- By Del. Eric Bromwell (D-8) -
The Budget: Once again, Maryland is facing a budget deficit - $400 million this year and another $400 million next year. It's not Governor Hogan's fault and it's not the General Assembly's fault. The Board of Revenue Estimates did not project the state's revenue intake correctly. This has happened before. Projecting revenue is not an exact science. Future events are uncertain and anything can occur to throw projections off. When the Assembly adjourned in April, the state was in great shape. A $42.3 billion balanced budget was approved - $1 billion was put in the Rainy Day Fund - and we had a $400 million surplus. We have to make cuts. There is bipartisan agreement that we will not fix the deficit with tax or fee increases. However, cuts will not be easy because over 80 percent of spending in the budget is mandated and increases every year.
Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Prices: Both federal and state law making bodies are seeking solutions to stop rapidly escalating prescription drug prices. Since 2007, Mylan, the pharmaceutical company that produces EpiPen - a life-saving treatment for millions whose allergies can send them in to severe shock - has raised the drug's price 17 times or 548 percent. A pack of two doses of EpiPen now sells for $608.61. I am the prime sponsor of legislation to halt this unconscionable fleecing of people who need prescription medicines. The bill, similar to a law recently approved in Vermont, requires drug companies to reveal how they set their prices, as well as how much they spend on research, advertising and production. In short, it establishes prescription drug transparency. In addition, the legislation authorizes the Maryland Attorney General to take legal action to prevent price gouging. A recent poll taken by Opinion Works showed that 84 percent of Marylanders want prescription drug transparency.
Transportation Scoring: Governor Hogan has said that his top priority is the repeal of the transportation scoring law approved during the 2016 session. Opponents of the bill are convinced that the scoring system will favor rail over road projects and urban projects over rural ones. The governor insists that the legislation “axes” road projects throughout Maryland, including several in Baltimore County. He has repeatedly stated that his hands are tied by the law, which was approved in 2014. The Governor subsequently vetoed the bill, which was then overridden by the legislature.
After the 2014 election, I made a promise to you that I would not support bills that I believe to be partisan in nature, regardless of the bill sponsors. I saw this bill as a response to Gov. Hogan cancelling the Red Line and, therefore, voted no. I then supported the governor by voting against the veto override.
However, I feel that there is misinformation being spread about this legislation. While I did not support the bill, we insisted the bill include the following language: “AND BE IT FURTHER ENACTED, That nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.” This protective language is key to understanding the, “teeth” of this legislation. As enrolled, the law determines which transportation projects that cost over $50 million get priority, based on a scoring system which weighs factors such as public benefit from the project, environmental benefit, increases in highway or transit capacity and safety. The governor can choose to begin a project which has a lower score over one with a higher score, but has to justify the departure in writing. As you can see by the language above, the bill absolutely does not tie the hands of the governor to fund road projects anywhere in the state.
Bail Reform: For years, nationwide and in Maryland, attempts have been made to change the bail system. All too often, the current system leaves poor people in jail for months awaiting trial, while those with the same charges against them are not confined to jail, awaiting trial only because they can pay the bail. A commission to reform Maryland's pretrial system has called the state's bail system grossly unfair, if not unconstitutional. Maryland's Attorney General, Brian Frosh, has stated it's most likely unconstitutional to set the amount of bail higher than the defendant can afford. In 2015, more than 8,000 people were jailed in Baltimore City awaiting trial, which cost taxpayers $100 - $159 per person, per day. The 2017 Assembly will consider legislation to prohibit Maryland judges from setting bail higher than the defendant can pay, unless the defendant is a flight risk or a danger to society.
Paid Sick Leave: The General Assembly in both 2015 and 2016 rejected paid sick leave legislation that originated in the House of Delegates. Governor Hogan will now ask the 2017 General Assembly to once again consider paid sick leave legislation. The Hogan bill applies to businesses that employ at least 50 employees, who work at least 30 hours a week. The Hogan bill is much weaker than the House of Delegates bill, which applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, as well as a great number of part-time workers.
Fracking: In 2015, the legislature approved a two-year moratorium on fracking, which ends in October of this year. The legislature also ordered the state's Department of the Environment to draft regulations to impose safety standards on fracking. Fracking opponents believe no amount of safety precautions can prevent negative public health impacts from fracking. In November, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York released the fourth edition of their “Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking.” The report contains more than 200 studies published this year alone. The top finding is that growing evidence shows that regulations are incapable of preventing harm. Opponents believe there is no such thing as safe fracking. So do I. Sixty percent of Marylanders polled want a permanent fracking ban. During the upcoming session, fracking opponents will fight to extend the ban or impose a permanent ban.
Shackling and Strip-Searching Juveniles: I have voiced my concern at the routine of shackling and strip searching juveniles detained in the state's 14 juvenile facilities. These practices are performed on every juvenile whether or not they are a flight risk or pose a danger to the public. The Secretary of Juvenile Services, Sam Abed, has consistently defended these practices as a safety precaution. The Department's own figures show that of 4,300 juveniles detained, 70 percent were neither a flight risk, nor a threat to public safety. The legislature established a 19-member task force to study the restraints and strip searching practices, as well as the needs of the children in the juvenile justice system. The task force recommendations included that strip searches be banned unless there is an "articulated reasonable belief" that a juvenile is hiding drugs or anything that could be used as a weapon. Shackling was limited to eight hours with a five minute break every four hours. The recommendations will be debated and voted on by the upcoming General Assembly.
Severe Shortage of Mental Health Beds: The shortage of mental health beds is now approaching crisis proportions. Over the years, an increasing number of people with mental illness have been arrested and booked into jails. However, state mental facilities have not kept up with the rising number of people needing mental health care. Added to this increase is the fact that patients stay longer for acute illnesses and private care providers refuse to accept criminal defendants who need ongoing help. Ninety percent of patients in state health department facilities are referred to the criminal justice system. That represents an increase from just 38 percent 15 years ago. Mental health facility workers say that the increase has contributed to making the workplace more dangerous. The shortage of mental health beds also exists in juvenile facilities, the state's five mental hospitals and inpatient care for drug addicts.
Please do not hesitate to contact me on these or any other issues of concern to you. I will be reporting to you on a regular basis during the 2017 General Assembly, which convenes on Wednesday, Jan. 11. As always, I encourage and welcome your input.