Maryland Black Caucus agenda tallies some wins, some losses

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland gather for a presentation of their priority agenda items on, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Annapolis, Md. The Caucus is prioritizing issues ranging from the ongoing lawsuit involving historically black colleges, medical cannabis, and the suspension of pre-kindergarten students in Baltimore City. (Hannah Klarner/Capital News Service)

By: Brianna N. Rhodes

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus ended the 2017 session with mixed outcomes for their priority legislative agenda.

The General Assembly passed legislation on prescription drug affordability and a ban on pre-kindergarten suspension.

But the House failed to vote on controversial medical marijuana legislation before time ran out.

And a bill regarding bail did not get to the floor of that same chamber.

Legislation that would encourage minority-owned businesses in Maryland’s medical marijuana industry failed in the last minutes of the legislative session on Sine Die, April 10.

Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, led a press conference April 12, calling for an urgent special session of the legislature to pass the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission Reform Act, House bill 1443.

The bill would increase diversity in medical marijuana grower licenses. It would grant up to five more growing licenses and increase the likelihood they would go to minority-owned businesses.

“Medical marijuana was a disappointing factor for all of us,” Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes, D-Dorchester and Wicomico, said Wednesday.

Sample-Hughes, who was a part of the work group for the legislation, said that she was disheartened to see it fail but she remains optimistic for a resolution.

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. released a statement April 12 in support of a special session called by the black caucus, “…either by call of the Governor or by call of the General Assembly with the signatures of a majority of each Chamber.”

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, also released a statement last week, saying he would support a special session after a study of disparities in the industry.

“Given the cloud that has hovered over this entire program and the 2017 legislative session, we must be entirely transparent and give the public confidence in the decisions that we make,” the statement read.

The caucus also voted to not support Senate bill 983 at the end of March. This bill, which had the support of the bail bonds industry, would have revived the role of cash bail in pre-trial release.

In February, the state Court of Appeals approved a rule that defendants awaiting trial can’t be held in jail because they cannot afford bail. Under the ruling, judges and prosecutors must consider a defendant’s ability to pay.

Advocates, including Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, argued that cash bail disproportionately affects those in poverty — particularly minorities — who can’t afford to pay and then remain in jail.

At a press conference in January, Glenn, chair of the black caucus, said that the group was “organized, prepared, and ready to hit the ground running.”

The caucus in total includes 51 members, nine from the Senate and 42 from the House of Delegates.

Black caucus parliamentarian Delegate Charles E. Sydnor III, D-Baltimore County, said he felt pretty good about the session.

“I think the agenda we had was pretty robust,” Sydnor said.

Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has been working on bail reform for 19 years, said the black caucus played a significant role in the issue this session.

“From an outside perspective, it appeared the caucus had different views initially and then reached a very strong consensus that the bail bondsmen bills should fail in this particular session,” Colbert said.

Colbert said he believed, through discussion and education, the caucus realized that the bill would set matters back to a system where money ruled.

“The impact of course falls greatest on the African-American community — both individuals and families — that must pay the nonrefundable 10 percent to bondsmen. And in the end I think the caucus issued a strong statement and took a more coherent and cohesive position that evolved from their first discussion,” Colbert said.

Prescription drug affordability bill legislation, Senate bill 415 and House bill 63, will prohibit a manufacturer or wholesale distributor of medication from price gouging. The bill will also require Medicaid to notify Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh when prices increase.

Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative President Vincent DeMarco said he is very satisfied that it passed this session, with the support of the black caucus.

DeMarco said he has been working with the black caucus for a number of years on public health initiatives.

“They have been a critical part of all of Maryland’s public health success over the last 20 years,” DeMarco said.

“I’ve loved working with all of the chairs and all of the members have been great, but this year has been especially astounding.”

Senate bill 651 will restrict suspension of children in prekindergarten through second grade.

The bill does allow a student to be suspended for up to five school days if the school administration determines that there is a threat of serious harm to other students or staff that cannot be reduced or eliminated through interventions and supports after consultation with a school psychologist or a mental health professional. The bill will take effect July 1.

DeMarco said that Glenn, who represents his House district, moved the caucus forward by encouraging them to focus on four or five issues and making them a priority and pushing for them.

The vast majority of the black caucus were co-sponsors of the prescription drug affordability bill.

DeMarco met with Glenn and caucus legislative chair Delegate Darryl Barnes, D-Prince George’s, and said they were very supportive. Sen. Joan Carter-Conway, D-Baltimore, who as chair of the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee is a powerful member of the caucus, immediately thought it was a good idea to be one of the top issues, DeMarco said.

During press conferences about the legislation, DeMarco said, the black caucus emphasized how price gouging affects African-American communities and low-income communities as well.

“They talked about how the African-American community is hurt very hard when prescription drug prices go up and that they wanted to make sure that something was done about it,” DeMarco said.

DeMarco said that in the future that he hopes the caucus will continue to pick a few issues and make them happen. He said it was a “brilliant strategy.”

Sample-Hughes said that the caucus is much stronger by their ability to address the concerns of residents across the state.

Sample-Hughes said that until the next session, the black caucus will be visiting various areas across Maryland to address the needs of their constituents.

“Even our executive board has representation across the board,” said Sample-Hughes.
“That collectively is an indication not only us as state leaders, but on local and municipal levels, are wanting and needing to make changes for minorities across the state.”

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