On Crossover Day, Senate approves COVID response, parole reform, local tax bills

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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

The chamber unanimously approved a $152.5 million emergency measure that would require the Maryland Department of Health and local health departments to devise a two-year coronavirus response and vaccination plan by April 1, and bolster the response to future public health emergencies by establishing a public health job corps and health infrastructure modernization workgroup, among other efforts.

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

The COVID-19 Testing, Contact Tracing, and Vaccination Act of 2021 relies mostly on federal dollars to fund local jurisdictions. Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) supported the measure but said there eventually needs to be an “exit strategy” from stringent public health regulations. “When we get things to a more manageable situation, we need to be able to extricate ourselves from the restrictions, regulations and get back to some level of normalcy,” he said.

A cross-filed House bill was not passed out of that chamber.

Parole reform moves forward

By a 31-16 vote, the chamber passed a bill to remove Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and all prospective governors from making final parole decisions for people serving life sentences.

Several iterations of this legislation have cycled through the General Assembly for years. The bill’s floor leader, Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), expressed gratitude to the lawmakers who had attempted to pass the bill through the chambers in the past; the current sponsor, Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), for her unwavering tenacity; and exonerated prisoner rights advocate, Walter Lomax.

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

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

Glendening has expressed regret for his decision in recent years.

In lieu of the governor’s signature, the bill would require six of the 10 members of the Maryland Parole Commission to vote in favor of their release. The bill would also increase the amount of time that people convicted of life sentences must serve before becoming parole-eligible: 15 years for the currently incarcerated and 20 years for individuals who commit their crime after Oct. 1.

Under current law, individuals serving life sentences with the possibility of parole are parole eligible after 15-years.

Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick), Ready and Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) fiercely opposed the bill when it was up for its second reading Friday evening, lobbing amendments to alter the rules for crimes committed against children and to increase the requirements for time served.

Their effort to thwart the legislation continued Monday, with Cassilly insisting that the bill would allow people who are currently serving sentences for first-degree murder to walk free after just 11-and-a-half years behind bars when accounting for diminution credits.

Carter responded, explaining that the parole process is hard-fought and can take several years to complete. She also stressed that the likelihood of anyone being paroled after 15 years is slim “because it simply hasn’t happened.”

“This bill is really designed to address people that have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole but governors have stood in the way of that being able to be realized,” she said. “And these are people that … have come up for parole three, four, five times, and been denied and then eventually been recommended for parole by the Commission and the governor still said no.”

Hough said that there’s one group of people that lawmakers have not considered during this debate: victims. He read from a victim-impact statement written by a grandmother whose husband was shot to death in their bedroom.

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

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

“If I were to give nonpartisan advice to those three governors today, I would emphasize that they do not want to be in this position. It is a certain opportunity for political controversy,” Smith read.

“How can it not be political for a governor to hold all the power in the decision about whether to release someone who has been involved in a serious crime?”

A similar measure was passed 93-41 by the House of Delegates earlier this month. The House and Senate bills differ on the six-vote requirement at the parole commission, and on consideration of diminution credits when calculating time served.

Setting local tax levels

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

Some county leaders, notably Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), have lobbied for the change to allow different bracketed local income tax rates, as a way to make local tax systems more equitable.

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

“There’s not a single word in this bill that guarantees that working families will get a tax break from this bill. All this does is says that local politicians can change the tax rate,” Simonaire said. “And on top of that, we had a 1% minimum that we could tax, and this adds a 125% increase to the lowest wages.”

However, no county has a rate set so low.

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

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

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

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

The bill passed the chamber 32-15.

A similar bill passed the House in February.

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