Maryland legislature ends session marked by budget surplus

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers closed their legislative session late Monday with approval of legislation to strengthen cybersecurity in a year marked by a budget surplus that enabled upgrades to parks, infrastructure, schools and information technology systems, as well as tax relief.

In a year of huge surplus largely due to federal pandemic relief, the General Assembly passed a package of cybersecurity measures and nearly $570 million for information technology upgrades. It comes after Maryland’s health department was hit by a ransomware attack in December that impeded information about health metrics relating to COVID-19.

Lawmakers reached an agreement Monday on raising the legal age of marriage in the state from 15 to 17, with judicial review if there is no parental consent, after years of struggling with the issue. They also approved restrictions on long-lasting chemicals known as PFAS and switching to safer alternatives for firefighting foams.

Democrats, who control the legislature, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan already had agreed to a bipartisan budget deal. It includes nearly $1.86 billion in tax relief over five years for Maryland retirees, small businesses and low-income families in a year of enormous budget surplus for the state’s $58.5 billion budget.

The deal included a tax credit as an incentive for employers and businesses to hire and retain workers from underserved communities. It also includes sales tax exemptions for child care products such as diapers, car seats, and baby bottles, and health products for dental hygiene, diabetic care and medical devices.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, hours before adjournment at midnight, cited bipartisan work in an election year that resulted in major investments in the state.

Investments included about $150 million for state parks to address a maintenance backlog and funding for new parks and upgrades. Lawmakers also approved large investments in mental health initiatives to help in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that Marylanders should be really proud of the budget that we passed, the investments that we’re making, and I think across the board it was truly an historic year,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

Hogan highlighted the tax relief for retirees that he has been advocating for years as one of the reasons for calling this his best session as governor.

“Look, we’ve stood up and disagreed strongly on different issues, but I think we’ve accomplished a lot together,” Hogan said, referring to bipartisan work with Democrats.

Democrats indeed had their disagreements with the term-limited governor, now in his last year in office.

Lawmakers overrode Hogan’s veto on Saturday to create a paid family leave insurance program that has been discussed for years in the state. Maryland workers will be able to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to deal with such family issues as having a baby, caring for a sick relative or dealing with a military deployment.

They also overrode the governor’s veto of legislation to expand access to abortion in the state. Maryland will end a restriction that only physicians perform abortions, enabling nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants with training to perform them.

The General Assembly passed a broad measure aimed at slowing climate change. Hogan said Friday he would let the bill go into law without his signature. The “Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022” speeds up Maryland’s current goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 40% of 2006 levels to 60% by 2031. It also sets a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045 in the state.

Lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana in July 2023, giving the final decision to voters in November. A measure lawmakers passed to take initial steps toward implementation went into law without Hogan’s signature. Licensing and taxing issues will be taken up next year, if voters approve.

Separately, lawmakers passed a bill setting aside $1 million to fund alternative therapies including psychedelics and hyperbaric oxygen therapy for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in clinical trials.

Lawmakers also approved a bill to invest $400 million in development in the area around FedEx Field Stadium, home to the Washington Commanders football team, though the money would not be used to pay for a new stadium. A companion bill to spend $1.2 billion to upgrade Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium also was passed. Hogan is scheduled to sign those bills Tuesday.

Legislators and the governor agreed to a new congressional map for the state, after a judge struck down the map approved by lawmakers over Hogan’s veto in December as a “product of extreme gerrymandering.” The General Assembly redrew the state’s eight U.S. House districts to be more compact, and Hogan signed the measure last week.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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