special purpose areas (professional sporting event venues and theaters) (SB1). Additionally, the training to receive a gun permit (i.e., de-escalation) and the qualifications (no history of violence or mental illness) were bolstered and expanded.
The Supreme Court openly admitted that legislatures and courts will be struggling for years (and more likely decades) to establish the criteria, circumstances, and all manner of specifics relating to what gun regulations will now pass the unprecedented and unclear “historic analogue” test. This year, the MGA worked in good faith with members of both parties and listened to experts and witnesses across a vast continuum of thought to create new gun safety laws. This process is being replicated all across the country as legislatures and courts now, and for a long time to come, try to flesh out the parameters of the new, unprecedented Bruen test.
More Gun Safety Measures: Two more measures deserve noting. Too often we hear about children, and those who pose a risk, who have gained access to a firearm in the home or the home of another, sometimes with tragic consequences, so this year the Safe Storage Act (SB 858) was passed to require gun owners to safely store firearms, and we enabled the Maryland State Police Gun Center to track firearms surrendered under peace orders (SB 185/HB 3).
I mentioned in the section on middle-class and working families that the MGA made permanent the expansion of the Earned Income Child Tax Credit. I am also happy to report that no major taxes needed to be increased this past session and still the Senate was able to fully fund some of our shared highest priorities, some of which I am reporting on in this wrap-up. In fact, in 2022, the MGA was able to provide tax relief to seniors most of whom are on fixed incomes and, thus, when prices rise on housing, utilities, groceries, gas, etc. are the least able to respond to these financial hits. Under the new law, retirees (individuals 65 years or older making $100,000 or less) and retired couples (making $150,000 or less) will see relief between $1,000 and $2,000 on their tax returns (SB405). This year the MGA expanded its tax relief on retirement income for veterans.
Tax Relief and Support for Veterans and The National Guard: This year, the Governor took up an issue that I have supported for decades. That is to honor our military veterans in the State by limiting their state income taxes. Across the country, 38 states already exempt 100% of military retirement income and Maryland finally took another big step forward by exempting the first $12,500 of retirement income (up from $7,500) for those 55 years and younger and exempting $20,000 for those over 55 years old (SB 553/HB 554). Keeping military veterans in our State is a huge boost to our economy and we all benefit from their leadership skills and practice of giving back to the communities in which they live.
The MGA was also able to support our National Guard by helping to underwrite some of their monthly healthcare costs (SB 554). I am particularly proud of these efforts as Harford County is home to Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Havre de Grace National Guard facility.
Voting Rights and Elections
Even before the pandemic, mail-in voting in Maryland was an ever-increasingly popular way to vote. The State, long ago, got rid of the requirement that you had to have a specific approved reason to vote by mail and went to the “no-excuse” model now used in many other states. This approach acknowledges the modern reality that many people cannot get to the polls on election day because of their job, family obligations, lack of reliable transportation, and/or health issues. When COVID-19 hit, the State was out in front of the practice even more by sending every registered voter a mail-in ballot application, and the vast majority of our citizens utilized this option.
Maryland has now wisely created a permanent mail-in ballot list and any voter can request to be placed on it, ensuring that they will automatically receive their ballot for both the primary and general elections in the mail. The State also makes it easy to request a ballot online as well as in person in advance of an election.
Maryland remains a leader and role model when it comes to election security and ballot access. National rating organizations give Maryland high marks for both, proving that making it simple for people to vote and safeguarding the integrity of voting are both compatible and achievable.
Mail-in Voting Protections Enhanced: This year, the MGA knowing that mail-in voting will remain a popular choice, passed a bill mandating that all mail-in ballots must be sent to voters 43 days prior to Election Day to avoid uncertainty around ballots not arriving in time and needing to be cast on provisional ballots as a result. Additionally, we codified that voters have a right to fix or “cure” their mail-in ballots for those who forget to sign them in time for their votes to be counted. Data tells us that forgetting to sign your ballot is the number one reason mail-in ballots get rejected, and this measure will go a long way in making sure every vote counts (SB379/HB 535).
Conserving Maryland’s Natural Resources: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, my father, the late Senator William S. James, while he was President of the Maryland Senate, passed a number of visionary and landmark legislation, including historical preservation laws and created Program Open Space (POS) that, over the years, has spawned many sub-programs to preserve additional types of natural resources. During my own tenure in the House of Delegates, when the nation and the State were in the throes of the 2008 recession and its aftermath, I ensured the passage of a bill to allow POS to go beyond buying land for perpetual preservation on a cash-only basis (POS is funded by a modest land transfer tax) and allowed its funding stream to finance State of Maryland bonds, thereby doubling and sometimes tripling the amount of money to preserve the most important and most threatened lands deserving of protection.
One of the many POS offshoot programs is the Maryland Forest Conservation Act, and this year we updated the program in order to achieve a “no net-loss” of forest standards while giving local jurisdictions much needed flexibility to align forest conservation needs with local land use priorities (SB 526/HB 723). This bill also set a goal for a net gain of tree canopy and makes certain smaller forested areas eligible for forest management plans and associated incentives. The current debate over the future of Abingdon Woods in Harford County is a poignant reminder of how important it is for each county and community to be able to innovate, prioritize, and protect local wooded areas.
Protecting the Environment: The MGA was also able to tap into available federal funds for conservation efforts that we were previously unable to access by modestly raising hunting license fees for the first time in over three decades (SB 327/HB 983). Finally, the MGA took the first steps to ensure that industry is a genuine stakeholder in recycling programs and mitigate the costs passed on to local governments by establishing a producer responsibility program for packaging materials (SB 222). Before session, I once again visited our local Frito Lay manufacturing facilities. This national company is a growing employer in our district and already a leader in recycling and because of the significant steps it has already taken to protect the environment, I was able to amend this new program to reflect Frito Lay’s work.
The State Budget
For the entirety of my 16 years as your representative in the House of Delegates, I served on that chamber’s budget committee known as the Appropriations Committee and chaired the sub-committee on Health and Human Resources, the Pensions Committee, and served on the Capital Budget Committee among other assignments. Our motto was always that we be “socially responsible and fiscally prudent”. Outside of my current work on JPR, the State budget and financial support to Harford County remains my top priority every legislative session. Below, in this closing section of the legislative wrap-up, I will provide some highlights.
Investing in Maryland Values through a Responsible and Balanced Budget for Fiscal Year 2024: The core role of the MGA in any legislative session is passing a balanced State budget for the next fiscal year. Even as federal funding from the COVID-19 pandemic goes away and the Board of Revenue Estimates projects lower revenue through Fiscal Year 2024, we were able to make responsible investments to benefit our State’s residents and economy. We ultimately enacted a $63.1 billion budget (HB200 and HB202) that invests heavily in Maryland values, including:
$14B in Medicaid funding to provide healthcare coverage to 1.5 million residents;
$8.7B for Maryland public pre-k to 12 schools, an increase of 9.1%, in addition to another $900 million as a downpayment on the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future;
$250M to combat the climate crisis, including $160M to support State parks and forests, $60M for Chesapeake Bay restoration, $15M for tree planting, and $15M for projects under the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022;
$200M available for new mass transit and transportation infrastructure throughout the State to allow flexibility should Maryland be awarded competitive federal grants;
$200M for tax relief for Maryland’s veterans and working families;
$86M in public safety and victim services enhancements, including an additional $46M above the statutorily required amount to fund police aid and to $40M in increases to support domestic violence victims and rape crisis centers; and
$2.85B in cash reserves, including $2.5B in the Rainy Day Fund and over $350M in the General Fund, with ongoing general fund revenues projected to exceed ongoing expenditures by over $150M in FY24.
Increasing Local Aid to Harford County: I am particularly proud of that part of the State Operating and Capital Budget, which supported Harford County and included significant increases. We were able to provide an increase of $38.4 million that went towards education, libraries, public safety, transportation, and healthcare. The chart below shows the increases to the Operating Budget of Harford County.
The Capital Budget at the State level has always been an economic engine helping to create thousands of good-paying jobs while also investing in critical infrastructure in Maryland from roads to rail, schools, to hospitals, and much more.
At the local level, Harford County benefitted greatly from the Capital Budget by having some of our projects funded by local bond bills, some funded in the omnibus Capital Budget, and others funded with a combination of both. The Moore administration was exceedingly receptive to enhancing the funding of some of our local projects. Below is a list of all the local Capital Projects for which we were able to secure funding:
Local Bond Initiatives:
Harford County 4-H Camp Revitalization Project- $60,000
Havre de Grace STAR – Sports, Theatre, Arts, Recreation – Centre- $500,000
Rockfield Manor – Community Enrichment Venue- $300,000
The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region Renovations- $100,000
Harmers Town Art Center- $300,000
The New Aberdeen Hospital- $500,000
American Legion Post 47 Floating Pier Replacement- $100,000
EPIC HOPE Expansion- $50,000
Other Capital Budget Support:
Aberdeen Middle School Renovations- $9,217,000
Harford Technical High School Construction- $8,841,000
Havre de Grace Elementary School Renovations- $1,753,000
Supplemental Capital Grant for Local Schools- $2,234,000
Bel Air Library Renovation- $3,593,000
Harford Community College Chesapeake Welcome Center- $5,915,000
Program Open Space Acquisition and Development- $3,583,000
Havre de Grace Pickle Ball Courts- $150,000
Camp Moshava Wastewater System Upgrade- $600,000
Havre de Grace Colored School Museum and Cultural Center- $1,000,000
Harford County District Court- $4,000,000
Freestate Challenge Academy- $250,000
Havre de Grace Surface Equipment and Auto Maintenance Facility- $20,000,000 (50% state and 50% federal funds)
Susquehanna State Park Trail Bridge- $1,000,000
MD-24 Resurfacing and Repair- $9,000,000
US-1 Bridge Replacements Above Tollgate Rd. and Winter Run- $18,100,000
US-1 Lane Expansion Study- $2,550,000
I-95 5.4 Miles of New Left Shoulder Lane- $35,000,000
Sidewalk Repairs and Improvements- $3,150,000
Other Miscellaneous Resurfacing- $18,700,000
No aspect of being your Senator brings me more pride and satisfaction than partnering with local groups to bring resources home. Every one of these Harford County capital projects helps create local jobs, boost the economy, improve the lives of our citizens, and enhance the quality of our communities. In total, $34,000,000 in money from the State’s Capital Budget is being sent to Harford County for the 2024 fiscal year.
Every decision the MGA made this year was from a lens of expanding opportunity for as many residents as possible. After a productive 90 days in Annapolis, I look forward to serving Maryland’s 34th District back home until the 2024 legislative session kicks off next January. Already, I have been attending ribbon cuttings for new businesses, going to Patriot Programs, First Fridays, and giving legislative wrap-ups in person and virtually. Until 2024, I will be visiting many important institutions throughout the County, meeting with local partners, community groups, and individual constituents. I hope to see as many of you as possible.
To reach me, please write, email or call at:
103 James Senate Office Building
11 Bladen Street
Annapolis, MD 21401
Thank each of you for giving me the opportunity to represent and serve Harford County.