Maryland General Assembly Passes Extensive Education Bill

The General Assembly will be out of session nearly three weeks short of their scheduled last day due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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The Maryland General Assembly gave final approval Tuesday night to a far-reaching education measure aimed at improving K-12 education throughout the state.

The House of Delegates voted 96-38 Tuesday night, sending the legislation to Gov. Larry Hogan, who has vowed to oppose tax increases to pay for the plan projected to cost billions of dollars over the next decade.

Supporters say the legislation is needed because Maryland students are falling behind.

“We are failing kids,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat and a former teacher. "Half of them are not career and college ready.”

Opponents pointed to the measure's cost during a time of economic uncertainty because of the coronavirus.

"The last couple of weeks have put our state into a situation that none of us, not one person here, expected,” said Del. April Rose, a Carroll County Republican.

The plan focuses on five policy areas for K-12. They include expanding early childhood education such as pre-K and increasing teacher salaries. The policy areas also include college and career readiness, aid for struggling schools and accountability in implementation.

The measure would phase in the recommendations over 10 years and cost billions of dollars.

The General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, also is weighing revenue measures to pay for the plan. One of the proposals would create a first-in-the-nation tax on advertisements on the internet. A tobacco tax also is being considered, as well as other revenue measures.

Concerns about how the new coronavirus will affect the economy has had an impact on the bill. The Senate changed the legislation so that if revenue estimates in December are more than 7.5% below revenue estimates made in March of that year, per pupil increases in major education aid required under the bill would be limited to the rate of inflation.

The vote came a day before the General Assembly is planning to adjourn nearly three weeks before its scheduled conclusion April 6 because of the virus outbreak.

Lawmakers were expediting priority legislation. Earlier in the day, the House passed the state's $48 billion budget with added money to deal with the new coronavirus.

The House voted 126-8 for the state's spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The Senate is poised to vote on the measure Wednesday.

Approving a balanced budget for the next fiscal year is a requirement of the General Assembly's annual session. It had been scheduled to end April 6, but legislative leaders have set Wednesday for adjournment.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House budget committee, said the budget has a $231 million fund balance, about $105 million higher than the spending plan had when Gov. Larry Hogan submitted it in January.

“We’ve also again, I want to reiterate, left nearly $1.4 billion to protect against economic uncertainty," McIntosh said.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican who is the House minority whip, described the budget as “fiscally prudent and socially responsible.”

“I also want to commend the committee for putting more money into the rainy day fund and putting some of that making it available to our governor for emergencies,” said Szeliga, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties.

Lawmakers also are moving forward with a measure for $2.2 billion in additional funding for school construction over several years.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly also passed a measure to require background checks on all rifle and shotgun sales in Maryland, sending the measure to Hogan, a Republican. Under current Maryland law, sales of rifles and shotguns by unlicensed sellers do not require a background check.

“Requiring a background check on rifles and shotguns sales will save lives,” said Danielle Veith, a volunteer with the Maryland chapter of Moms Demand Action. “This legislation is a huge step forward, but it's certainly not the end of the road for gun safety in Maryland.”

The bill was changed so that loans of rifles and shotguns will be exempted from the background check requirement.

Lawmakers also gave final approval to a measure creating a regulatory framework to implement telehealth, allowing doctors and health care providers to make virtual house calls. The bill provides definitions and standards on how practitioners can create a patient relationship through telehealth and deliver care, including prescriptions.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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