By Ryan E. Little
Capital News Service
Maryland lawmakers overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes five times on Thursday, but gave up on three other bills, including one designed to make freight rail safer.
A major economic development project played a role in that bill’s doom.
The concurrent votes in the two chambers of the Maryland General Assembly were the first time this session Democrats have exercised their veto-proof majorities after postponing these votes several times this session.
The votes passed generally along party lines.
Democrats were successful in overriding vetoes on five bills, including a “ban the box” measure that will make it illegal for employers to ask about an applicant’s criminal history before the first interview, and a “Dream Act,” which eases restrictions on when an undocumented immigrant can pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
But Senate Democrats ultimately did not have the votes to require a minimum of two workers on freight trains.
A much-anticipated Howard Street Tunnel expansion in Baltimore would allow double-stacked rail cars through it, greatly increasing the flow of goods out of the Port of Baltimore.
Hogan has allocated $80.3 million in his proposed 2020 budget to match $125 million in federal grant dollars. CSX Transportation, a major freight train operator, is also contributing to the project.
House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, told Capital News Service that the prospect of CSX pulling out of the deal led to the two-man crew bill’s demise. He said lawmakers didn’t want to risk it.
The project is touted by officials on both sides of the aisle as one of the most important economic development projects in the state.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, told Capital New Service that the project “certainly came into play as part of the discussion,” but suggested that it or the two other vetoed bills whose votes were postponed indefinitely could come back in future sessions.
“I think it was a collective decision that, in some cases, the timing wasn’t right, or there were ways to hone the policy, even more, moving forward,” Ferguson said. “The good news is that we are here every year for 90 days. I think these are issues that are very important and may come up in the future, but this year wasn’t the right time.”
The Senate also indefinitely postponed a bill that would require the governor’s office to submit an annual report on personnel matters. The House indefinitely postponed a bill that would require the governor to appropriate at least $3.8 million annually to fund a network of bike trails in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s budget.
Spending mandated by legislators is one of Hogan’s most-often repeated complaints.
The bike bill’s sponsor, Delegate Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, told Capital News Service it was postponed because Hogan has already proposed the spending in each of the next two years.
“And If we need a bill in the future (to get the funding), we will put it in,” Lierman said.
The General Assembly veto overrides also reestablish the Oyster Advisory Commission and require a new fishery management plan for oysters. Another measure approved Thursday expands when some state employees can file a dispute through the state’s grievance proceedings instead of going to an arbitrator, of which they had to split the costs with the state.
Lawmakers’ votes also abolished the state’s Handgun Permit Review Board. Democrats had complained that the board — filled with political appointees — wielded its power to overturn handgun permit denials from the State Police too generously. Republicans argued that the change wasn’t needed because they said no one who won on appeal before the board had since committed a violent crime and that a criminal wouldn’t actually go through an appeals process. The bill cuts the board out of the process. Appeals will now go directly to the Office of Administrative Hearings.
Current law already allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition in Maryland as part of the Maryland Dream Act. But there are restrictions.
Legislation approved Thursday removes the requirement that such a student earn an associate’s degree or at least 60 credits at a community college before attending a four-year university, increases the number of years allowed for a student to register after earning a diploma or its equivalent and relax requirements on the number of years a student attended high school in the state.
In-state students paid $26,111 less than out-of-state students at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus in 2019. Out-of-state students paid $36,918. The difference ranged from $4,800 to $26,847 at other public universities in Maryland.
The “ban the box” bill drew arguably the most passionate debate on the House floor Thursday. Republicans argued that the bill would waste time and money for Maryland businesses that now have to wait until after they have interviewed someone to ask about their criminal history.
“If this body is serious about public safety, we must become serious about recidivism,” Delegate Nick Mosby, D-Baltimore, the bill’s sponsor, said on the House floor.
Violent crime in Baltimore has dominated much of the dialogue in the first 23 days of the 2020 legislative session.
Mosby said the bill provides felons with a “fighting chance for gainful employment.”
“Why should they wear a scarlet letter on their chest for the rest of their life?”