Maryland Lawmakers Adjourn in Longtime Speaker's Honor

Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch died Sunday at age 72

One day after longtime Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch died, lawmakers gathered late Monday night to adjourn their annual 90-day legislative session with a moment of silence in his honor.

Remembered as a champion of the Chesapeake Bay and education, Busch, a Democrat, died Sunday at 72. Delegates and senators gathered at 11:30 p.m. to pay tribute to the longest-serving House speaker in the state's history.

"He was a mentor, a coach, a friend, and each and every one of us benefited from his wise counsel and his steady leadership," Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said. "Mike Busch truly became an institution within the institution of state government, and his name will long be synonymous with service in Maryland."

Del. Kumar Barve, a Democrat, said: "I feel like I lost an older brother."

The ceremony capped an emotional day as lawmakers worked to put finishing touches on legislation. Earlier in the day, the Senate voted to override a veto of a bill sponsored by the speaker to protect five oyster sanctuaries in the law.

The General Assembly also approved a measure to overhaul the University of Maryland Medical System's board of directors and institute reforms, after about one-third of UMMS board members received compensation through the medical system's arrangements with their businesses. Lawmakers also passed a bill to increase the state's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard from 25 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030.

The House atmosphere was somber for much of the day. Delegates cried and hugged in the House chamber as lawmakers gathered for an opening prayer.

"Yesterday, we lost a great man," said Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, who led the chamber in prayer. "Yesterday, we lost our speaker, Michael Busch."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the longest-serving Senate president in Maryland's history, who is battling prostate cancer, choked up as he spoke about the loss of his counterpart for more than 16 years in leading the General Assembly.

Still, lawmakers continued working.

The oyster measure would prohibit catching oysters in five sanctuaries: Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River, the Tred Avon River, the St. Mary's River and the Manokin River. Supporters say the sanctuaries are critical to the recovery of the state's oyster population, which is the foundation of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Opponents say it will harm watermen.

Lawmakers also approved a scaled-back version of legislation to create a state board to evaluate high-cost prescription drugs for state and local governments.

Earlier in the day, the House Democratic Caucus met with Attorney General Brian Frosh to discuss how to proceed with choosing a new speaker.

"You can take a few months. You can do it right away. You can wait until the next session begins," Frosh said in an interview.

While the speakership is vacant, House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones assumes responsibilities. She's been leading the chamber since the speaker's absence began last month, when he had a follow-up procedure to a 2017 liver transplant.

In 1973, the House went a month without a speaker, after Thomas Hunter Lowe was appointed to the state's intermediate appellate court.

Miller said earlier in the day a short special session could be held later this month to select a new speaker, once House leaders decide.

"People are going to be moving forward, and I would imagine that, it's up to the House leadership, but they're going to have to make a decision in terms of when to move forward,'' Miller said.

Many high-profile bills already had passed before the session's last day.

Lawmakers already have approved more than $1 billion in additional education funding over the next three years to begin implementing a state commission's recommendations to raise teacher pay and help low-income and special education students. It's been described as a down payment on a 10-year plan to enhance education.

Earlier in the session, they approved an increase in the state's minimum wage to $15 by 2025, overriding a veto from the governor. They also passed legislation to make Maryland the first state to ban foam containers for food and drink to help fight pollution.

They also approved health care measures. Residents who don't have health insurance will be able to check a box on their income tax returns enabling the state's health care exchange to determine and uninsured person's eligibility for free or low-cost health insurance.

Lawmakers also approved a health insurance provider fee of 1 percent through 2023 to help fund the state's reinsurance program, which provides a safety net for insurers by helping to pay large claims.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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