A new council that began the year with ambition and promises to do big things started winding down 2023 by passing a flurry of legislation this week in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Much of the legislation passed unanimously, as the county council spent months amending and improving bills before the end of the year. One bill prevents landlords from asking prospective tenants the same question that many employers are no longer allowed to ask job seekers: do they have a criminal record?
The Returning Citizens Fair Chance to Housing Act, with some exceptions, passed easily on Tuesday.
“You will hear the majority of them say when they are being released, ‘I’m going home,’ which is normally not true. They don’t have a home. They have been incarcerated for a long period of time,” said Robin Bell, who works with returning citizens and spoke in favor of the bill. “So they’re going to someone else’s home, which creates a problem.”
She said letting them get established in their own home will help lower recidivism rates.
“If you look for the definition for housing units, it’s not in personal people’s housing dwellings,” said Council member Wanika Fisher. “If you own your home and you rent out a room in your home or the bottom part of your home, you wouldn’t be susceptible to have to follow this legislation where you personally live.”
Convictions for crimes like arson, murder or attempted murder, sex offenses and crimes involving kids, are among those excluded from the provision.
Similarly, with the legalization of cannabis in the state of Maryland, public safety agencies in the county will be prohibited from asking job seekers about past use of marijuana and other related products.
“We have a real issue with diversifying our public safety divisions, particularly the fire department,” said Council member Ed Burroughs. “We know that one of the questions on their application is if you’ve ever smoked cannabis, and if you answered ‘yes’ to that you would automatically be disqualified whether you did it five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago. We know that question has an interest in our attempt to recruit people who are from the county to work in the department and this bill will address that.”
That wasn’t the only bill aimed at public safety workers. The high cost of living in the D.C. area, and the desire to have more public safety employees live in the county they work in, prompted the council to pass a $2,500 property tax credit for those first responders.
Angelo Consoli, who leads the Prince George’s County Fraternal Order of Police, said only about a third of the police force lives in the county.
“I think it’s important that we have more officers live in this county,” testified Consoli on Tuesday.
“But the biggest issue my members are telling me of reason why they don’t live in this county is the fact that the school system is not as good as the ones around us, and that the affordability of living in this county is very high.
“It’s cheaper and much better for them and the life choices they make to move out-of-county,” he added. “I think we need to make incentives to have people come into this county, who as we recruit, give them the ability to come in the county have homeownership, because if you start a family and buy your house here, you have tendency to stick around and stay.”
A bill that hopes to build off the federal CHIPS Act passed last year and signed into law, was passed on Tuesday. It too is called the CHIPS Act and it passed unanimously.
It offers tax incentives to businesses that research, develop, as well as manufacture computer chips in the county.
“Prince George’s County needs to become a national leader in the production of computer chips,” Council member Mel Franklin told WTOP back in July when he introduced the bill. “It is one of the most cutting-edge things that we as a nation are doing.
“We have the large amount of industrial space here in the county,” Franklin said. “It gives us the opportunity to do all of the above, maybe in ways that other jurisdictions that are more congested and more built out can’t do. So we want to take advantage of that opportunity.”
In addition, the council passed new legislation that will offer grants to businesses to help them cover child care expenses. The council also voted to create a task force to study emergency room wait times, a growing complaint among county residents who find themselves in ERs, with the goal of reducing wait times.
A package of bills aimed at keeping people out of the emergency room also passed. The Walkable Urban Streets Act, led by Eric Olson, is a group of bills aimed at making county-maintained roads safer. It includes lower speed limits and redesigning certain roads to lower speeds.
The council will wrap up its legislative year on Nov. 21.
While most of the items on that agenda aren’t likely to generate much controversy, a push to limit where the next round of cannabis dispensaries are located figures to be the exception. It passed with pretty broad support during a full committee hearing last month, though some council members have warned it’ll lead to unwinnable lawsuits against the county.