By Len Lazarick
Over the strong protests of Republicans and a few Democrats, the Maryland Senate quickly gave preliminary approval to a bill to expand the powers of Maryland’s attorney general, allowing him to challenge any action by the federal government that harms the health and welfare of Maryland citizens.
The measure, SJ5, the Maryland Defense Act, was sponsored by most Senate Democrats and its entire leadership and is clearly aimed at the Trump administration.
The bill had a hearing just Wednesday, and was swiftly voted out of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on a party line vote hours later, and then was rushed to the Senate floor, where its Democratic sponsors refused to give opponents a day to look at the proposal and make possible amendments — a common courtesy at this point in the session.
“I know this thing is on a rocket-docket,” said a frustrated Senate Republican Leader J.B. Jennings. “I know this bill is flying out of here.”
But Senate President Mike Miller, one of the sponsors, said “I would like to get this issue behind us as quickly as we possibly can,” calling it a divisive issue. “I want to get this damn thing off the floor,” he said earlier in the debate over the special order.
The motion to special order SJ5 to Friday lost on an 18-28 vote, leading Jennings and eight other Republican senators to walk out in protest. When the bill is brought up on third reader for final approval on Friday, it cannot be amended.
Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh sought the authority because Maryland’s constitution does not grant him broad powers to defend Maryland and its citizens against the federal government, unlike the common law authority of AG’s in most other states.
The legislation explains the motivation in the first two “whereas” clauses:
“The General Assembly finds that the federal government’s action, or failure to take action, may pose a threat to the health and welfare of the residents of the State,” it says. “The General Assembly finds that the State should investigate and obtain relief from any arbitrary, unlawful, or unconstitutional federal action or inaction, and prevent such action or inaction from harming the residents of the State.”
In his testimony, Frosh mentioned the travel ban of refugees from seven countries as a policy he might challenge. He also cited the potential failure to enforce laws and regulations to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay that had been challenged in court by the Trump nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
The bill explicitly mentions “ensuring the availability of affordable health care; safeguarding public safety and security; protecting civil liberties; and preserving and enhancing the economic security of workers and retirees” along with protection of consumer rights, pensions, the environment and “the general health and well-being of its residents.”
The bill also states that the attorney general must inform the governor of any action he intends to take — unless it is an emergency — and the governor may make his objections known but he cannot stop the attorney general from acting.
Besides Frosh, the bill was backed by eight progressive advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, Health Care for All, Maryland Nonprofits, Progressive Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the League of Conservation Voters and Clean Water Action.
“People are really nervous about Trump being in office,” said Jennifer Dwyer of Progressive Maryland.
A companion bill in the House, HB3, is sponsored by the Democratic leaders and committee chairs. It is scheduled for a hearing Friday.