Annapolis: General Assembly Leaders push for Plan to Increase Diversity in Medical Marijuana Licenses

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The president of the Maryland Senate is sponsoring a bill to increase diversity in medical marijuana grower licenses after a spate of other legislation addressing the issue has failed to gain traction in the Maryland General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, would grant up to five more growing licenses and increase the likelihood they would go to minority-owned businesses. The Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission would partner with historically black colleges and universities and conduct outreach targeted toward minorities and women, under Miller’s bill.

Maryland has had one of slowest rollouts of medical marijuana in the country. The commission, which grants licenses to growers, processors and dispensaries, has been hampered by legal battles and subsequent legislation since Maryland legalized medical cannabis in 2014.

To squash pending lawsuits, the five new licenses would include two businesses that are currently suing the commission.

After complaints surfaced that the commission didn’t fairly include representation in areas of southeastern Maryland, the commission revised their original unanimous decision on the 15 companies slated to receive growing licenses by bumping two higher-scoring applicants, GTI and Maryland Cultivation and Processing LLC, and replacing them with two lower-scoring applicants from the underrepresented areas.

Representatives from GTI confirmed that they would withdraw their suit against the commission if they can acquire a license under this new legislation.

Moreover, the Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year called for an overhaul of the commission after expressing outrage when none of the 15 pre-approved growing companies for licenses was owned by African Americans.

While the bill does not prohibit current members of the commission from being reappointed, it does shrink the commission from 16 to nine members, said Victoria Gruber, Miller’s chief of staff. The bill also includes language to create a more “diverse board” to better reflect the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of Maryland, she added.

While previous bills to increase the diversity have included a preference for minority-owned business, this may violate the U.S. Constitution, Cheryl A. Brown-Whitfield, principal counsel of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said earlier this session.

Maryland would need to conduct a study to evaluate whether discrimination does exist in the medical cannabis industry before it could take race-conscious measures in awarding licenses, Zenita Hurley, the Maryland attorney general’s director of legislative affairs and civil rights, told lawmakers earlier this session.

However, to speed the process the state may be able to hire an expert to review existing disparity studies, such as in the agriculture or pharmaceutical fields, to determine whether the state can move forward with a preference for minority-owned businesses in Maryland’s medical marijuana industry without a full-blown study, Gruber said.

The bill proposes to employ either a disparity study or an expert to determine whether there is a need for a minority-business preference before doling out the three remaining licenses, Gruber said.

It would also establish a fund to provide veterans and low-income patients with a way to pay for the drug. This would be provided through a 1 percent fee on growers and processors and 0.5 percent fee on dispensaries, Gruber said. The commission will be able to adjust these fees, she added.

The commission expected medical cannabis to be available to patients this summer, Vanessa Lyon, a spokeswoman for the group, said in late February.

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Oyster Sanctuary Bill finds Support in House of Delegates

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The House of Delegates voted 102-39 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would keep intact existing oyster sanctuaries on the Chesapeake Bay, a blow to the commercial fishing industry’s efforts to expand the state’s oyster fisheries.

Supporters and opponents of the bill, named the Oyster Management Plan, are both saying that their solution is best for the long-term health of the bay and its oyster population, which helps clean the Chesapeake by filtering nutrients like excess algae out of the water column.

“(The Oyster Management Plan) protects the fragile progress that has been made to date in recovering oyster populations,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said in written testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Feb. 24. “This bill would in no way impact (the Department of Natural Resource’s) ability to manage the public oyster fishery, including the development of rotational harvest management for public oyster bottom.”

Bill opponents, such as the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, disagreed, saying that harvesting in the sanctuaries is vital to maintaining existing oyster stock in “idle” areas.

“There’s this idea that the sanctuaries would be generating all this oyster larvae,” coalition spokesman Chip MacLeod said to the committee on Feb. 24. “That larvae does no good unless it has a clean, hard bottom to strike. One of the things that doesn’t work with the oyster sanctuary theory is that we don’t have clean, hard bottom (around these sanctuaries).”

Opening parts of the sanctuaries to commercial use, MacLeod said, would remove aging oysters whose environmental usefulness had subsided, and free up space for oyster larvae to flourish.

The Department of Natural Resources, the agency that controls the sanctuaries, opposes the bill.

Opponents point to a 2010-2015 study conducted by the Oyster Advisory Commission, a Natural Resources department subsidiary, that concluded that there is “justification” to adjust current sanctuary boundaries.

“There are sanctuaries that are known to have poor habitat and/or very low densities of oysters,” the advisory commission’s study report said. “If the ultimate goal is to have more oysters in the water, then some areas that are currently sanctuaries could contribute to this goal and provide economic and cultural benefits to fishing communities.”

Conversely, a bill enacted in 2016, the Sustainable Oyster Population and Fishery Act, mandates that the Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, conduct a study to adopt a science-based fishery management plan by 2018. Supporters want to see this study concluded before allowing the department to entertain any ideas of opening sanctuaries to harvest.

Opponents contend that doing so undermines the efforts of the department and its advisory commission.

“The (Oyster Advisory Commission) is doing all of this good work, because the prior administration wouldn’t adopt a management plan,” Delmarva Fisheries Association chairman and waterman Rob Newberry told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Newberry told the Environment and Transportation Committee that the bill would “kill” the management plan adopted by the commission.

Supporters of the bill contend that oyster populations have not recovered enough to sustain themselves without protection.

Citing a self-commissioned poll that found 88 percent of Marylanders support sanctuaries and a 2016 Department of Natural Resources report that found oysters are thriving inside designated sanctuaries but not outside them, the bay foundation said in a press release, “Sanctuaries are Maryland’s insurance policy for the future oyster population. By protecting a small portion of the state’s oyster bottom from harvesting, oysters on the sanctuaries can grow and reproduce.”

The bill was voted on favorably with a couple amendments by the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Tuesday before it moved to the House floor. The amendments would prevent anyone from using the bill to block any sanctuary projects.

The bill is expected to be heard by the Senate in the coming weeks.

By Jack Chavez

Trump Budget Plan draws Mostly Negative Reviews among Maryland Lawmakers

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Maryland Democrats on Thursday voiced their displeasure with the Trump administration’s budget proposals, citing federal cuts to Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Institutes of Health.

“The Trump budget is great if you can get on a plane every weekend and fly to Mar-a-Lago, but it stinks for everybody else,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “If you look at the cost to the taxpayer to fly to Mar-a-Lago each weekend, it’s about $3 million, estimated.”

To put that number into perspective, Van Hollen said that the federal budget for Meals on Wheels, a program that helps feed 2.4 million seniors in the United States, is also $3 million, but the proposed “budget wipes out” the money for this program.

Programs for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup also would be eliminated if the budget were approved.

This cleanup is the largest effort to restore a body of water in U.S. history.

“The Chesapeake Bay is essential to our livelihood, our economy … the idea that this can be stopped is hard to believe,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker in a press call.

When Baker and fellow CBF members heard of the initial budget cut from $73 million to $5 million last week, Baker said it “was very hard to ascertain how accurate that really was.”

However, the release of Trump’s budget shows that the cut will actually be total.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Baker and Van Hollen each stressed that this spending cut could cause fish, oyster and crab populations in the bay to diminish quickly, as well as increased amounts of dirty water that could result in beaches closing and tourism dollars plummeting.

“Universally, Congress must quickly reject the president’s budget before the absurdity of his proposed cuts…causes ripples of uncertainty and fear across the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed economy,” Cardin said in a statement. “At a time when we have seen nitrogen levels dropping and dead zones shrinking, President Trump is intent on turning the clock back decades.”

Baker noted that the president’s desire to zero out funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup is “an insult to all who have worked to try and save the Chesapeake Bay.”

Maryland’s only Republican Congressman, Rep. Andy Harris, of Cockeysville, and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that the Chesapeake Bay is a “treasure,” and that he will continue working with the Trump administration to “prioritize” Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts within the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another major area that would take a hit if the proposed federal budget were approved is the National Institutes of Health, located in Bethesda, Md. NIH would lose $5.8 billion, a 20 percent reduction in its overall budget of $30 billion.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, took to Twitter Thursday morning to fight back: “A message for Donald Trump: keep your petty little hands off the large indispensable mission of @NIH. #TrumpCuts.” Raskin further tweeted that the “#TrumpCuts to @NIH are outrageous,” saying that NIH is the leader of biomedical research in the world and supports 400,000 jobs.

Additionally, it “includes a major reorganization” of NIH’S 27 institutes and centers, although what the administration is planning for the reorganization remains unclear.

“President Trump’s hypocrisy on infrastructure is astounding,” said Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac, in a statement. “Less than a month ago the president talked about building gleaming new infrastructure, but when it comes time to put up or shut up, we see cuts, not anything signaling new investment.”

Among the 19 independent agencies that Trump wants to defund is the Appalachian Regional Commission. The ARC is a federal-state partnership focused on economic development in western parts of Maryland and areas of several other states. The call to defund the ARC is noteworthy because the commission serves a region that not only largely supported Trump’s campaign but is also an area that Trump promised to rejuvenate economically.

The ARC provides grants to nonprofit organizations (schools and organizations that build low-cost housing), state and local agencies and governmental entities.

“President Trump said he would help America’s forgotten men and women, but his budget does just the opposite,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said in a statement.
“His budget would devastate working families across this nation while at the same time lavishing extravagant favors on his rich friends.”

Delaney wrote in his statement that he felt Trump’s “economically illiterate budget” was an attack on Maryland and said that all elected officials in Maryland should “be marching to the White House to object this budget.”

He also called on Governor Larry Hogan to “forcefully reject this budget.”

The Trump administration’s proposed budget hopes to raise defense spending in 2018 by $52 billion to $639 billion, a 9 percent increase from last year’s budget.

“This budget will be a public safety and national security budget,” Trump said during a Feb. 27 White House press conference. Trump has touted his defense budget as one of the largest single-year increases in defense spending in history as he aims to strengthen the American military.

According to The Washington Post, the proposed budget will increase the sizes of the Army, the Marine Corps as well as the Navy’s fleet.

The budget proposal also aims to increase spending for the Department of Homeland Security by 7 percent, or $2.8 billion, with immigration reform as the lead motivator.

“As the worldwide terrorist threat and other international dangers grow,” Harris said, “President Trump’s proposed increases in defense and homeland security spending are vital for continuing to keep Americans safe, and I support his proposed increases.”

Increases in homeland security spending could generate the hiring of hundreds of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as provide funding for Trump’s Mexico border wall.

“I thought President Trump said that Mexico was going to pay for this wall,” Van Hollen said. “Look, I think all of us recognize we need more security….but the thing about the wall is that all the experts tell you that it is just a waste of money, that it will not achieve its goal.”

By Abby Mergenmeier, Jess Nocera And Nate Harold

Annapolis: Gov. Hogan Touts Legislative Agenda in Late-session Push

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Gov. Larry Hogan is pleased with the passage of some items from his 2017 legislative agenda but, at a press conference Wednesday, offered scathing rebukes to some of his political opponents, whom he accused of playing politics at the expense of Marylanders.

Hogan commended the passage of several bills as examples of bipartisanship, including the Victims of Sex Trafficking Act, the Clean Water Commerce Act, and the More Jobs for Marylanders Act, which would provide a tax break to manufacturing companies in high-unemployment areas.

In contrast, he slammed Democrats in the legislature for pressing forward with a bill that expands paid sick leave after effectively defeating his bill on the same subject. Hogan said the Democrats’ sick leave bill would be “dead on arrival” if passed and sent to his desk. He said Democrats were trying to manipulate the issue to “put points on the board” that could be used against him in the 2018 election.

In a written statement, Bryan Lesswing, senior communications adviser for the Maryland Democratic Party, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that “with Maryland working families in need of earned sick leave more than ever before, it’s disappointing that Governor Larry Hogan continues to point fingers and shift blame rather than put an honest effort into working with Democrats across the aisle.”

The Working Matters advocacy coalition, which consists of groups that support the Democrats’ paid sick leave bill, said via Twitter that they are “disappointed” by Hogan’s pledge to veto the legislation.

In January, Hogan said that repealing The Open Transportation and Investment Act — which he disparagingly refers to as the “Roadkill Bill” — was one of his primary goals during the 2017 legislative session.

He said he was pleased with a version of his repeal bill that arrived on the Senate floor Wednesday with amendments proposed by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s.

The revised bill keeps the project-ranking system of the original law, but delays the implementation of other aspects for two years. Hogan expressed confidence Wednesday that his administration would defeat the delayed parts of the law if they reemerge in the future. Hogan praised the amended bill as an effective compromise, saying that neither political party won, but that “the people of Maryland won.”

However, Hogan later accused Miller in stark terms of holding up his nomination of Dennis Schrader as health secretary for “political reasons.” Hogan said he would hold Miller personally responsible for any negative consequences that arise due to the absence of a confirmed secretary to lead the department of health.

Miller’s office declined to comment.

The Commonsense Spending Act would essentially cap automatic spending increases below state revenue increases. That bill is moving through the legislature, but House Republicans on Wednesday tried to attach its provisions as amendments to the House budget bill; Democrats defeated those amendments.

Hogan has pushed for an increase in charter schools and the accessibility of private schools through a variety of initiatives.

One such program, called BOOST, would provide scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.

The program has received bipartisan praise in the past, but the House Appropriations Committee has moved to cut its 2018 funding from the $7 million proposed by Hogan to just over $2 million. Hogan called the reductions “unusual” and “hypocritical,” explaining that several Democrats who voted for the reductions did so despite supporting the program last year.

The governor has also pushed for redistricting reform that seeks to end the practice of gerrymandering, as well as ethics reforms that would make it more difficult for former public officials to become lobbyists and require the legislature to publish video and audio recordings of its floor proceedings.

By Jacob Taylor

Annapolis: Legislation May Remove Parental Rights in Sex-assault Cases

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Legislation in the Maryland General Assembly would enable a court to revoke parental rights of an individual who has been found to have committed rape against the other parent and if a court finds that it is in the child’s best interest to remove the parental rights.

The Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate Thursday.

“We’re so pleased the bill came out of the House,” Lisae Jordan, executive director for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “We look forward to seeing what happens with it in the (Senate) Judicial Proceedings Committee.”

The pair of companion bills has bipartisan support. The House bill has 94 co-sponsors and there are 36 co-sponsors in the Senate. The bills allow a court to decide whether a parent should have their parental rights revoked if they committed an unwanted sexual act against the other parent that resulted in conceiving a child.

Current law states that a victim cannot have the parental rights of an assailant revoked if the conception of a child came from a sexual assault.

“The purpose of this bill is to provide a process where if a child was conceived without consent, there would be a court process where the one parent could go forward and say ‘I would like my attacker’s parental rights terminated,’” Delegate Kathy Dumais, lead sponsor for the House bill, told the House Judiciary committee on Feb. 9.

“No one suggests terminating parental rights should be taken lightly. We have tried to make it crystal clear that it’s not supposed to be easy.”

The bill allows a victim of a sexual assault that has resulted in a pregnancy to ask a court to terminate the parental rights of the assailant. The court must meet certain provisions laid out in the bill before it terminates those rights.

Activists testifying at the hearing emphasized that a suspect could use the threat of parental rights against a victim.

“These legal rights essentially allow him to blackmail his victim by refusing to agree to adoption or continuing to pursue custody unless she makes concessions,” Diana Rubin, a commissioner for the Montgomery County Commission for Women, told the committee.

Decisions in the family court, which is a civil proceeding, can’t be used in a criminal court. If the family court determines that parental rights can be revoked, that there is clear and convincing evidence that a sexual assault occurred, that decision can’t be used against the defendant in any other court.

“The strength in this bill is that there is a great deal of protection for everyone involved,” Jordan testified. “This is something we need.”

Under current law, the second parent must be notified if the victim wishes to put the child up for adoption. The assailant has rights to halt adoption processes.

Activists who testified at the Judiciary Committee said that often a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy when they learn that their assailant has parental rights that can’t be revoked.

“If someone has forced themselves on someone else, there’s no way to just terminate the rapist’s rights,” Jordan testified. “This is a problem that needs to be solved. The courthouse doors are closed to women who become pregnant as a result of rape.”

“A sexual assault is a devastating experience and a pregnancy resulting from that sexual assault is a daily reminder of that violation,” Colby Wittenberg, domestic infant program manager for Adoptions Together, testified. “Without the protection of this bill, women who become pregnant as a result of a rape lose their privacy at best. At worst, they face the unimaginable circumstance of potentially co-parenting with their assailant.”

Under the bill, a child conceived from sexual assault could also file to have parental rights revoked through a court appointed representative or through a guardian.

Under current law, if the assailant is not known, the woman’s name and plans for adoption have to be advertised in local newspapers in an attempt to notify the assailant of the victim’s plans.

The court can’t terminate parental rights if the parents were married at the time the child was conceived, unless the suspect has been convicted of rape or if there was a protective order in place at the time of conception, under the bill.

In other cases, where the parents were not married, the court can revoke parental rights if there is a conviction or if the court determines there is clear and convincing evidence that a rape occurred, according to a state document, under the bill.

The court must also decide that removing parental rights is in the best interest of the child. The bill says a child’s parent can file to have the parental rights of the assailant revoked within seven years of the child’s birth, or when the parent should have known the identity of the other parent.

Termination of parental rights means that the parent’s rights of guardianship and visitation are revoked. It also removes the parent’s responsibility to support the child financially.

“I think this is one of the only bills where the Maryland Catholic Conference and Planned Parenthood will sit at a table together because many of those women who walked away from adoption, elected to terminate the pregnancy.” Dumais said. Both groups submitted written testimony supporting the bill.

By CARRIE SNURR

Bill may Ban Foam ‘to-go’ Carriers from Food Businesses in Maryland

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All expanded polystyrene products used for packaging food products, including foam carriers, could be banned from all Maryland food businesses if pending legislation is passed in the General Assembly this session.

The legislation, sponsored in the House by Delegate Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, will prohibit a person or business from selling or providing food in an expanded polystyrene food service product beginning Jan. 1, according to a Department of Legislative Services fiscal analysis. The bill, which has also been cross-filed in the state Senate, also bans the sale and use of loose fill packaging.

The fiscal analysis defines the banned material as “a product made of expanded polystyrene that is used for selling or providing food.” This means the bill would ban food containers, plates, hot and cold beverage cups, meat and vegetable trays and egg cartons made of expanded polystyrene.

“Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is the generic industry name for the white rigid material made by expanding polystyrene beads with steam and pressure to bond the beads together to form blocks or to shape molds,” according to Universal Foam Products.

Styrofoam, a registered trademark and a type of expanded polystyrene, is not included in the bill, according to the Department of Legislative Services report. “Although foam coffee cups and plates are often referred to as ‘Styrofoam®,’ that terminology is incorrect,” the fiscal analysis said. Styrofoam is generally used in industrial settings for building materials and pipe insulation, according to the report.

Lierman said in a Feb. 15 House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing that this bill is an extension of a concept that has already been enacted in some areas. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, the city of Gaithersburg and the city of Takoma Park have prohibitions on expanded polystyrene already in place.

Dr. Richard Bruno, a doctor of medicine who works at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, gave written testimony Feb. 15 in support of the bill, saying styrene, a chemical found in expanded polystyrene, is a threat to health, waterways and ecosystems.

Delegate Al Carr, D-Montgomery, said it is important to make this a statewide ban because it is a statewide issue and the ban has been successful locally.

“Businesses and government agencies have been able to adapt and have not seen an increase in their costs,” Carr said. “I have been receiving many emails from constituents in favor of the bill.”

“It is important to make it a statewide ban so that the prices of alternative products go down,” Lierman told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. Lierman pointed to California, saying when businesses there made the transition to stock alternative recyclables the prices changed. “(Expanded polystyrene) is now more expensive than recyclable products in California,” Lierman said.

Restaurants, fast food restaurants, cafes, supermarkets or grocery stores, vending trucks or carts, movie theaters, and business or institutional cafeterias would all be food service businesses affected by this bill, according to the fiscal analysis.

“Enacting a statewide ban on polystyrene foodservice packaging will level the playing field for businesses across the state,” Nick Rudolph, President of Pigtown Main Street in Baltimore, said in his testimony to the House committee.

Dart Container Corp., a national company that manufactures cups, plates, containers, lids and straws made from such materials as expanded polystyrene foam, solid polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, paper and sugar cane, opposes the bill.

Dart employs 630 Marylanders with another 50 open positions in high-paying, rural manufacturing jobs, according Paul Poe, Government Affairs and the Environment Manager at Dart. Poe said Dart is also planning to open a third facility in the state, in Havre de Grace.

Poe specified in testimony that expanded polystyrene is recyclable and Dart has created a program to accept expanded polystyrene items and recycle them with drop-off and pick-up options.

Delegate Christopher Adams, R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, said in the House committee meeting that Dart’s stance on the bill should be considered. Since the company creates jobs for Marylanders, the state should do no harm to the company, Adams said.

“This bill is our hope for a cleaner and healthier future, to neighborhoods with less toxic trash, air and water,” Claire Wayner, a high school junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore County and founding member of Baltimore Beyond Plastic, an organization created to teach students the problems with plastics like polystyrene and elevate their reactions against it, said in her Feb. 15 testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

“At Baltimore City public schools, lunch is served on polystyrene trays, and as many students are economically disadvantaged, it’s not possible to refuse a lunch … when it may be your only food you’ll see that day,” Wayner said.

“Baltimore City schools serve daily lunch on EPS trays to 83,000 students a year,” according to a Baltimore Office of Sustainability Feb. 15 letter.

“Using compostable paper trays, plates, and other containers in place of EPS would make food recovery efforts much more feasible, because users can simply place their tray and all leftover food directly into a compost container, rather than having to separate out trash and compost,” the organization said in its letter.

“Around 1 percent of the trash properly disposed of and sent to landfills is expanded polystyrene, but up to 40 percent of litter found in and along water streams is expanded polystyrene,” according to Lierman. “That shows the disproportionate amount of (expanded polystyrene) that is recycled and littered.”

Prince George’s County Department of the Environment Director Adam Ortiz told the House committee it costs $60 per ton to process expanded polystyrene food products, but when they are able to compost the alternative recyclable products, they make money.

Baltimore City, Caroline, Howard and Washington counties accept polystyrene plastics for recycling, but the rest of the Maryland jurisdictions do not, according to the analysis.

“Growing up in neighborhoods that are full of trash, it’s hard to not self-identify with the image of trash,” Wayner said in her testimony.

“Forcing businesses to use alternative products does not reduce litter; it simply changes in composition,” Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association said in a Feb. 15 letter to the committee.

Lierman said that she understands people who litter with foam containers will probably continue to litter with alternatives, but the alternatives are better for the environment and easier to pick up than the expanded polystyrene products.

There are also health risks for consumers who use expanded polystyrene containers, according to Lierman. When expanded polystyrene is heated, it leaches styrene into the food or liquid that is in the containers, Lierman said.

“Styrene, the main ingredient in (expanded polystyrene), has been listed as a possible carcinogen by both the International Agency for Research on cancer and the National Toxicology Program since 2002,” Bruno wrote in his testimony.

“The general public is exposed to 20 mg of styrene annually,” according to Bruno. “This toxin has no place in our bodies, schools, restaurants or homes.”

But the American Chemistry Council referred to a 2013 study completed by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group in its Feb. 15 written testimony that said “current exposures to styrene from the use of polystyrene food contact products remain extremely low, with the estimated daily intake calculated at 6.6 micrograms per person per day.”

“This is more than 10,000 times below the safety limit set by the FDA,” the organization said. “The FDAs acceptable daily intake value of styrene is calculated to be 90,000 micrograms per person per day.”

The fiscal analysis said the effect on small businesses and the state will be minimal. There will be an increased cost to the state of $19,300 in the 2018 fiscal year in order to conduct the education and outreach campaign, but will decrease to zero after one year.

“County health departments must enforce the bill’s prohibitions and may impose a penalty of up to $250 on violators,” according to the fiscal analysis. Health departments must issue a written notice of the business’ or person’s violation and allow three months to correct the violation before a fine can be issued.

By Cara Newcomer

Maryland has a Budget Problem — but No One can Agree on Why

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Despite Maryland’s apparent prosperity, the state has a perennial budget problem.

Maryland is in the top 10 for average annual wage and an unemployment rate a half-percent below the national average.

But it also has a structural deficit expected to reach $1.2 billion by fiscal year 2022.

And on Thursday, the state’s Board of Revenue Estimates announced that their projections for the current fiscal year have been reduced by $35.32 million — from about $16.62 billion to nearly $16.59 billion.

Board of Revenue Estimates Director Andrew M. Schaufele said some taxpayers may have shifted any income they could to later tax years to take advantage of lower federal taxes promised by the Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

If so, Maryland would see a decline in reported income in fiscal year 2017, but a corresponding increase in reported income in 2018.
The board on Thursday also indicated long-term challenges presented by the federal government’s hiring freeze, which will eventually mean fewer jobs, lower total wages, and less spending in Maryland — all of which contribute to a decline in revenue.

But no one can seem to completely agree on what is causing the perennial problem.

Some believe that mandated spending is the primary issue for the budgetary problems, while others argue that lagging state revenues are causing the issues.
Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Vice Chair Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery, said he believes the problem is a combination of “generous” projections in the way state spending is calculated, and underperforming state revenues.

Maryland Secretary of Budget and Management David Brinkley contends that legislative mandates have pushed spending too high, to the point where spending growth is outpacing revenue growth.

These mandates — spending that is written into law by legislators — must be included in all future budgets proposed by the governor.
Brinkley and Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, argue that Maryland’s increasingly expensive mandated spending — created in large part by the Democrat-controlled legislature — is a key contributor to the structural deficit.

Currently, Maryland’s revenues are increasing at a rate of 3 percent annually, a number that Brinkley said “would be the envy of all states.”

But mandated spending is growing at a rate of between 4 and 5 percent each year.

“The problem is when we have statutory requirements that say spending shall go up (at a rate higher than revenue growth),” Brinkley told the University of

Maryland’s Capital News Service. “That gap is the structural gap.”

About 83 percent of Maryland’s annual budget is set aside for mandated spending or entitlement programs.

If everything that required funding could be included in that 83 percent, there would be no issues. But the rest of the budget “is not mandated but still might be very attractive” to spend, Brinkley said.

Money from this unmandated 17 percent, over which the governor has more control, is spent in areas such as public safety, university funding and state police.

“Maryland’s budget ballooned by 39 percent in just 10 years due in large part to mandated spending,” said Christopher B. Summers, the president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, in a January press release. “As a result, our state government has accumulated nearly $2,900 in debt per every Maryland resident. We encourage Maryland legislators to turn off autopilot and exercise greater discretion over taxpayer money.”

The institute said one fix would be to align mandatory spending with revenue increases, so if revenue increases by 2 percent, mandated spending can only increase by 2 percent.

The institute also supports “a policy in which any new mandatory expenditure must be countered with a repeal or reduction of existing mandates.”

“It’s a decent thing for the governor to have some discretion, in things he’d like to be able to do,” Brinkley said. “So that’s our challenge.”
Madaleno agreed that some of the projected spending has been “generous,” such as assuming each state employee gets an annual raise, but said that wasn’t the only problem.

One problem both sides seems to agree on is the way that tax revenues are projected and included in the state’s budget.

“Our ongoing expenditures are greater than our ongoing revenue the last, close to, decade,” said Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Howard and Baltimore counties.

Last fiscal year, the Board of Revenue Estimates projected a modest surplus; however, in September 2016, the board announced that those predictions had fallen $250 million short of actual revenues, putting the state in a hole.

Lawmakers are “used to that now,” said Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery.

They are told they have “x dollars,” and spend “x minus 10” when in reality the amount of revenue is “way south of what we’ve been told,” he said.
Projecting tax revenue is notoriously difficult, Madaleno said. He has heard it compared to driving a car using only the rear-view mirror, and projections are often incorrect.

Tax from income other than wages — such as capital gains and dividend income — has been targeted as a key contributor to the state’s budget problems.

Projecting non-wage income tax revenues is difficult because they are extremely volatile. This volatility is caused by a small percentage of the state’s population paying a majority of these taxes.

The top 1 percent of the state’s population pays between 68 and 73 percent of the extremely volatile non-wage income taxes annually, Brinkley said.
Additionally, under the state’s progressive tax structure, the top 1 percent of the state’s population pays about 21 percent of all income taxes.

Maryland is one of 10 to 15 states where high-income earners play a major role in the outcome of state tax collections, according to Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. As a result, revenues in these states can be more susceptible to stock market forces.

Two bills, heard by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in February, present similar plans to protect Maryland from overestimating these mercurial revenue sources.

Both bills try to “smooth out peaks and valleys,” by essentially taking this unpredictable revenue off of the table for revenue projections.
Democrat lawmakers and the Republican administration of Gov. Larry Hogan each proposed bills, and the two are largely similar.

The primary difference is their treatment of the state’s “rainy day” fund, which is where the state places surplus money after balancing the budget.

Under current law, if the fund totals less than 7.5 percent of general fund revenue, $50 million is deposited into the fund. If the fund is at less than 3 percent of revenue, $100 million is deposited into the fund.
Under the Democrats’ bill, proposed by Manno, the $50 million would be deposited if the fund is less than 10 percent of the revenues for a given year.

“The hope is that we will have additional money at the end of that year,” Manno said. The goal is to “build a robust and solvent ‘rainy day’ fund.”
After the “rainy day” fund reaches 10 percent, any surplus money would then go to “underfunded priorities.”

Manno’s bill would also change the way Maryland builds budgets and funds all critical projects, he said.
Hogan’s bill would require the money that is taken off the table be spent on “one-time things,” which will not later count on volatile revenue as a steady funding source, Brinkley said.

To do this, the bill would establish a Fiscal Responsibility Fund. The money can be used for things like pay-as-you-go capital projects and pension funds.
Money would only be placed in the Fiscal Responsibility Fund if the balance of the “rainy day” fund exceeds 10 percent of revenue.

If the balance does not exceed 10 percent, any extra revenue must be placed in the “rainy day” fund.
Had the cap proposed by both bills been in place last year, the state would have been at a $6 million surplus after the session, state analysts said.
Kasemeyer has assigned both bills to a work group that will take the best parts of each, he said.

The group will then amend one of the bills to provide the best solution for the legislature and the state.

Although Madaleno said he does not know which bill he expects to receive a favorable report from the committee, he, Kasemeyer and many other prominent Democrats, including Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, are cosponsors of Manno’s bill.

Both bills this week were still being studied by the work group, but lawmakers indicated that some version of the legislation is likely to pass this session.

By Jake Brodsky. Jacob Taylor contributed to this report.

Maryland Lawmakers Push State Funding for Planned Parenthood

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Democratic lawmakers demonstrated their support Wednesday in Annapolis for legislation to continue funding Planned Parenthood’s health care services if the federal government guts its backing of the program.

Republicans in two U.S. House of Representatives’ committees submitted a draft Monday of their plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

One key component of the bill would defund Planned Parenthood, which nationwide receives about $500 million of federal money. The organization currently receives grant money under Medicaid and the Title X Family Planning Program.

Title X is a federal program dedicated to family planning and preventative health services, including cancer screening, STI testing and contraception. It cannot be used for abortions.

Maryland receives about $4 million in Title X funding annually, but Congress could undercut the amount Planned Parenthood receives with the new bill.

In response to the Affordable Care Act’s unclear future, Maryland lawmakers have cross-filed bills in the state House and Senate that would provide funding to women’s health services.

The House bill, sponsored by Delegate Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, aims to put $2 million from the Medicaid budget and $700,000 from the general funds budget to ensure these family planning services are continued for Marylanders.

“This is about protecting the citizens of Maryland and keeping them in good health,” Pendergrass said. “We will not let the federal government mess up the state of Maryland. It’s time we stand up to the the things that are going on in Congress.”

However, Sen. Michael Hough, R-Carroll and Frederick, called the bill a “total political stunt.”

Hough called Planned Parenthood a “partisan group” that is among the largest providers of abortions, adding that other health care providers could absorb the group’s patient base and ensure they get preventative and family planning care they need, such as mammograms.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said that health care organizations have been consistently funded in each of the governor’s three budgets. Any future budgetary changes or decisions would be announced during the FY 2019 budget process, she added.

In 2014, Maryland’s Title X program has prevented about 15,000 unintended pregnancies and 1,018 STIs, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Under these proposals, nearly 25,000 Maryland women could lose access to reproductive health services at Planned Parenthood, according Karen Nelson, president and CEO of Maryland’s Planned Parenthood.

“If we were to defund Planned Parenthood, it would be a public health disaster,” said Delegate Ariana Kelly, D-Montgomery. “Maryland intends to be there for the health of women. …We are not going to fall backwards.”

By Natalie Schwartz

Maryland’s Rosenstein Not Supporting Special Counsel Yet for Russia Probe

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Maryland federal prosecutor Rod Rosenstein, President Donald Trump’s Nominee for deputy attorney general, would not commit on Tuesday To appointing a special counsel to probe possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Despite pressure from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Rosenstein stressed that he was not in the Justice Department yet, nor did he have the facts to address such a matter.

Responding to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about designating an outside prosecutor, Rosenstein replied: “The answer is I’m not simply not in position to answer the question because I’m not in the position to make it.”

Feinstein, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urged Rosenstein to read the declassified documents regarding Russia’s interference in the election after Rosenstein said he has only read media report summaries.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he was going to try to block his confirmation if Rosenstein does not commit to appointing a counsel.

“As I told you, I will oppose your nomination if you are unwilling to commit to appoint a special prosecutor,” Blumenthal said. “Only you …only you have the power to appoint a special prosecutor.”

The committee chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, opposes appointment of a special prosecutor is needed.

“Any talk of a special counsel is premature, at best,” Grassley said.

The panel hearing also questioned Rachel Brand, a United States Chamber of Commerce attorney, who was nominated for associate attorney general.

Rosenstein’s nomination has come under sharper scrutiny since Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a self-described Trump campaign surrogate, recused himself from any probes into ties between that campaign and Russia.

With the intelligence agencies in full agreement that the Russians launched a massive hacking attack in the most recent presidential election, Blumenthal said that the situation is “careening toward a constitutional crisis.”

“I believe that a special prosecutor is absolutely necessary to ensure absolute independence as well as the integrity of this investigation and that’s why I have pressed you privately,”  Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal asked Rosenstein that if he declined to name a special prosecutor if he would come before to the Judiciary Committee again to explain why.

Rosenstein did not answer the question directly but instead called attention to the disagreement that he and Blumenthal have “on this narrow issue.”

“I thought a lot about this issue, senator,” Rosenstein said. “You view it as an issue of principle that I need to commit to appoint a special counsel in a matter that I don’t even know is being investigated and I view it as an issue of principle that as a nominee for deputy attorney general, I should not be promising to take action on a particular case.”

However, Rosenstein said he would handle the investigation into Russian meddling, “the way I handle any investigation.”

“I don’t know the details of what, if any, investigation is ongoing, but I can certainly assure you if it’s America against Russia, or America against any other country, I think everyone in this room knows which side I’m on,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein is currently the Maryland United States attorney,appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

“I am very impressed by his responsibilities as the U.S. attorney for the state of Maryland,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a witness for Rosenstein. “He has led major criminal investigations and prosecutions in regards to contraband smuggling, with gang members and inmates and correctional officers.”

Rosenstein has handled sensitive corruption cases, from dealing with police officers to elected officials, as well as protecting Maryland citizens through his commitment on environmental and consumer issues, Cardin said.

“What impresses me the most is that he’s done this in a total non-partisan, professional manner,” Cardin said.

Sen. Van Hollen, D-Md., also gave his full support.

“Rod has not only aggressively prosecuted dangerous gangs and criminals in Maryland, but also elected officials who violated the public’s trust,” Van Hollen said.  “He has shown impartiality in these investigations, and his successful prosecutions have led to ethics reforms that increased transparency and public confidence in Maryland.”

Rosenstein has earned the distinction of being the longest-serving United States attorney, serving under both Democratic and Republican administrations, Van Hollen said.

“The United States Department of Justice has been my professional home for almost three decades,” Rosenstein said.  “I have served under five presidents and under nine attorneys general.”

If confirmed, Rosenstein said, he would work to defend the independence and integrity of the Justice Department.

By Jess Nocera