Maryland Democrats: Trump Health Care curbs could Affect 260,000 in State

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As many as 260,000 Maryland residents could see higher premiums or lose their health care coverage altogether because of pre-existing medical conditions, age or gender under a new Trump administration legal strategy, state Democrats warned on Tuesday.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, along with other Democratic members of the Maryland congressional delegation and state Attorney General Brian Frosh attacked the Trump administration for refusing to protect Americans guaranteed the right to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The protections, the Democrats argued, are of the utmost importance and won’t be invalidated without a legal fight.

“We’re better than that,” Cummings said. “We’re a better country than that.”

In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., that the Justice Department would not defend key provisions of the health care law, a regular target of attacks by President Donald Trump and repeal efforts by congressional Republicans.

Cummings released a report by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that detailed potential impacts of such a policy on Marylanders. Frosh is among more than a dozen attorneys general challenging Sessions’s decision in federal court.

“Even more troubling, they did not offer any alternative,” Cummings said at a press conference.

He was flanked by Frosh, Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger of Timonium and John Sarbanes of Towson. All are Democrats.

Trump has largely moved to defund the ACA since taking office, scaling back federal funding from $62.5 million in 2016 to just $10 million this year.

But Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has challenged attacks on Trump’s handling of the health care law.

“The president trying to sabotage the (Affordable Care Act) is proving better at managing it than the president who wrote the law,” Azar said during a Sept. 27 speech in Nashville, The Washington Examiner reported.

Under the new Trump policy, 167,000 Marylanders with pre-existing conditions could lose coverage or face hikes in premiums, the Democrats’ study estimated. Of those, 79,000 have such severe pre-existing conditions that insurance carriers could deny them any coverage.

Up to 160,000 Maryland women could be charged more than men for the same health care coverage, the report said. Such discrimination was barred by the health care law.

In addition, up to 108,000 older Maryland residents could be charged more, according to the report.

Maryland workers in higher-risk occupations also could lose protections: 19,000 construction workers, 9,700 shipping clerks and 4,800 emergency medical technicians.

“Defending the Affordable Care Act will affect the lives of Marylanders and people all over this country,” Cardin said. “It’s critically important that the American people understand what’s at stake when the president does not defend the Affordable Care Act.”

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in September showed that 50 percent of adults held a favorable view of the ACA. Forty percent held an unfavorable view. Another Kaiser poll found that 75 percent of people polled said it was “very important” that the ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions ensuring guaranteed coverage remains law.

“When the Trump Administration decided not to defend the law … they’ve given a green light to all those who want to undo that protection through the courts,” Van Hollen said.

Trump, who said during his campaign that he wanted to put somebody on the Supreme Court who would help overturn the ACA, has done just that in nominating Brett Kavanaugh. In 2011, Kavanaugh was the dissenter in a 2-1 federal appeals court ruling on the constitutionality of the ACA’s individual mandate provision.

Cummings said the administration’s hostility to the health care law has caused unease even among government attorneys.

“Their actions are so indefensible,” Cummings said, “that three of four career attorneys representing the government withdrew from the case rather than sign their names on the brief. One attorney even resigned.”

Joel McElvain and two other lawyers withdrew from the case this summer; he later resigned. All three worked on a lawsuit brought by Texas and other Republican-led states that challenges the constitutionality of the ACA and is likely to find its way to the Supreme Court.

by Jared Goldstein

Healthcare Plans See Reductions of Premiums in Maryland for 2019

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday announced a reduction in next year’s insurance premium rates for individual healthcare plans in the state.

The two health insurance providers in the state’s Maryland Health Benefit Exchange — which operates the marketplace consumers use to purchase healthcare under the Affordable Care Act — Kaiser Permanente and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, will offer an average of about a 13 percent reduction in premiums across the board, the governor said. The new rates will take effect on Jan. 1.

The announcement comes after the federal government in August approved the state’s request for a waiver to establish a reinsurance program to stabilize the insurance market and prevent rate spikes.

“Rather than huge increases in health insurance rates, we are instead delivering significantly and dramatically lower rates for Marylanders,” Hogan said. “For the first time since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, all individual insurance rates in Maryland will go down instead of up.”

Prior to the waiver’s approval, insurance premiums were expected to increase dramatically next year for both HMO and PPO healthcare plans. CareFirst’s PPO rate was expected to increase by more than 90 percent. It will now decrease by 11 percent, the governor said.

CareFirst’s HMO plan, which covers more than half of the nearly 200,000 Marylanders with health insurance plans purchased in the individual market as of June 30, will see a 17 percent decrease.

Kaiser had proposed a rate increase of almost 40 percent. Instead their rates will drop by about 7 percent.

“As a result of these rates, the health insurance market in Maryland will finally have the chance to become more competitive and dynamic,” Hogan said, adding the reinsurance program will make healthcare more affordable and increase competition by coaxing more insurers into the market.

The reinsurance program is a temporary fix, however. The waiver runs through 2020 but could last through 2023, according to the waiver application — and a more permanent solution must be enacted by the federal government to ensure rates do not increase down the line, said Maryland Health Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer.

“Most of the rules regarding the Affordable Care Act are embedded in federal law. Very little authority is given to the states,” Redmer said. “What we really need — and what we’ve been advocating for years — is for Congress to put aside those partisan differences and come up with common sense solutions or give us more authority to make changes here in the states.”

Redmer declined to speculate whether insurance rates would increase after the waiver expires without a long-term solution in place.

“Short term, our health insurance rates are (going to be) much more competitive than they were this year,” Redmer said, adding that the lower rates will add more consumers to the insurance market making it healthier overall.

By Brooks DuBose

Hogan Establishes Statewide Schools Investigator General

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order Tuesday forming an Office of Education Accountability, an independently appointed investigator general, to look into allegations of corruption, abuse and other improprieties in the public education systems across the state.

The governor’s announcement comes on the heels of several high-profile scandals in Maryland school systems.

In Prince George’s County, school board members last year accused county school system leadership of artificially inflating graduation rates by altering students’ grades, and in March cited unapproved pay raises for some school system staff.

Hogan highlighted former Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance’s recent jail sentence after he pleaded guilty in March to perjury as an example of the need for more oversight. Dance failed to disclose income he received from a company that he helped to obtain a no-bid contract with the school system.

“After repeated allegations of wrongdoing, mismanagement and corruption, citizens have lost confidence in the leadership of their local school systems,” Hogan said at a State House news conference. “Our children cannot and should not have to wait until the Legislature returns in January,” the governor said. “They deserve action beginning right now.”

The newly formed office “will act as a liaison between local boards of education, the state Board of Education and Maryland’s concerned citizens,” Hogan said. “This new unit will be responsible for analyzing, coordinating and providing recommendations on matters including procurement improprieties, abuse, neglect, safety, grade fixing, graduation requirements, assessments, educational facilities and budgetary issues.”

A bill Hogan, a Republican running for re-election, spearheaded earlier this year to establish an investigative oversight office for schools failed in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

The governor’s executive order will be followed by the introduction of the Accountability in Education Act of 2019 to the General Assembly after the legislative session begins Jan. 9, Hogan said. The act would establish the Office of State Education Investigator General, an independent part of the Maryland State Department of Education, and would be appointed by Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

“This new office will be charged with investigating complaints of unethical, unprofessional, improper or illegal conduct in our schools,” Hogan said, and “will be able to make inquiries, have the ability to obtain information by subpoena and hold hearings in order to get to the truth.”

John Woolums, the director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said his office has previously opposed similar legislation to create a statewide inspector general, and their position would not change with the governor’s announcement.

“It’s not reflective of any reluctance to be subject to accountability but in fact it’s because there is ample authority residing with the state’s superintendent of schools and the state Board of Education to provide oversight and enforce state laws and regulations that they determine are not being followed or adhered to by local school systems,” Woolums said. “There have been bills in the past introduced to create an inspector general and we’ve traditionally and consistently opposed those.”

Hogan appointed Valerie Radomsky to be the director of the newly formed office. Radomsky, a former Baltimore County school teacher, is a Board of Public Works coordinator in the Maryland comptroller’s office.

The new office would be responsible for responding to complaints and referring them to the State Board of Education or other public school agencies. The complaints, and their resolutions, would be maintained in a database, Hogan said. An annual report of the findings and recommendations would be submitted to the General Assembly, he added.

Hogan’s gubernatorial opponent, Democratic candidate Ben Jealous, criticized Hogan’s announcement.

“A political investigator run out of the governor’s office won’t change the fact that our schools are underfunded by billions of dollars and our teachers are underpaid. As governor, I will fully fund our schools, not blame our hardworking teachers and support staff.”

Hogan maintains he has spent record amounts of money on education in Maryland, in excess of the Legislature’s mandated funding formulas.

Jealous announced a piece of his own education agenda Tuesday, promising the creation of a Teacher School Supply Fund. The money would come from other Marylanders choosing to donate a portion of their tax returns.

Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost voiced her disappointment at Hogan’s decision to sign the executive order.

“On what should be an exciting first day (of school), to hear Gov. Hogan highlight failures when he, for the past three years has underfunded our schools…” Bost said. “The governor’s office already has agencies available to look into claims of fraud. This is a diversion of resources, and campaign rhetoric.”

By Brooks DuBose

In Leesburg, African-American Elders hold Mixed Views on Confederate Statue

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Editor’s note: This story is one of a four Capital News Service articles on how the debate over Confederate statues is playing out in small towns in the South.

Gertrude Evans, 70, was born into the Jim Crow South and lived through the rocky integration of Leesburg when firemen filled a swimming pool with cement and garbage rather than permit its integration.

More than a half-century later, she turned to art as therapy to work through that traumatic period when she wasn’t allowed to sit on the red stools at Little John’s drugstore or watch a movie at the neighborhood Tally Ho theater.

The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last year brought “everything to the surface,” she told Capital News Service recently. “…  I mean you see (racism), you see it.”

For the first time, she said, she’s been thinking too about the Confederate statue in front of the Leesburg courthouse. She doesn’t believe it should be moved but, still, “it’s the first thing you see” downtown.

“It causes conversation — good.” But “take it down and put it in Ball’s Bluff (Battlefield), you’ll never see it again,” she said. History will be forgotten.

Leesburg’s statue, like so many others around the country, became the subject of renewed concern following the 2015 murder of nine black church members by a white supremacist who posed on social media with a Confederate flag. One member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has recommended the statue be moved to Ball’s Bluff Battlefield two and a half miles away where the Confederacy defeated the Union.

Virginia law prevents the county from moving or relocating the monument. In September 2017, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors decided not to ask the state for authority to move the statue, but it asked the county’s heritage commission to make recommendations this summer regarding the statue and its surroundings.

Capital News Service recently interviewed community members in Leesburg as part of a series exploring the views of African-American and white residents in five southern cities where Confederate statues stand on public land in front of courthouses.

Teams of reporters traveled to Anderson, South Carolina; Easton, Maryland; Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Franklin, Tennessee; and Leesburg, Virginia. They also interviewed leaders of the Maryland Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Most residents, black and white, were wary of taking dramatic steps, such as removing the statues, that would inflame tensions within their communities and could make it more difficult for future generations to understand the Civil War and segregationist Jim Crow eras. Most residents also said they preferred adding more context to Civil War memorials than removing them all together.

Derek Summers Jr., 36, and the founder of Loudoun County’s Citizens’ Committee against Domestic Violence, said he feels the Confederate statue’s gun pointing at him when he drives or walks past it on North King Street nearly every day.

“It’s like letting you know that in the hearts and mind of some of these folk here, the fight’s not over,” said Summers, seated on a bench next to the statue.

David Dixon, 59, owner of Jackson’s Barber Shop a few blocks down the road, has passed the statue on his commute to Leesburg for 24 years. He said the monument doesn’t bother him.

“My personality and the way I am, I really don’t care,” he said. “ … I look more toward the future than the past.”

Marquez Mitchell has passed the Leesburg statue when he visits Jackson’s for a haircut every few weeks. Confederate monuments “represent hatred and slavery, even though on paper they said we were free,” the Harpers Ferry resident said.

As a child, 41-year-old Chris Johnson would go to concerts near the courtyard of the statue. Johnson, a lifelong Leesburg resident, said the statue doesn’t bother him, but “what it stands for” does.

“They don’t need to destroy it necessarily, because there are people who find value in it. But I think for the greater good it is something that should be moved,” Johnson said.

Jim Roberts who leads a walking tour to commemorate African-American history here, leaves the statue off his itinerary. As a child, Roberts played near the statue and never paid much attention to it. He believes the newcomers are offended by it, not so much the old-timers.

“I can’t waste time thinking about what happened 150 years ago because it’s over and done with,” he said.

Horace Nelson Lassiter, 84, a barber at Robinson’s Barber shop which opened in 1962 said the statue “doesn’t bother me. I don’t care what is already done,” he said.

Lassiter was one of the first black police officers in the Loudoun County Deputy Sheriff’s Department in the 1960’s, and took the position “to show black people that they could get a job.”

“There’s still racism (in Leesburg). It hasn’t changed … It’s not the younger people, it’s the older people in my age group,” Lassiter said.

Lassiter’s wife, Mary Louise Lassiter, 81, a prominent activist in Loudoun County and

former local NAACP chapter president wants the statue to stay and for visitors to understand the pain slaves went through on courthouse grounds.

“When they’re told, hopefully they’ll understand the torture of all of those people who were put in those stocks.”

Formerly A Slave Market, Now a Favorite Lunch Spot

The square where the statue sits operated as a slave market throughout of the Civil War. Today the statue is surrounded by restaurants, coffee shops, a bar and the original courthouse. Government employees often lunch feet away from where whipping posts, cages and auction blocks once stood.

While the slave auctions in Leesburg were much smaller than those in other Virginia towns, the courthouse was the epicenter of the city’s slavery institution. In 1856, the court ordered that whippings move off courthouse property, according to newspaper advertisements at the time.

Three lynchings of black men accused of crimes also took place in Leesburg, in 1880, 1889 and 1902, according to the “Lynching in Virginia” history project at George Mason University.

Six years later, in 1908, the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Leesburg chapter paid to have the statue erected to commemorate soldiers who had died in the war. Like most

Confederate statues across the South, the Leesburg statue’s unveiling came during “a terrible period of disenfranchisement — the Jim Crow period where enforced segregation and disenfranchisement really started to bleed,” said Jim Hall, author of the “Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.”

The president of the Leesburg chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy declined to comment, but the national organization has said it does not support racism, white supremacy or the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville, and that it opposes their use of Confederate symbols.  Many of its members say the Civil War was not about preserving slavery, a view historians dispute.

“The statues that celebrate the Confederacy were put up when African-Americans were demanding to be treated like human beings,” Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair said Phyllis Randall, the only member of the board to vote in favor of asking the state for authority over the statue.

Known as “Loudoun’s silent sentinel,” the bronze figure built by famed sculptor Frederick William Sievers is a soldier with his gun cocked and his eyes fixed forward. It stands higher than both the Korean War monument to the right of the courthouse entrance and the Revolutionary War monument to the left.

In 2005, the local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter organized the cleaning and rededication of the statue.

It was cleaned with ground up walnut shells to help dissolve the mint green oxidation covering it.

Statue Oversees Businesses District

The generic soldier has an unobstructed view of the Downtown Saloon, a biker bar established in the 1960’s and decorated in bras and Confederate symbols. The menus have images of the courthouse and statue on them. The bar sells T-shirts with art of the statue. Sometimes, motorcycle riding members of the Mechanized Cavalry of the Sons of Confederate Veterans visit and park outside.

A sticker on the mirror behind the bar says “Dixie Rider,” overlayed on top of a Confederate flag.

Scott Warner, in a black T-shirt with a Confederate flag on the left pocket, said of the statue: “Any soldier who dies for what he believes in needs to be honored.” The statue’s fate has “become a political issue and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “It’s our history.”

Not many people paid attention to the statue “until Charlottesville,” said 46-year-old Jim Boyce, seated in the restaurant. “You can’t get rid of everything,” he said. “If you get rid of everything, the history isn’t here.”

Margaret Brown, a member of the Black History Committee at the local Thomas Balch Library, protested against the statue last summer after the march in Charlottesville. She said the biker bar was an intimidating presence for protestors.

“There were some guys who were across the bar who were pretty aggressive with their motorcycles,” revving the engines and glaring at the protestors, she said.

Phillip Thompson, president of the Loudoun County NAACP, said the statue shouldn’t be located in a place for justice.

“The courthouse is a seat of power and people were trying to send a message to black citizens,” he said.

Pastor Michelle Thomas, a member of the nine-person commission assessing the future of the statue, said the statue “has the microphone —  of hate and oppression and fear.”

Evans, though, has mixed feelings. The statue controversy has made her want to know more about the Civil War era.

“I know my ancestors were enslaved. But I don’t know how they were treated,” she said. “It just makes me think and wonder … I’m very interested in that whole era.”

By Alexandria Carolan

CNS staff writers Ariel Guillory and Elisee Browchuk contributed to this report.

Legacy of Slavery and Segregation Influences Debate on Talbot Boys Statue

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Editor’s note: This story is one of a four Capital News Service articles on how the debate over Confederate statues is playing out in small towns in the South. It begins with a profile of the Talbot Boys controversy in Easton.

When residents here describe their town, they describe a paradise. There’s no crime and everyone—black and white—gets along in neighborhoods just a few miles from the banks of the Eastern Shore’s Tred Avon River in Talbot County.

Those waters, however, once led to one of the most prominent slave ports in the country. Talbot County profited off of the human cargo the ships carried, condemning slaves to labor that sustained thriving agriculture and seafood industries.

With the Civil War came the opportunity for slaves to gain freedom through military service. Eighteen who fought for the Union then returned to Easton to found Unionville, a haven that got them through the violence of the later segregationist Jim Crow era.

Throughout the 20th century, black and white communities in Easton developed into the largely middle-class households they are today, but as parallel, segregated worlds. Lines started to blur once segregation ended. But as much as Easton and its neighbor Unionville may want to move past the deeply unequal relationships that etched their past, they can never quite escape them.

“You have people here who may be descendants of folk who held others in bondage and the descendants of the people who were held in bondage,” said Rev. Nancy Dennis of St. Stephen’s AME Church in Unionville. “They work together, they engage in business transactions together, they socialize together, they help each other when there’s crisis.”

This proximity is one reason why a recent but unresolved debate about taking down Easton’s Confederate statue has been so delicate.

Soldiers who sacrificed their lives to ensure that African American slaves would never be free are glorified in a bronze statue on the courthouse lawn. Five miles away in Unionville, the graves of 18 of their military opponents, born into slavery, are buried behind a church where their descendants worship every Sunday.

Around the bend from the church graveyard is Wye House Plantation, which was the largest plantation on the Eastern Shore and where Frederick Douglass was enslaved. The original structure looms and a descendant of Douglass’ owner still lives there. Though a statue of Douglass was erected in front of the courthouse to honor the abolitionist, the county council approved it after months of debate and stipulated it could not exceed the height of the Confederate statue it parallels.

Communities with Confederate statues across the country are reckoning with relics commemorating the Civil War. In Charlottesville last year, such a statue became the gathering point for a white nationalist and Nazi rally that erupted into violence and left one anti-protester dead. Baltimore authorities removed four Confederate monuments overnight in their city just a few days later.

People in Easton are grappling with how their histories are honored as a handful of activist residents are forcing the town to confront its past.

Talbot Boys

Although the controversy over Easton’s Talbot Boys statue has simmered for only a couple of years, its story begins 104 years ago.

Joseph B. Seth, a lawyer from Easton, wrote a letter to Col. David G. McIntosh of Towson in 1914, asking McIntosh to help him secure a monument with the names of the 84 Confederate soldiers from Talbot County.

“We had more men from this County to gain positions of high distinction than there were from any other County in the Country, either North or South,” he wrote.

When Easton erected the monument in July of 1914, Seth realized his mission was incomplete. He expressed to McIntosh his interest in placing a unique statue on top of the monument, unlike the common statues of soldiers throughout the country.

“It is my desire to get away from the conventional soldier figure which is found on all of the monuments North and South, and to get an allegorical figure representing youth and courage,” he wrote.

The county dedicated the Talbot Boys statue on June 5, 1916, an image of a boy soldier standing at attention holding a Confederate flag that drapes over his left shoulder. Although some Easton residents say they either ignore the statue or knew nothing about it as children, their tune changed three years ago when concerned residents notified the local NAACP chapter of their opposition to Talbot Boys after feeling alarmed by the shooting of nine black members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof.

The NAACP then requested the statue’s removal and a countywide debate over which side of the town’s history to honor ensued.

A Painful History

Before the Civil War, Talbot County had the tenth largest slave population in the state. People from Africa and the Caribbean were brought into the deepwater port at Oxford, operated by founding father Robert Morris, according to local historian Bernard Demczuk. They were then distributed on both sides of the Tred Avon River using a ferry now considered the longest running private ferry in the country.

There were 3,725 slaves and 2,964 free blacks living in the county by 1860. Slaves were sold at an open market where the county courthouse now stands.

When war broke out, brothers in the county found themselves fighting against each other, though three times as many fought for the Union as the Confederate cause.

The Talbot Boys statue was erected 51 years after the war ended during the height of segregationist Jim Crow period.

“You had this climate in 1913, 14, 15 of the highest office in the land saying it’s good to attack black people, it’s the American way,” said Demczuk. “That’s why the statue was put up.”

During that same era, there were several lynchings on the Eastern Shore, Demczuk said. Black residents, such as those in Unionville five miles away, knew not to wander far from home.

“That community was self-sustaining and it was insular and it had to be,” Demczuk, who wrote a dissertation on Unionville, said. “They had to grow their own food, they had to have their own school system, they had to have their own midwives, they had to have their own health care and child care because they couldn’t go to the white schools. They were confined. Racism and Jim Crow and the [Ku Klux] Klan confined them into this community.”

Memories and Photo Albums

Harriette Lowery grew up in Easton but visited her grandparents in Unionville every Sunday for dinner. Her family migrated to Baltimore when she was 14, but, like many Easton residents, she said she was later drawn back to the small town’s peacefulness.

What she didn’t know was that her great great grandfather, Benjamin Demby, had been drawn back to the county decades earlier as well after serving in the United States Colored Troops.

It was at a ceremony in 1998 that Lowery said she first heard the story of the 18 soldiers. Brig. Gen. Albert Hunter was digging into the lost history, and Lowery knew one of the 18 was probably an ancestor of hers. When she learned she was correct, she was dumbfounded that her family had never told her about her heritage.

“I was 48 years old and it was the first time I’d ever heard that story,” Lowery said. “I could not understand why.”

County council member Dirck Bartlett similarly did not know he had a connection to Unionville until five years ago.

Now he treasures a thick, buckled family photo album with a portrait of Ezekiel Cowgill, the quaker abolitionist who leased the land in Unionville to the soldiers for one dollar per month. Bartlett said he found the family relic advertised in a newspaper.

Everyone in Easton seems to have a similar story. Everyone is related to someone, and despite decades where the community avoided discussing such matters, Easton’s current generation finds deep value in preserving such memories.

In the basement of an antique shop, the Talbot County Historical Society manages a vault to preserve items families have donated. Everything from dollhouses to old dresses are now becoming artifacts.

This is one reason why removing an artifact with 84 Confederate names feels wrong to people like Bartlett.

“As bad of a cause as that was, they were still just soldiers from families in this area and the families decided to honor them with a statue,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was my place to tear [it] down.”

Imposing any edits to Easton’s physical history feels radical for many white residents, even though the statue’s origin can be easily traced back to the violence of Jim Crow which followed post-Civil War Reconstruction. Many black residents who recognize that history don’t want to relive the trials that came with taking a stand against their oppressors.

That’s where the issue of maintaining the peace finds its way back into Easton’s dialogue. Doing nothing is the most peaceful option both for those who appreciate the statue and those who find it offensive.

But more insistent voices are eager to push for change. When they do, many of even the most non-confrontational residents find themselves falling on one side or the other.

Controversy

Easton’s Talbot Boys statue stands on the Talbot County Courthouse lawn. Some residents believe its position sends a message of hate to those seeking justice and inaccurately portrays the Confederacy as the winner of the Civil War.

Richard Potter, an Easton native and president of the NAACP, led the organization’s efforts in 2015 to remove the Talbot Boys statue from the lawn. The members submitted recommendations to the county council, which included relocating the statue to a museum and replacing it with a statue that honors both sides of the Civil War.

The courthouse is a place where Americans go to seek a fair and just trial, according to the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—yet, on one side of its lawn stands “a statue that honors individuals who were pro-slavery and wanted to keep us—a particular group of people—oppressed,” Potter said.

When the county council voted against the recommendations, they did so in an illegally closed meeting, a move that prompted the NAACP to partner with the ACLU of Maryland to fight the council’s violation of the Open Meetings Act. The council voted again in public, and the decision was the same—no.

For the more conciliatory voices, including Bartlett, a workaround solution came in 2011 when the county council allowed the Frederick Douglass Honor Society to erect a statue of Douglass. The statues stand 51 feet apart, on either side of the walkway leading up to the courthouse doors, both depicting life in 1800s Easton, when Confederates and those who supported the Union lived as neighbors.

Bartlett voted against the NAACP’s recommendations because he believed the Talbot Boys and Douglass statues complement one another by accurately depicting the county’s history with the Confederacy and Douglass’ triumph over slavery.

“The NAACP didn’t see it that way and that took me by surprise,” he said. “I thought that having both the statues was actually a good thing because it showed the progression of history, and having torn down the Talbot Boys statue, no one would ever know that there were Southern Sympathizers in Easton.”

Although the Douglass statue is viewed as a peaceful solution, it doesn’t tell the story of the other side of the Civil War—the Union side, according to Potter.

“[The NAACP] won’t be finished until that statue is removed and we have a monument up there that depicts the entire truth about the Civil War, as it relates to Talbot County,” he said.

By Teri West and Kirstyn Flood

 

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