Maryland Legislature ends session marked by budget surplus | health

By BRIAN WITTE – Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers ended their term late Monday by passing legislation to strengthen cybersecurity in a year marked by a budget surplus, upgrades to parks, infrastructure, schools and information technology systems, and tax breaks enabled .

In a year of huge surpluses, largely due to federal pandemic assistance, the General Assembly passed a package of cybersecurity measures and nearly $570 million in information technology upgrades. It comes after the Maryland Department of Health was hit by a ransomware attack in December that disabled information on health metrics related to COVID-19.

Lawmakers on Monday reached an agreement to raise the state’s legal age for marriage from 15 to 17 with court review if parental consent is lacking, after years of wrestling with the issue. They also approved restrictions on persistent chemicals known as PFAS and a switch to safer fire-fighting foam alternatives.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan had already approved a bipartisan budget deal. It includes nearly $1.86 billion in five-year tax breaks for Maryland retirees, small businesses and low-income families in a year of huge budget surpluses for the state budget of $58.5 billion.

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The agreement included a tax credit as an incentive for employers and companies 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, as well as healthcare products for dental hygiene, diabetic care and medical devices.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, hours before the midnight adjournment, cited bipartisan work in an election year that led to large 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 wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the people of Maryland should be really proud of the budget that we passed, the investments that we’re making, and I think overall it’s been a really historic year,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat from Baltimore.

Hogan highlighted the tax breaks for retirees, which he has advocated for years, as one of the reasons he called this his best meeting as governor.

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

Indeed, Democrats have had their disagreements with the limited-term governor, who is now in his final year in office.

Lawmakers overrode Hogan’s veto on Saturday to create a paid family vacation insurance program that has been under discussion in the state for years. Workers in Maryland can take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to attend to family matters such as delivering a baby, caring for a sick relative, or dealing with a military assignment.

They also overrode the governor’s veto to expand access to abortion in the state. Maryland will remove a restriction that only physicians perform abortions and allow trained nurses, midwives and physician assistants to perform them.

The General Assembly passed a comprehensive measure to slow down climate change. Hogan said Friday he would let the law go into effect without his signature. The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 accelerates Maryland’s current goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 40% to 60% of 2006 levels by 2031. A goal is also set to achieve carbon neutrality in the state by 2045.

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

Separately, lawmakers passed legislation earmarking $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 developing the area around FedEx Field Stadium, home of the Washington Commanders football team, although the money would not be used to fund a new stadium. An accompanying bill to spend $1.2 billion to modernize Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium was also passed. Hogan is scheduled to sign those bills on Tuesday.

Lawmakers and the governor approved a new congressional map for the state after a judge scrapped the state-sanctioned map 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 make them more compact, and Hogan signed the measure into law last week.

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