The 2019 legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly came to a close on April 8, with accomplishments that include record funding for nonpublic schools, added penalties for domestic violence against pregnant women, a state commitment to using 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, and strengthened laws to prevent human trafficking.

The conclusion of the legislative session was tempered by the news that long-time House Speaker Michael Busch had died a day before the session’s close after being hospitalized with pneumonia.

Busch was a Democrat and Catholic who represented District 30A (Anne Arundel County) and served as House Speaker for 16 years. Prior to entering a career in politics, he taught at St. Mary’s School in Annapolis. At the request of Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, St. Mary’s Church was kept open for an hour and a half on the evening of April 7 for anyone who wished to pray for Speaker Busch, who at that time was very ill.

Jennifer Briemann, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC), said there was a “somber tone everywhere around the state capital” as everyone reflected on the speaker’s legacy.

“No matter where you fell on issues relative to where he was on that issue, you knew he was going to be fair and measured and lead with integrity, even if you were on completely different sides of the issue from where he was,” said Briemann.

As Maryland moves forward with uncertainty about future leadership, here’s a look back at some of the highlights of this year’s legislative session.

Fetal Homicide

An amended version of Laura & Reid’s Law passed, enhancing protections for pregnant women in Maryland. The legislation is named after a woman and her unborn son who were both murdered by her partner.

The original version of the bill would have expanded the state's existing fetal homicide law to allow for prosecution when a fetus as young as eight weeks gestation is killed through a violent attack on a pregnant woman. The amended version leaves in place Maryland’s existing fetal homicide law, which allows prosecutors to seek an additional murder charge when a woman who is 24 weeks or more pregnant is attacked and her unborn child is killed. Instead, it creates an enhanced penalty of up to 10 years in prison that courts can apply when a pregnant woman is a victim of violence, regardless if her unborn child is or is not harmed, at the hands of someone who knew she was pregnant.

"Even though there is nothing at this point that can bring justice for the loss of Laura and her son Reid, this law is an important step in protecting Maryland's pregnant women and their unborn children going forward," said Therese Hessler, associate director of the MCC. "Far too many Maryland women are like Laura: victims of intimate partner violence. Our prayer is that this law, passed in their honor, will deter others from committing similar acts of violence.”

Human Trafficking

Several bills to prevent human trafficking were passed during the session, including a recodification bill that expands the definition of human trafficking to criminalize labor trafficking, in addition to the already criminalized sex trafficking. Additional legislation that passed categorizes human trafficking as a crime of violence and reclassifies trafficking as a crime against the person, as opposed to a crime of obscenity. 

In the final hours of the session, legislators also established a grant program to provide necessary services unique to child victims of sex trafficking. These services are not currently available everywhere in Maryland, so the bill establishes Regional Navigators to ensure specialized service providers in each jurisdiction coordinate with the state agencies to get children the services they need.

"This session we saw some major wins in the effort to combat human trafficking in Maryland," said Anne Zmuda Wallerstedt, associate director of the MCC. "Legislators saw the urgent need to take action on these very important bills and enable those on the front line of this crisis to have more tools available to both go after traffickers and care for victims." 

Education

The Maryland State Budget passed with a record $21 million for nonpublic schools, including $7.5 million for the BOOST Scholarship Program, which provides low-income students scholarships to attend the nonpublic school of their choice. The budget also includes $6 million toward the Nonpublic Student Textbook and Technology Program, $4 million toward the Senator James E. “Ed” DeGrange Nonpublic Aging Schools program, and $3.5 million for school safety initiatives through Nonpublic School Safety Grants.

"Just a few short years ago, our state was giving only a few million dollars to aid our nonpublic schools," said Garrett O'Day, deputy director of the MCC. "The assistance provided to our students by the legislature both enables low-income families to choose the educational options best suited for their children and enables our schools to continue to provide quality education in a safe and sound environment. Our parents and teachers are grateful for that.”

Environment

The Clean Jobs Energy Act is on its way to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan for a signature, and if passed, it will require the state to acquire 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, by 2030, and requires Maryland to examine pathways to 100 percent clean energy by 2040. The bill was supported by the MCC as well as many other faith-based groups.

In their testimony supporting the bill, the MCC quoted Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, writing, “When we speak of the ‘environment’, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.”

Further in the testimony, the MCC wrote, “House Bill 1158 aims to address the much needed reforms to energy consumption policies and standards to be set to sustain and achieve a healthy global ecosystem. We encourage discussion around the components and goals outlined in this legislation and pray they are a catalyst for meaningful ecological policy reform.”

Immigration

Several immigration bills are also headed to Governor Hogan’s desk for a signature, including an expansion of the Maryland DREAM Act to allow eligible undocumented Maryland students to pay in-state tuition rates at a majority of public Maryland colleges and universities. Another bill clarifies and streamlines the state’s role in the application process for a Nonimmigrant U-Visa, a temporary visa that can lead to permanent status.

Physician Assisted Suicide

The MCC successfully worked as a part of the collation Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide (MAPAS) to defeat the End of Life Option Act, which would have made it legal for adults deemed mentally capable and who have a prognosis of six months or less to receive a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs to end their life. After the House narrowly passed the bill, it was defeated in the Senate by a tie 23-23 vote. The MCC expects physician-assisted suicide legislation to be reintroduced again next year.

"The failure of physician-assisted suicide legislation this session was thanks to the many people who spoke out time and again to the General Assembly to ask them to not pass this dangerous legislation," said Briemann. "This bill got further than ever before this session, and while we know the proponents are more organized than ever, MAPAS and its supporters remain a powerful opposition. We are beyond grateful for those who took time to write and call their lawmakers and be the voice against this bill. We don't have this in our law today because of you."