Legislation Aims to Improve Oversight of Maryland Nursing Homes

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Nursing homes in Maryland would get better oversight under two bills passed this year by the General Assembly. 
 
The two Senate bills each passed on the Legislature’s final day, outlining the state’s effort to address a need for better quality in its nursing homes. 
 
Sen. James Mathias, D-Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester, the sponsor of one of the two bills, made that clear in his testimony on Senate bill 386 before the House Health and Government Operations Committee on March 27.
 
“We always tout with great pride how great we do in Maryland,” Mathias said. “Unfortunately, with our nursing homes, we haven’t done so well.”
 
Mathias’ bill requires the Maryland Department of Health to, within 10 business days of a complaint alleging actual harm in a nursing home, initiate an investigation. If a complaint alleges immediate jeopardy to a resident, the department must make every effort to investigate within 24 hours and is required to investigate within 48.
 
Additionally, the Office of Health Care Quality, which responds to nursing home complaints in Maryland, starting in fiscal year 2020 and ending in fiscal 2024, will annually receive 10 new, full-time merit positions. 
 
A 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General lists Maryland as the seventh-worst state in the nation for on-time investigation of nursing home complaints.
 
The same report reveals the state did not investigate 74 percent of high-level nursing home complaints within the federal deadline of 10 days, averaging 47 days to respond, all while being “historically understaffed,” according to the report.
 
Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D-Baltimore City and County, who brought these problems to the attention of the General Assembly about 19 years ago, said little has changed for the better in that regard.
 
She introduced Senate bill 4, which will make changes to the Oversight Committee on Quality of Care in Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities.
 
Testifying in front of the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 1, Nathan-Pulliam described an instance in October 2017 when her son, rehabilitating from surgery, was in a facility reported to have bed bugs. Nathan-Pulliam said she had the facility investigated and they reported back with finding one bed bug, which indicated to her that there could be more. 
 
A call from a constituent recounting a nursing home’s failure to bathe her paralyzed husband inspired Nathan-Pulliam to act on the issue, she said. The senator, who walks with a cane, said the poor treatment wasn’t limited to others.
 
“I was sent for rehab in one that I signed myself out of overnight for that very same poor quality of care,” Nathan-Pulliam said. 
 
Nathan-Pulliam’s legislation adds new members and adjusts roles and responsibilities within the nursing home oversight committee. The additions include the secretary of disabilities, a state long-term care ombudsman and the director of the Office of Health Care Quality.
 
“Senate Bill 4 and Senate Bill 386 offer additional guidance from the Maryland General Assembly regarding how to best meet state and federal mandates for these facilities,” the Maryland Department of Health told Capital News Service in a statement.
 
Gov. Larry Hogan, R, has yet to take action on the bills, which would become law unless he vetoes them. 
 
Michele Douglas of the lobbying firm Public Policy Partners testified in support of both nursing home bills on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Association.
 
“What we’re trying to do through Senate bill 4 is really revitalize the committee,” Douglas said.
 
While she set out to improve nursing home quality, Nathan-Pulliam said not all nursing homes in Maryland are lacking in quality, but the ones that fall short need fixing, fast.
 
The Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Health Care Quality 2017 annual report showed that, between fiscal year 2016 and 2017, the number of complaints and facility self-reported incidents in nursing homes increased by 856 — a 34.4 percent increase. There were 3,342 total in the last full fiscal year. 
 
There were also 1,749 quality of care allegations and 941 resident abuse allegations in nursing homes across the state during fiscal year 2017, which constitute 34.5 percent and 25 percent decreases from 2016, respectively, according to the report. 
 
The official U.S. website for Medicare has a rating system for nursing homes by state. In Maryland — according to data collected through Dec. 31 — 20 nursing homes were below average or worse in terms of quality measures. Twenty were below average or worse with regard to staffing. 
 
Sixty-two nursing homes earned a two-star overall rating or lower, meaning more than 27 percent of the 226 listed nursing homes in Maryland are considered by the federal government to be, at best, below average in terms of quality. 
 
According to a family satisfaction survey by the Maryland Health Care Commission, where the most recent data comes from 2016, 1,140 out of 8,302 family members of patients in nursing homes said they would probably or definitely not recommend their family member’s nursing home to someone seeking nursing home care.
 
The timing of the bills links up with a February Maryland Court of Appeals decision upholding Attorney General Brian Frosh’s authority to prevent patient dumping from nursing homes.
 
Mathias told Capital News Service that his bill was not related to Frosh’s efforts, but it adds another aspect to the attempts to improve nursing home conditions.
 
A September 2016 Capital News Service investigative report examined nursing home discharges and oversight in Maryland. (http://cnsmaryland.org/discharging-trouble-maryland-nursing-homes/)
 
In December 2016, Frosh sued Neiswanger Management Services after uncovering that, during a seven-month period ranging from Jan. 1, 2015, to May 31, 2016, Neiswanger’s five facilities in Maryland issued at least 1,061 involuntary discharge notices. During that same time frame, the other 225 licensed nursing facilities issued just 510 notices combined, according to Frosh’s lawsuit. 
 
Neiswanger Management Services moved to dismiss Frosh’s suit, alleging he didn’t have the authority to sue them over the patient dumping. However, in February, the Court of Appeals of Maryland upheld Frosh’s power to proceed.
 
The Office of the Attorney General said last month there was no update on the case. 
 
Meanwhile, in March, a federal judge upheld a lawsuit by Neiswanger, which alleges state officials targeted their nursing homes, violating constitutional rights with enforcement procedures.
 
Attorney Brian Glasser, who is representing Neiswanger, told Capital News Service this week both cases are in the discovery phase, meaning each side is giving depositions and producing documents to one another.
 
While the cases are still in the early stages, Douglas said the new legislation could bring about improvements that address patient dumping if the problem persists.
 
Particularly, Nathan-Pulliam’s bill gives the committee opportunities to look at issues like the one Frosh addressed, Douglas said.
 
“This is the Legislature and advocates coming together and looking to constantly look at ways to continually improve quality of care for residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities,” Douglas said. “That job is never done. We can always improve at any point.”
By Sean Whooley

Legislature Passes Bill to Expand Post-Conviction Relief

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Many bills remained in the balance as the minute hand ticked toward midnight on April 9, the last of Maryland’s 90-day legislative session.

Among them was legislation addressing the rights of criminals to petition for post-conviction relief — a process of challenging a conviction in court.

Until two years ago in Maryland, filing a petition for a writ of actual innocence or petitioning to test newly discovered DNA evidence were two ways a defendant could seek post-conviction relief — and potentially win their freedom.

Criminal defendants could have filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence if new evidence was uncovered that called into question that person’s conviction.

But in two Maryland Court of Appeals decisions — Yonga v. State (2015) and Jamison v. State (2016) — the court determined that individuals who accepted pleas were no longer eligible to petition for a writ of actual innocence or the testing of newly discovered DNA evidence.

More than 95 percent of defendants in criminal cases nationwide accept plea bargains, according to the Innocence Project, a legal group working to free innocent people who are incarcerated.

Proponents of Senate bill 423, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, argued — and opponents conceded — that innocent people sometimes plead guilty to crimes they do not commit.

“The bottom line is, if you’re innocent, you should not be in prison,” Zirkin told Capital News Service. “There are times when individuals plea to things that they may not have done because it’s the better idea in terms of … if you’re looking at a ton of time and there’s a plea for less.”

Baltimore resident Demetrius Smith, 34, served time in prison for a crime he did not commit.

In 2008, then 26-year-old Smith was charged with the murder of Robert Long in Baltimore.

A judge granted him bail despite the seriousness of the offense, “because he knew something wasn’t right,” Smith told lawmakers in February.

Smith — while out on bail — was charged in a different case for shooting his neighbor, who survived.

In 2010, a jury convicted Smith of murdering Long. He was sentenced to life in prison.

A year later, at the trial for his neighbor’s shooting, prosecutors offered Smith a plea bargain.

“My sister begged me to take the (plea) deal,” he said.

Smith accepted an Alford plea — an agreement in which the defendant maintains their innocence, but recognizes that the prosecutor has enough evidence to convict them.

“I had lost all faith that I would ever get justice in the courts the day I entered the Alford plea,” Smith told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

He was sentenced to 10 years of incarceration to run concurrently with the life sentence he was already serving for Long’s murder.

He maintained his innocence in both cases throughout.

Smith’s powerful testimony shook the committee.

However, Senate bill 423, which would extend post-conviction relief rights to individuals who accepted plea bargains, did not go unopposed.

Representatives from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office sought changes in the legislation; the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center and two state’s attorneys testified against the bill.

As originally drafted, opponents argued, the bill would open the floodgates for criminals to appeal their convictions, effectively disrupting the criminal justice system.

But, “a blanket dismissal of petitions for post-conviction (relief) undermines justice and is a threat to public safety,” Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, wrote in support of the legislation.

Innocence Project testimony highlighted the public-safety aspect of the bill.

“For every innocent person who is wrongfully convicted, the person who committed the crime remains free,” Amshula Jayaram, an Innocence Project policy advocate, told lawmakers.

The actual person responsible for the crime was identified in 84 percent of the Innocence Project’s cases where an innocent person was wrongfully convicted, Jayaram added.

Opponents were not convinced. Those representing crime victims’ interests pointed to the additional pain that victims may experience if the case returned to court.

“(Crime victims) have an interest in avoiding unnecessary confrontations with those who perpetrated crimes against them and their loved ones,” Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, submitted in written testimony. “Finality of convictions is a bedrock principle of the judicial system.”

Jayaram and Michele Nethercott, director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic and one of Smith’s attorneys, argued that this bill would simply allow defendants to petition the court for their case to be retried.

A federal investigation in 2012 determined that Smith had not murdered Robert Long. Smith and his legal team were able to secure his freedom, and the murder conviction was eventually expunged from his record.

The conviction for shooting his neighbor, which was eventually vacated, remained on Smith’s criminal record for years.

And the two Maryland appeals court decisions meant that Smith’s Alford plea barred him from presenting new evidence — a witness was prepared to recant, Nethercott said — as part of a writ of actual innocence.

The wrongful convictions for years “stopped me from getting jobs, houses, a lot of stuff,” Smith said. “It’s just getting a little better now. Just now.”

With amendments, Senate bill 423 establishes that people who were convicted by way of guilty plea, Alford plea or a plea of nolo contendere — no contest — may petition for a writ of actual innocence and for the testing of newly discovered DNA evidence.

Under the bill, the court will grant a writ or the test by determining whether “a reasonable probability exists that the DNA testing has the scientific potential to produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence relevant to a claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing.”

The court may either “grant a new trial or vacate the conviction if the court determines that the DNA test results establish by clear and convincing evidence the petitioner’s innocence,” the bill says.

Zirkin negotiated with proponents and opponents to find compromising amendments.

One such amendment states that if the court orders a new trial, both the prosecution and defense can bring in any evidence in the possession of law enforcement at the time of the original trial, regardless of whether it was included in the statement of facts accompanying the original plea bargain.

Zirkin’s amended bill also contains a provision that allows either party to appeal the court’s post-conviction ruling. Under existing statute, the state has not been eligible to appeal the court’s decision.

The amended bill passed 134-1 in the House before returning to the Senate, where it came up about 20 minutes before Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, D-Prince George’s, Calvert and Charles, struck the gavel for the last time in 2018.

The Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill.

Smith told lawmakers he didn’t want “what happened to me to happen to the next young man that’s 19 or 20, that’s going to sit in jail for six or seven years for something that he didn’t do.”

The bill awaits Gov. Larry Hogan consideration.

“The legislature passed a record number of bills this session,” Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill wrote in an email to Capital News Service. “The legislature has 20 days to present passed legislation and the governor has 30 days from that point to make his decision.”

“The governor will closely review this legislation,” Churchill added.

Barring the Republican governor’s veto, the law’s success would be determined by how Maryland courts apply it.

“We’ll have to see how this plays out in the real world,” Nethercott said, “in terms of how it actually works out in the courts.”

By Alex Mann

As ‘House Of Cards’ nears End, Maryland Aims to Remain Film Contender

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Eduardo Sanchez is sleeping in his own bed for once.

He’s taking a short break from work, but the majority of his time over the course of the next few months will be spent in Dallas, where the filmmaker best known for “The Blair Witch Project” is able to work on film and TV productions with what he says are better state tax incentives than in his native state of Maryland.

“I have a bunch of projects that I’d love to develop (in Maryland) that are, right now, dead in the water because of the (lack of) incentives,” Sanchez told Capital News Service. “If (a new tax incentive bill) passes, that opens up a lot of new work here, and I don’t think I’m the only one in that position. I think a lot of people are waiting for this to happen.”

Martin O’Malley visits the set of House of Cards at Joppa, Maryland in 2013

A push from local filmmakers like Sanchez for a new film tax credit plan reached the steps of the Maryland State House this year amid production of the shortened sixth and final season of Netflix’s 21-time Emmy nominee “House of Cards” in the Baltimore area.

According to CNS analysis of Maryland Film Office data, over the course of the past five fiscal years, 98 percent of film tax credits and grants — $72.5 million — has been allocated to “House of Cards” and “Veep,” the Julia Louis-Dreyfus political drama that relocated to California in 2015.

A new bill aimed at boosting the Maryland film scene was passed by the Maryland House Monday morning – the last day of the Maryland General Assembly’s 2018 legislative session – after passing in the Senate mid-March. It would increase the current Department of Commerce film budget by $3 million every year until 2023, when the budget would be capped at $20 million. It would also eliminate Maryland Commerce’s current film reserve fund.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1154, sponsored by Sen. Douglas Peters, D-Prince George’s County, goes to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk for his signature. If signed, it will take effect July 1.

“Years ago, we had productions in Baltimore and then the production would end and there would be no new production and we would lose employees – they would move to other states,” Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery County, who sponsored a bill identical to Peters’s in the Maryland House, told CNS. “We want to make sure there’s continuity in the industry.”

To qualify as a film production entity, film and television projects – one season is considered a single project – are currently required to spend at least $500,000 in Maryland. The recently passed bill would reduce that requirement to $250,000.

Baltimore Film Office Director Debbie Dorsey told CNS she was thankful to Maryland lawmakers for “keeping the film industry alive,” noting the Peters bill’s ability to do “a little something for everybody,” big-name production entities and local, indie projects alike.

The Department of Commerce would also set aside 10 percent of its budget exclusively to accommodate small and independent entities, which would primarily help local filmmakers. The bill defines “small productions” as projects that spend $25,000 to $125,000 in-state and requires at least 50 percent of filming to be done in Maryland.

“I know a lot of filmmakers who are making movies for $50,000 at most and they get nothing,” Sanchez added. “That’s going to help a lot of people…but I still wish there was something to help the lower, lower productions.”

Sanchez recalled working on a film in Hagerstown in 2010. He said the state incentive program at the time allocated a small amount of money to the production. But unless explicitly earmarked for a certain project, it’s nearly impossible for low-budget projects to get much assistance.

“Since then, it’s kind of been the ‘House of Cards’ incentive program,” Sanchez said. “And they know it’s an important program and I’m glad they’ve been able to keep it in Maryland for sure, but there wasn’t much room for anybody else.”

Making room for others is the goal for more than a handful of local filmmakers and supporters. At a Maryland House Ways and Means Committee meeting March 7 to discuss Luedtke’s film tax credit bill, several local experts testified that lack of funding is the primary obstacle to building a larger film scene.

“Several times every month, my office and the Maryland state Film Office receive calls from production companies and producers who want to bring their film projects here,” Dorsey said. “And every July, as soon as we get the ‘open for business’ sign on the door, we have to flip it over and say ‘sorry, we’re closed.’”

In the last year and a half, 20 major films and TV shows have expressed serious interest in filming in Maryland, Dorsey estimated.

Among them: Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominee “The Post,” an Amazon show and a Hulu series, and HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The latter settled for filming a handful of establishing shots in Baltimore before sending star Oprah Winfrey and the rest of the cast to Georgia.

Each project was turned away because “House of Cards” had consumed nearly all of the state’s annual budget, according to Dorsey.

Dorsey added in March that projects from HBO, Netflix, NBC and Lionsgate were awaiting confirmation of any new bill with a larger pool of funding before they could greenlight production in Maryland.

Even with SB 1154, the Baltimore Film Office may not have updates on those projects until the bill takes effect in July, according to Dorsey. Still, she noted that the bill will “provide consistency” and allow producers and studios to rely on Maryland as a production hub.

Filming in Maryland was always the plan for “The Blair Witch Project.”

Not only were Sanchez, who attended Wheaton High School and later Montgomery College, and co-director Daniel Myick fans of the physical setting – ominous horror movie woods are just one of the many versatile location options Maryland has to offer – but also the two were inclined to work in a place where they knew and trusted the industry professionals.

“There’s enough infrastructure as far as editing places, places to get sound done; there’s already a production base here,” Sanchez said. “There’s a lot of great professionals here. You can get a fairly decent-sized production going without having to import everybody from L.A. or New York.”

Season 5 of “House of Cards” alone supported more than 1,700 Maryland businesses, according to Maryland Film Office data.

Goldsborough Glynn Classic Furnishings was among them. The Kensington-based small business has sold furniture to the “House of Cards” set decorator for the past six years.

Not only has the company benefited from the production’s purchases, as the owners wrote in a testimony letter to the Maryland General Assembly, it further profited from the media attention and word of mouth that comes with being associated with a high-profile television show.

Since introducing the current film tax credit plan in 2012, the Maryland Department of Commerce helped finance 12 productions, nine of them individual seasons of “Veep” or “House of Cards.”

The department estimated that each production hired an average of 1,280 Maryland residents and worked with an average of 1,328 Maryland vendors. The combined projects have had a nearly $775 million dollar impact on the state economy.

If anyone understands the capacity Maryland has to be a filmmaking hub, it’s Sanchez and Myick. The two former college friends created “The Blair Witch Project” on an initial budget of less than $25,000, before the film went on to gross a whopping $249 million worldwide.

Nineteen years after its release, “Blair Witch” is still a local claim to fame as well as an example of small filmmakers’ potential for success.

“I think it’s common sense when you actually think about it,” Sanchez said. “You look at the other states who are actually building it and doing it right and it brings in work and it’s also a cultural thing, too. It brings in artists. It’s beneficial way more beyond the actual work.”

 

by Hannah Yasharoff

 

No More Cash: Maryland Tolls Changing to Electronic Only

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The Maryland Transportation Authority has started working to phase out all cash toll booths across the state within in the next 13 years.

Today, tolls are collected three ways: by cash, or electronically, by either an E-ZPass transponder or by video tolling — when the state uses a license-plate photo and mails drivers their bill.

Transportation officials say that the transition to all-electronic, high-speed toll collection will: save drivers time on their commute, save the state money, reduce accidents at toll plazas, and reduce CO2 emissions as less fuel is being burned, according to a national study by the University of Central Florida.

Drivers in Maryland could start seeing new plazas that only collect tolls electronically at highway speeds by the summer of 2019, said Kevin Reigrut, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The transition will also mean that anyone driving on Maryland toll roads will soon need an E-ZPass to avoid paying higher fees, and 218 toll operator positions will be phased out across the state.

If you pay using video tolling, Reigrut said, you pay 1.5 times the base rate for that road — and if drivers don’t have an E-ZPass by the time Maryland’s electronic tolls are phased in, that’s the price they’d pay across the state.

This means that drivers from other states who use Maryland roads will be forced to pay more if they don’t have an E-ZPass by the time of the transition.

As part of the transition, which has been a strategic goal of the transportation authority since 2004, the state has eliminated the monthly fee and offered toll discounts to pass holders to prompt more Marylanders to buy an E-ZPass, Gov. Larry Hogan said at a Board of Public Works meeting Feb. 21.

Drivers who use E-ZPass save 25 percent at tolls on all but two roads across the state and 37.5 percent on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, compared to paying cash, said Reigrut.

The two exceptions are the Intercounty Connector and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes, which already reflect the cost savings, and already collect tolls electronically at highway speeds, via video tolling or E-ZPass.

The state has already seen the advantages of all-electronic tolling facilities at the Intercounty Connector — the second-most used toll facility and the quickest route for commuters who are traveling east-west across the state. This is because drivers can travel through tolls on this road at highway speeds.

The discount was funded by a $270 million toll relief incentive over 5 years by the Hogan administration in July 2015 — the first time tolls have been cut across the state in 50 years — according to a May 7, 2015, press release.

“There is no better time to be a Maryland E-Zpass customer than right now,” Reigrut told Capital News Service.

The budget is still under development for the entire All Electronic Toll project, Reigrut said, but the initial contracts were approved by Maryland’s Board of Public Works on Feb. 21.

The two, 13-year option contracts totaled more than $360 million — $89 million to Kapsch USA Inc. for tolling systems and services and $273 million to Transcore LP for customer service center services.

A toll increase isn’t likely when the all-electronic tolls are entirely phased in, Reigrut said.

In the long term, Reigrut said, there will be cost savings as a result of this project because there won’t be a need to pay for toll collector salaries and benefits, armored cars to transport money to secured rooms at the transportation building or for significant auditing functions relative to using cash.

The transition would phase out 218 toll collector positions over the 13-year contract, and the transportation authority is no longer hiring for the positions, Reigrut said. They will be using temporary employees to fill vacant positions to minimize the number of employees affected by the project.

As toll facilities are converted, collectors will be given the opportunity to serve at nearby toll plazas, and can apply for other jobs within the state, Reigrut said.

The transportation authority’s approach to the project is to address one to two facilities at a time, starting with toll plazas that have the highest number of people who already use E-ZPass.

The first two areas that will be prioritized are the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge in Cecil County — where 93 percent of those who cross use E-ZPass — and the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge on I-695 in Baltimore County — where 78.5 percent of those who cross use E-ZPass, according to Reigrut.

There will “never” be an issue where lanes will be closed during the all-electronic transition, and any work that requires traffic changes will occur in off-peak hours, said Reigrut.

The all-electronic toll conversion at the Key bridge will not be completed by the start of the I-895 project, and therefore won’t offer traffic relief at the onset.

I-895 has two safe, but “structurally deficient” bridges, according to Reigrut, that need to be rebuilt. The first stage of the project included reconfiguring the lanes leading up the bridges and began in March.

The second phase of the project will begin around Thanksgiving of 2018 and will direct north- and southbound traffic across one of the bridges, knocking down and rebuilding the other, and then channeling the two-way traffic across the new bridge while the second is completed, according to a Dec. 21, 2017, press release by the transportation authority.

The entire I-895 project is scheduled to be completed by 2021.

In anticipation of the I-895 project, the transportation department announced a $49.4 million project in March 2017 to reconfigure 4 miles of I-95 roadway, north of the Fort McHenry Tunnel, by the summer of 2018, according to a March 31, 2017, press release by Maryland’s Department of Transportation.

According to Reigrut, facilities undergoing change will start with the installation and coverage of signs to signal the cashless transition.

Then, at existing toll plazas, booths will be converted for non-cash operations to encourage drivers to keep moving without stopping, and overhead tolling equipment will be built and activated.

Finally, the old equipment will be turned off and the booths themselves will be gutted, one to two booths at a time, and the roadways will be reconfigured.

For example, 10 toll lanes that merge to two lanes on a bridge will see new speed limit signs, new road striping, and construction to narrow the road to a consistent two-lane approach to the bridge.

Though drivers can start to see non-cash toll at some plazas within the next year, the Customer Service Center system cannot transition into the new system until all the toll lanes across the state have been transitioned, according to state documents.

Customers will start seeing these changes two years into the project start, Reigrut said.

Customer service improvements will include a mobile app for payments, notifications and account management, a Web chat service, a modernized website and a content management system, according to state documents.

Customers will also have the ability to transfer video tolls to a prepaid account and receive faster notification. A “robust” system will also be implemented for toll users who have credit issues or have missed paying their mailed video toll charge, Reigrut told Capital News Service.

Today, E-ZPass has slightly more than 1 million customers in the state, which has a population of about 6 million people. In 2017, 78 percent of toll transactions — including out-of-state drivers — were recorded using EZ-Pass, Reigrut said.

The transportation authority expects to engage in nine to 12 months of “aggressive public outreach” to notify Maryland drivers of facilities they will be converting, said Reigrut. This outreach would include attending city council meetings in person, posting information online, direct marketing and paying for radio and billboard advertisements.

John Townsend, AAA’s public affairs manager in the District, said he worries about the people who don’t have E-ZPass and agrees that there needs to be an aggressive marketing campaign to create awareness for the transition.

Out-of-state drivers, who are not from E-ZPass states, often use the Bay Bridge; and the Baltimore tunnels will be most vulnerable to this change, because outreach is only happening in-state, Townsend said.

When Virginia began converting Route 66 inside of the Capital Beltway to electronic lanes, the Virginia Department of Transportation engaged in marketing and also increased the number of vendors selling E-ZPass transponders, said Townsend.

In Maryland, the transportation department is using a similar strategy — selling E-ZPasses at the cash toll booths, in some supermarkets, and on their website when drivers register their vehicle.

“You’d have to work hard not to get this information,” Reigrut said.

Today, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia use E-ZPass.

By Katherine Brzozowski

Pink Safety Hunting Gear Now Available in MD thanks to Easton’s Simonsen Sisters

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Anna Muckerman Thanks to the work of two novice hunters — young sisters from the Eastern Shore — Maryland hunters will soon be allowed to wear bright pink safety gear.

Before taking a hunter safety class in October 2016, sisters Paige and Brooke Simonsen, from Easton, stocked up on pink hunting clothes. Then, they found out that Maryland law did not allow hunters to wear any color besides blaze orange.

Brooke Simonsen, 9, looks at her father, Michael Simonsen, during a hearing in Annapolis, Maryland, on Feb. 23.

“Our instructor mentioned that other states have pink and we only have orange, and we wanted to change that so we went to Senator (Addie) Eckardt,” Paige, 12, said.

The legislation, which passed in both chambers Monday night, adds “daylight fluorescent pink” as an alternative color for hunters. The legislation is based in part on the Simonsen family’s research.

Part of that research, which made its way into testimony, included a blog post referencing a European Union study that found forestry workers were safer wearing pink than orange. But the post — and its references to a “major study” that included “cognition tests and adrenaline measurements” — turned out to be an April Fool’s joke by the Stihl chainsaw company.

The Stihl company confirmed in a tweet that the April 1, 2016, blog entry was a joke.

Eckardt, R–Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, said she didn’t read the blog post until a Capital News Service reporter showed it to her.

“Yep, it’s all bogus,” Eckardt said March 27, while looking at the post. “To me it’s immaterial. It wasn’t a part of what we were all about.”

The joke study did not appear in the bill’s legislative analysis and the senator did not use the study in her own testimony, although she accompanied the girls to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, where it was heard.

Vice Chair Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, said he was unaware the testimony was in part based on an April Fool’s Day joke, but said the information doesn’t change the premise of the bill.

“The idea that using pink to stand out against green still makes sense,” he said. “Reading each piece of testimony…is beyond our ability to do.”

Michael Simonsen called the mistake “a learning experience for the entire family” but said he is proud of his daughters for participating in the legislative process.

“It is so important to share, that Paige and Brooke used multiple sources in their research and it is unfortunate that this one used, was not legitimate,” he wrote in an email to Capital News Service. “They will want to continue researching everything, even more thoroughly, particularly on the other six states … who have already approved daylight fluorescent pink as an additional safety color choice.”

It’s no joke, however, that Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Virginia, New York and Wisconsin allow hunters to wear pink.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources wrote in a letter to lawmakers that “there has been no nationally recognized study completed … on the effectiveness of this daylight fluorescent pink as a safety color.”

The department also noted that while there is a standard for hunter orange, none exists for pink, even in other states. Maryland’s bill leaves the definition of “daylight fluorescent pink” to the department.

When the Simonsens began looking into the topic during the fall of 2016, they had no idea that Eckardt, who represents the Simonsens’ region, has had an interest in pink since long before the sisters were born.

“Since I campaigned in 1994, I chose pink. I was outside the box. Everybody said don’t use that color,” the senator said. “I said … ‘I will do it the way I want to do it because I want to have fun.’”

Eckardt, a former psychiatric nurse, decided to use a bit of operant conditioning, she said, by associating herself with the color for more than two decades. She’s known for wearing pink on the Senate floor almost every day.

Paige and Brooke, 9, noticed the pink decorations in her office right away, but Eckardt contemplated the potential backlash of sponsoring the bill.

“My initial response was ‘Oh my goodness, I can just see it now – she doesn’t have anything better to do than to promote pink in an election year,” Eckardt said. “I was a little nervous about that.”

Brooke, whose favorite color is green, and Paige, who likes light pink, said their bill has little to do with being chic.

“We don’t like to think of it as a fashion statement,” Brooke said. “We just want it to be a safer choice and maybe another choice, but we’re not trying to eliminate fluorescent orange.”

The sisters pointed out that it is safer than orange for people like Matthew Hurst, a family friend who hunts and is colorblind.

“I have a really hard time picking up the fluorescent orange in the fall when the trees change, especially with the small amount you’re required to wear,” said Hurst, who also testified before lawmakers. “The blaze pink stands out more in the natural environment.”

When Talbot County, Maryland, hunter Leslie Milby first heard about the bill, she thought it might be another attempt to “pink it and shrink it” — manufacturers’ strategy of targeting women through less durable, brightly colored clothing.

“At first when I heard (of the bill) I kind of rolled my eyes because I was picturing bright pink camouflage,” she said. “As long as the gear is as tough as a man’s there’s no reason I wouldn’t support it.”

Now that the bill has passed, it won’t just be girls in the Simonsen family wearing the new color.

“I’m definitely going to wear fluorescent pink,” Michael Simonsen said. “I’m their dad but more important I’m going to be their hunting partner so the thing is I want to be seen.”

The girls occasionally shoot clay pigeons and said they plan to go hunting soon. In Maryland, children younger than 16 can hunt with an adult.

The girls said last month that they planned to share the joy of passing a bill with friends and classmates.

“We would be really happy if blaze pink became a color because we would be known for that,” Brooke said in March. “Sometimes it’s just nice to be known for making a law in Maryland.”

The law, Senate bill 341 and House bill 1118, will go into effect July 1.

by Anna Muckerman

Maryland Bill Would Put an Armed Officer in Every School

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Determined to pass meaningful legislation in the wake of the Parkland and Great Mills high school shootings, Maryland lawmakers are considering a measure to put an armed school resource officer in every public school. The bill comes as part of a four-bill package being rushed through the General Assembly as session nears end.

Advocates label this the “deterrence” stage of the package, which also includes prevention, anticipation and protection stages. Pushed by lead-sponsor Sen. Steve Waugh, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, proponents see this as the stopgap step while other proposals are considered and potentially implemented.

“(This bill is) the one that’s going to have the most immediate effect to reduce risks – today,” Waugh told Capital News Service.

There are just over 1,400 public schools in the state. Of those, the Maryland Center for School Safety estimates that between 360 and 400 already have a School Resource Officer, or SRO. But some local jurisdictions can’t afford to place an SRO in their schools. In those cases, the Department of State Police would then assign a state police officer.

The bill, which would go into effect July 1, calls for 1,000 new officers, roughly the amount it would take to fill the remaining schools. This is where it gets expensive.

The cost of stationing each state police officer would be roughly $224,300, according to a fiscal analysis – $101,617 for salary; $61,675 to complete State Police Academy training; $59,000 for a fully equipped police car; and $2,054 for uniforms and other equipment.

In total, the law would cost around $224 million in just the first year.

“Not everything is a quick fix, so you have to come up with a stopgap measure. This is it,” said co-sponsor Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County and Harford. “It might be expensive, but you know what, these are our children. They need to be protected.”

While the bill has significant bipartisan support – Democratic Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, is the third sponsor – it still faces some pushback.

Skeptics of the proposal make clear that they don’t question the motive, but the priority and funding.

Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery, questioned whether funding an SRO program is the best use of money to combat school shooters. Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, raised concerns that some children in over-policed areas are intimidated by officers and would struggle to concentrate in class.

It’s in everyone’s interest to keep children safe, Kelley said, but “not everything we’re talking about would make it so.”

Carroll County Sheriff Jeff Gahler said, to the contrary, an SRO presence improves the student-police dynamic. He’s been involved with the SRO program for nearly 20 years, and said he’s seen a positive impact.

“We’re working from those early ages to try to repair those relationships, where people are trying to put fear in the police,” Gahler told lawmakers. “The students trust the school resource officers and feed us information on all kinds of different crime issues facing our area. I think those relationships have to be fostered.”

Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, echoed the sheriff’s position. But he told the Capital News Service that funding is complicated and perhaps unfair. Counties have to prioritize how they spend local money, he said, so it wouldn’t be right if taxpayers had to front the bill for a county that didn’t prioritize SROs.

The other three school safety measures in the package have bipartisan support, each bill also with at least one Democratic and one Republican sponsor. But there’s a sense among some lawmakers that they’ve already been covered – at least in some part – in other pending legislation.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the other three proposals in the School Safety Act:

Senate bill 1262, sponsored by Miller, Waugh and Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, would call for closer investigations during gun-ownership background checks. It would establish a specialized workgroup to make quarterly recommendations on conducting background checks. Lastly, the bill would give local sheriffs a specialized school-crisis welfare officer. In all, it would cost roughly $1.8 million in the first year, an analysis found.

Senate bill 1263, sponsored by Waugh and Miller, would establish a “Threat Assessment Team,” comprised of a mental health counselor, teacher, principal, and possibly the state’s Department of Juvenile Services and the Department of Human Services, by the 2019-2020 school year, to evaluate students. It also expands prohibitions on making a threat of mass violence. General funding for the Maryland State Department of Education could increase by $125 million or more by the 2020 fiscal year, according to a state fiscal analysis. The state’s judicial system could pay more than $220,000 in the first year for programming costs, the analysis said.

Senate bill 1265, sponsored by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, Miller and Waugh, would require all public schools to have lockable classroom doors, an area of safe refuge (safe zone) in each classroom, and security technology by the 2020-2021 school year. It also calls for an active training drill for students in the first quarter of the fall semester. A pay-as-you-go bill, it would cost just over $10 million a year, from 2019 to 2023, according to a fiscal analysis.

Right now, the first three bills are pending in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, while Senate bill 1265 remains with the Senate Budget and Tax Committee. All four had hearings in late March and are awaiting committee votes to hit the full Senate floor.

With the 2018 session ending April 9, lawmakers know it will be difficult to prepare all four bills for passage. Waugh, the lead architect of the School Safety Act of 2018, said he doesn’t prioritize any proposal over the other, but maintained that the SRO part would provide more immediate safety.

“You can do it now and it will reduce risks,” he said. “Not completely, but it will reduce some risk right away.”

By Zach Shapiro

Supreme Court hears Oral Arguments in Maryland Gerrymander Case

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Attorneys presented oral arguments Wednesday before the Supreme Court in a landmark case that challenges the constitutional limits of political redistricting in Maryland.

Benisek v. Lamone, the second gerrymandering case the high court has heard this term, focuses on whether redrawing district lines in favor of one party is a violation of the First Amendment.

Michael B. Kimberly, representing O. John Benisek, a resident of Washington County, argued the partisan gerrymandering that occurred in Maryland’s 6th District under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2011 was a violation of the First Amendment due to the additional challenges created by shifting districts for voters.

“The evidence is unequivocal,” Kimberly told the justices. “It’s deliberately making it more difficult for particular citizens to achieve electoral success because their views are disapproved by those in power.”

In 2011, O’Malley created the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee (GRAC) to redraw the congressional and state legislative districts in Maryland. A new map was created, passed both the Maryland House and Senate, and was signed by O’Malley.

Before the redistricting, Maryland Democrats controlled six of the state’s eight U.S. House districts. After the election following the new map, the Democrats controlled seven. Republicans argue the partisan redistricting caused irreparable damage to voters in the new district.

 

Kimberly went on to argue that “Governor O’Malley and others involved in the redistricting have candidly acknowledged their intent to dilute Republican votes in the 6th District to prevent Republican voters there from reelecting Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.”

“Given their evidence, (the appellants) certainly have enough to go to a jury on that question,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

“Government officials may not single out particular individuals for disfavored treatment on the basis of the views that they have expressed at the ballot box in prior elections,” Kimberly argued.

Some justices questioned whether voters had truly been harmed by the redistricting.

Chief Justice John Roberts called the length of time between the redistricting and the oral arguments into question.

“To let go the elections in 2012, 2014, and 2016, suggests that maybe 2018, you’re not going to be irreparably harmed in a broader sense,” he said. “If you’ve been willing to accept that harm in three different cycles, I don’t know if we should get concerned about irreparable harm for one more.”

Many justices questioned the intent of the redistricting, suggesting O’Malley’s reason for redistricting was unconstitutional.

“The effects were exactly what the intent would suggest,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “A long-standing Republican incumbent is unseated by a Democratic newcomer, who withstands a wave election, who prevails three straight times. I mean, it appears that the Maryland legislature got exactly what it intended, which was you took … a safe Republican district, and made it into not the safest of Democratic districts, but a pretty safe one. … I mean, how much more evidence of partisan intent could we need?”

Steven Marshall Sullivan, representing Linda H. Lamone, Maryland’s elections administrator, insisted otherwise: “(The 6th District) is not safe. It was judged competitive.”

Sullivan said that 20 percent of voters in the 6th District are registered as independents. The result is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats make up a majority there, he said.

“The independent vote is critical because, in the first election, the Democrat won more of the independent vote than the Republican,” Sullivan said. “The redistricting lines couldn’t have caused that to happen. That happened because of the views of those voters and the strength of that candidate.”

“What effect does the fact that this map was subsequently approved by the people themselves have when we’re trying to determine intent?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked.

Ginsburg compared the current case to an historic racial gerrymandering case from 1995, Miller v. Johnson, in which the court struck down districts solely created based on race, known as “max-black” districts.

“It seems to me that what we have here is ‘max-Democratic’ (per district)” she said. “If ‘max-black’ was no good, why should ‘max-Democratic” be okay?”

Sullivan responded that the historic ‘max-black’ districts were “drawn from a history of exclusion of African Americans from our political process, something that Republicans can hardly claim,” because their party currently controls both the federal and state governments.

Earlier this term, the Supreme Court heard the Gill v. Whitford case from Wisconsin regarding gerrymandering. In January, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked a redistricting order from a lower court in North Carolina.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested waiting until next term, at which point those two cases and the Maryland case could be heard together.

“It seems like a pretty clear violation of the Constitution in some form to have deliberate, extreme gerrymandering,” Breyer said of the Maryland map. “But is there a practical remedy that won’t get judges involved in dozens and dozens and dozens of very important political decisions?”

Courts have previously treated challenges to political redistricting as a “nonjusticiable ‘political question,’ based on the lack of a determinate, judicially enforceable standard to judge political gerrymanders,” according to the Preview of the United States Supreme Court Cases.

By JULIA LERNER

Annapolis Plan to Fix Historically Black Colleges in Maryland

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Historically black colleges and universities in Maryland would receive up to $56.9 million annually under legislation, sponsors say, that would restore years of underfunding and program duplication by the state but is unlikely to pass.

Proponents of the measure have rejected, as too little, a Feb. 7 offer from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of a total of $100 million over the next 10 years to a coalition of historically black colleges and universities.

A group of alumni in 2006 sued the state for creating programs at other public institutions that copied and drew students away from similar programs at Maryland’s historically black schools, such as an accelerated MBA program at Morgan State University and a master’s in computer science at Bowie State University.

Efforts to mediate have failed.

In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake ruled that Maryland violated the constitutional rights of students at the state’s four black institutions by duplicating their programs at traditionally white schools.

In 2015, Blake proposed that the state establish high-demand programs at the four historically black institutions to attract more diverse students and help with desegregation.

In 2016, mediation between the state and the coalition failed. In 2017, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, and Hogan appealed the 2013 decision.

Delegate Nick Mosby, D-Baltimore, said this amount is nowhere near enough for the amount of funding needed for these schools.

The state’s $100 million offer “basically equates to about $2.5 million per institution for the next 10 years and unfortunately that is throwing peanuts at a very gigantic problem,” said Mosby, who is sponsoring the House legislation.

Senate bill sponsor Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, told Capital News Service this would not be acceptable, because the state owes historically black institutions around $2.5 billion to $3 billion.

Conway also said if the amount had been offered as a lump sum of $100 million, then that could change the situation, but spread over time, the amount seems unjust.

A pair of matched bills was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 30 and in the House on Feb. 8 but no progress has been made since then. Conway is sponsoring Senate bill 252 and Mosby is sponsoring House bill 450.

Similar legislation has been introduced in years past, but was not approved.

Conway also introduced Senate bill 827, paired with a bill from Delegate Charles Sydnor III D- Baltimore County, House bill 1062 — emergency legislation to appoint a special adviser who would develop a remedial plan based on the lawsuit against the state.

Delegate Michael Jackson, D-Calvert and Prince George’s, with House bill 1819 and Sen. Barbara Robinson, D-Baltimore, with Senate bill 615, also introduced paired legislation to establish a cybersecurity program at Coppin State and Morgan State that could not be duplicated by other institutions in the state.

Both bills continue to work their way through the legislative session.

Altogether, these bills would require the state to ensure funding and equity so that the four historically black institutions — Bowie State University, Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — are “comparable and competitive” to what are known as the state’s public “traditionally white institutions.”

The Rev. Kobi Little, chairman of the Political Action Committee for the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, who spoke at the Feb. 8 hearing, said progress in education equity is needed.

“We see this as an education issue but also as an economic justice issue,” Little told lawmakers. “This, my friends, is one of your Martin Luther King moments. It is an opportunity for you to do the right thing.

Conway said she doubted the bills would make progress in the General Assembly.

“This legislature has never been one to do the correct thing for these schools,” Conway told Capital News Service.

Morgan State President David Wilson, who testified at the Senate bill hearing on Jan. 30, said students’ ability to pay is a big issue at his school.

“Lack of financial aid is the greatest barrier to getting students across the finish line in record time,” said Wilson. “Financial aid would alleviate the barrier of students who simply don’t have the money to keep going in college.”

Wilson told Capital News Service that at Morgan State, 90 percent of students receive financial aid and 56 percent qualify for the Pell Grant, a government subsidy that helps students pay for college.

He also said that 36 percent receive the maximum amount from the Pell Grant, which means that families can’t contribute anything to their child’s education.

Wilson also said many students maintain a recurring cycle of dropping out of school to work a semester and then coming back to continue their degree.

Students like Ryan Washington, a senior at Bowie State, told Capital News Service that more money donated to historically black colleges and universities would help students to pursue careers — especially ones that don’t have the same resources as traditionally white institutions.

“More programs, more development on campus and more buildings offering more experience to students,” Washington said.

If the funding legislation passes, schools’ payments would start at $4.9 million for the 2019 fiscal year and increase annually. By the 2022 fiscal year, the four historically black institutions would receive a total of $56.9 million each year. This bill would also establish certain student and faculty ratios.

Former NAACP Political Action Chair Marvin Cheatham Sr. said he is doing everything he can to help pass the bill.

“This has to do with what is in the best interest for students,” he told Capital News Service.

Cheatham also said in his testimony on Feb. 8 that “$100 million doesn’t come close to what’s needed for HBIs.”

“I’ll never, ever stop filing it until it’s rectified,” said Conway, who named the legislation The Blount-Rawlings-Britt HBI Comparability Program Bill in honor of its original creators, former lawmakers Sen. Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore, Delegate Pete Rawlings, D-Baltimore, and Sen. Gwendolyn Britt, D-Prince George’s, who are all deceased.

“I intend to file it every year (until) we fix it.”

Hogan’s office declined to comment outside of his Feb. 7 letter, citing the pending legal matter, a representative told Capital News Service on Friday.

By Layne Litsinger

 

In-state Tuition Bill aimed at ‘Dreamers’ advances in Maryland

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A bill that aims to ensure young, undocumented Maryland students referred to as “Dreamers,” can pursue higher education by giving qualified individuals access to in-state tuition is advancing in the Maryland General Assembly.

The circumstances under which Dreamers and residents with temporary protective status are exempt from paying the out-of-state tuition rate at public institutions of higher education will be altered under House bill 1536, which is cross-filed as Senate bill 546.

Under the legislation, qualified students would soon be able to pay the in-state tuition rate at any Maryland public higher education institution or the in-county rate at any community college, regardless of whether they live in that county.

The current state Dream Act, passed in 2012, says that an individual who attended a Maryland high school for at least three years and graduated or received the equivalent of a high school diploma pays the same tuition rates that resident students pay.

Current law also states that students are required to begin at a Maryland community college in the same district as the high school they graduated from. Once the student completes 60 credits, they may enroll at a public four-year institution and pay in-state tuition.

The new bill removes the credit requirement and would allow students to directly enter any public state college or university, and extends the period of eligibility from four to six years after graduating from high school. It would go into effect on July 1.

“Countless students who qualify (for in-state tuition) are more than ready to begin higher education at a four-year university right away. This bill will allow these Dreamers to continue their academic career at the college of their choice,” said sponsor Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, in a statement to Capital News Service.

High school senior and advocate for CASA, an immigrants-rights advocacy group, Jesus Vicuña, 18, one of the 9,700 Dreamers under protective status in the state, worries that his time will run out before he is able to pursue his dream of running track at Coppin State University, which just sent him an acceptance letter.

“I started to feel a sense of stability, I no longer had to live in the shadows. … For the first time I started to picture myself at a university and I finally had the opportunity to make my parents’ sacrifices worth it,” said Vicuña, who lives in Baltimore and attends Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a public high school, about receiving DACA at the age of 15 after immigrating from Mexico with his family at 9 months old.

His DACA waiver runs out in April 2019, he said.

Vicuña got involved in CASA and his high school’s Hispanic club to promote legislation that helps students like him and testified in front of the Maryland House Ways and Means committee in favor of House bill 1536.

“This is a big step towards progress because everything is so unsure at the federal level,” he said.

The Trump administration announced Sep. 5 it was phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and gave Congress six months to figure out a solution. It was further delayed by rulings from federal judges in California and New York, who both ordered the Trump administration to resume processing DACA renewal applications.

While the deadline has passed without a fix from Congress, the case is still going through the federal appeals process, leaving DACA recipients in limbo.

A recent Supreme Court ruling has given DACA participants a reprieve.

The University System of Maryland is monitoring this legislation and will continue to welcome qualified students as they have since the Dream Act was enacted, according to a representative for the University System.

By Hannah Brockway