MarylandReporter.com spoke with Senate Minority Whip Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll) on Wednesday evening about his views on a series of police reform bills and his goals for the upcoming legislative session. Hough was elected to his leadership position in October. Hough sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings (JPR) Committee. Outside of Annapolis, Hough serves as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.). Mooney represented Frederick in the Maryland Senate from 1999-2011. The session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 13, 2021.
MarylandReporter.com: This year, because of restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, committee hearings will be held virtually and witnesses will have to testify via the internet. How do you think this will affect the legislative process?
Hough: It is a concern. And all of us as legislators are going to have to make sure we do everything we can to hear from the public. On Zoom you could literally have a thousand people sign up. There is no limit digitally on the amount of people who can sign up versus when people would come to Annapolis. It’s, unfortunately, a casualty of the pandemic that we are just not going to have unlimited public testimony like we had in the past. But once this pandemic is over we need to go back to the way we always did it. One of the great things about Annapolis is that you could sign up to testify in person unlike Congress or anyplace else. It’s going to make it more difficult and we are going to have to make sure that we are getting as much input as we can from people without being burdened by having ten thousand people in line signed up for something.
MarylandReporter.com: In September JPR held a series of virtual hearings on 15 Democratic-sponsored bills aimed at addressing police misconduct. During one of the hearings, you objected to a bill that would eliminate the caps on tort claims that local police departments would have to pay in cases where officers are found guilty of misconduct. Could you elaborate on your objection and do you see this issue becoming a source of contention during the session?
Hough: We addressed local tort claims last time we had this issue and in fact, they voted to raise them universally. Now one of the reasons why I would suspect they are just not going to universally raise them is because the counties hate that. And the counties are really upset that we did that because it cost the counties money. That is why we have a cap on local torts like this for the government. Because the government does these things that are inherently open to more liability. If you look at all the sidewalks they build, the roads and bridges, and things like that if you had uncapped claims on everything people’s taxes would have to dramatically increase. The government is sued all the time. And then if you go to completely uncapped it is going to lead to the opposite of what they (reform advocates) want. If you want to have small towns in western Maryland and on the eastern shore have small community policing…then if you go at this way-small towns are going to say: ‘Hey. Forget it. We can’t afford this type of liability. We’re just going to dump having this and we’ll just have a resident [state] trooper.’
MarylandReporter.com: Do you expect contention in JPR over the proposal to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR)?
Hough: The problem of what is happening is that this is being driven nationally. Maryland did police reform after the death of Freddie Gray. We actually passed it unanimously. All of these things have been looked at. And this was proposed a couple of years ago and it was a bad idea then because all LEOBR is a set of operating procedures for how we deal with police officers. So right now a police officer is like any other citizen. So if you get rid of that (LEOBR) they have the right to not testify at all…So what we did several years ago is we made changes to LEOBR. But this is the old axiom of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If you completely get rid of multiple pages of the law of how police officers are governed and the appeals and everything else-what do you replace it with? And if you replace it with nothing then you are saying every jurisdiction can basically come up with whatever they want.
MarylandReporter.com: What are some of the GOP’s main policy goals for the session?
Hough: We have a Republican governor. And that is a luxury for us that we should not forget. It is not often that we have a Republican governor. I am hoping that it will be an often thing in this state. But you never know. So, working closely with him (Gov. Larry Hogan) and advocating his agenda. I think our main agenda for this session is trying to help small business owners who are really hurting because of this pandemic. And, if nothing else, do no more harm to them. And on the public safety side-violence has not stopped in the state because of COVID. In fact, Baltimore City is going to be over 300 murders [for the year] again. And even Frederick County is going to be over double-digits in homicides, which may be a record.
MarylandReporter.com: Do you see any similarities between your dual roles as a state senator and a congressional staffer?
Hough: No. It is a lot different. And it should be different. In the U.S. House, you have 435 members. It is sort of similar to when I was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates where there are 140 members. In the Maryland Senate, there are only 47 members and it is much more policy-driven. And because it is not federal it is a lot less partisan. However, I think that is changing a little bit. It has been changing, unfortunately. But at the end of the day, it is much different. We are citizen legislators and we are a smaller body. We are only down there for 90 days. We all have outside jobs. It is much different.