2017 Legislative Highlights

Advocacy in Annapolis is always a cross between a sprint and a marathon, and this year's 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly was no exception. Thanks to your calls to legislators, we passed the Healthy Working Families Act after five years, which will increase the number of Maryland workers who can earn paid sick days. We also defeated a harmful bill that would have set back real bail reform. We share these victories, along with updates on other key legislation, in the report below.

 


Healthy Working Families Act

HB 1/SB 230, the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act (HWFA), passed the Maryland General Assembly with a veto-proof majority in its fifth year of introduction. The Act allows employees in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours they work, up to a maximum of five paid sick days. Employees in smaller businesses will earn unpaid leave. Currently, there are more than 750,000 Maryland workers in the private sector without access to any paid sick days. It is estimated that about 488,000 Marylanders will be able to earn paid leave under the HWFA, while at least another 205,000 will earn unpaid leave, such that the bill provides a benefit to more than 90% of Maryland employees who did not have any earned sick days before. While Governor Hogan has threatened to veto the legislation, polls show that roughly 83% of voters across party lines support it, and Marylanders across the state are calling on the Governor to change his mind. Thank you to our sponsors Delegate Luke Clippinger and Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton. Passage of the HWFA is a product of the Maryland Working Matters Coalition, a group of over 160 organizations seeking to advance better working conditions for Maryland’s workers. The PJC is a founder and Executive Committee leader of the Working Matters Coalition.

*Update: Governor Hogan vetoed the Healthy Working Families Act (HB 1) on May 25, 2017. We now look to the Maryland Legislature to override this veto immediately when they return to the legislative session in January 2018.

 

Harmful Bail Bill Defeated

No news is good news! Battling bills to “reform” Maryland’s pretrial justice system, specifically with respect to reliance on money bail, resulted in a stalemate this session. While that sounds like nothing happened, in reality it leaves in place a new rule adopted by the Court of Appeals, to take effect on July 1, that literally puts money bail at the bottom of the list of mechanisms judges should rely on to secure an individual’s appearance for trial on an upcoming criminal charge. The stated purpose of the new rule is to release individuals on their own recognizance or unsecured bail whenever possible.
 
Not surprisingly, the bail bonds industry launched an all-out misinformation campaign to pass SB 983, which would have effectively repealed the rule. The PJC worked with the Coalition for a Safe and Just Maryland to defeat the legislation and deal a major blow to the bail bond industry, which is among the highest contributors to key legislators in our state. A competing bill (SB 880/HB 1390) to codify the rule also failed to advance but was not necessary—the rule stands and has the force and effect of law since it was not overridden by the legislature. While there is much more to be done to secure adequate and appropriate pretrial services and resources for supervision that will aid individuals in appearing for court, and protect public safety, without unduly burdening liberty for those still presumed innocent, and to reduce the pretrial detention population throughout the state, the protection of the new rule was a critical victory. Many thanks to all of the coalition members (https://www.safeandjustmd.org/) and the lead sponsors of real bail reform legislation: Delegates Barron, Dumais, and Moon, and Senator Kelley.

 

The HOME Act

The HOME Act, HB 172/SB 728, would have prohibited landlords from discriminating against tenants based on the tenant’s source of income. Source of income discrimination particularly affects poor families who have housing choice vouchers (aka Section 8). Because many landlords in some of the higher income, safer neighborhoods with good schools and employment opportunities do not accept any vouchers, voucher holders are frequently limited to rentals within poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. For the first time in recent history, the HOME Act, with some amendments, was passed by the House. It died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee where the Chair, Senator Bobby Zirkin, refused to call a vote on or support the bill. The bill is strongly opposed by major landlord lobby groups. Many thanks to our sponsors, Delegate Steve Lafferty and Senator Will Smith. Thanks also Antonia Fasanelli of the Homeless Persons Representation Project and Odette Ramos of the Community Development Network, who helped lead the tremendous effort that made legislative progress on this critical fair housing issue.

 

Expedited Evictions

SB 706, Expedited Evictions, would have made it more difficult for a tenant to get legal advice or to prepare a defense when their landlord wants to evict them for allegedly dangerous behavior. The bill would shorten the required notice of the eviction from 14 days to 7 days, and shortened the appeal period from 10 days to 4 days. SB 706 passed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in a 6-5 vote, and passed on the Senate floor, but failed in the House. The PJC joined with allies Disability Rights Maryland, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Maryland Attorney General Consumer Protection Division, Maryland Legal Aid, and others to advocate that legislators reject this harmful bill.

 

Rent Court Reform

Following last year’s HB 796/SB 801, a bill to comprehensively reform Baltimore City's Rent Court process, the PJC took a leading role in the subsequent legislative interim study helmed by Delegate Sandy Rosenberg and Judge Mark Scurti. From June 2016 through January 2017, landlords, tenant advocates, and other stakeholders extensively debated potential statewide reforms aimed at making Rent Court fairer and more efficient. The consensus process ultimately generated a handful of proposals that would form HB 1487 in this year's legislative session.

The bill would ensure renters at least seven days' notice of trial; provide for up to seven days' postponement to obtain evidence to support a defense; and critically, give both renters and judges the statutory grounds to stop landlords who fail to comply with the Maryland Lead Risk in Housing Law from using the eviction process. Sponsored by Delegate Rosenberg, HB 1487 was buoyed by the coordinated support of the PJC and an array of legal services and social justice groups: Jews United for Justice, Montgomery County Renters Alliance, Access to Justice Commission, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and more. HB 1487 passed through the House with one amendment. In the Senate, the bill suffered political pitfalls in the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Just before Sine Die, the committee voted unfavorable 7-3, with Chair Bobby Zirkin (D, District 10, Baltimore County) abstaining.

 

Attorney Fees when Rights Violated under Maryland Constitution

SB 705/HB 903 would have allowed a court to award attorney fees to someone whose rights were violated under the Maryland Constitution and who won their case. This bill is important to help victims whose rights have been violated be able to find lawyers to represent them in court. The bill passed the House, as it has for the last three years, and for the first time passed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. But county governments, who claimed there would be an onslaught of cases for constitutional rights violations, mounted a major fight on the Senate  floor. The bill was returned to the committee where it died without a vote. Thank you to our sponsors, Senator Anthony Muse and Delegate Kathleen Dumais, and to many allies who testified with us, including Brown, Goldstein & Levy, Disability Rights Maryland, ACLU of Maryland, Maryland Legal Aid, the University of Baltimore School of Law, and the Access to Justice Commission.