After 90 days and the introduction of nearly 2,800 bills, the Maryland General Assembly ended its 2021 legislative session on April 12 – bringing to a close what was arguably one of the strangest sessions in state history, marked by virtual hearings, towering plexiglass walls and empty hallways devoid of the usual scrum of advocates.
Adapting to the unusual environment, Catholic Charities’ legislative team identified mission-critical priorities as the session opened and followed them relentlessly. Over three months, the team and its partners saw success in passing bills that would fully fund social safety net benefits, codify an expansion of telehealth services and improve immigrants’ relationship with state officials – and they felt the disappointment of the last-minute death of bills that could have provided badly needed reform around residential evictions.
Director of Advocacy Regan Vaughan provided a summary of session highlights in four focus areas – and a reminder that the work for justice continues year-round.
By the 2021 session, the revenue outlook for Maryland was not as dire as expected. Job losses devastated low-wage sectors, but individuals making less than $50,000 annually represent a small percentage of state tax revenue. The steady incomes of higher-wage earners and federal stimulus funding both helped to counter the economic blow of COVID-19.
The rosier-than-expected outlook allowed legislators to fully fund the state social safety net, including: the Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) available to families in need; benefits increases for the Temporary Disability Assistance Program (TDAP); and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to serve a broader population with higher payments.
“We often refer to the budget as the moral document of Maryland. This year, it really does address the needs of the most vulnerable.” said Vaughan.
Other vital aspects of the budget included funding for the Community Health Resource Commission, which provides vital grants to health care providers, such as the My Brother’s Keeper clinic, the Esperanza Center and the Villa Maria Behavioral Health Clinics. Special grants to support eviction-prevention and the re-payment of utilities in arrears will also help Catholic Charities clients.
One of the signature efforts in 2021 was codifying the expansion of telehealth that occurred, by necessity, during the pandemic. The value of this new tool became clear over the past year; one Catholic Charities clinic, for example, cut in half the number of people discharged because of no-show appointments.
The General Assembly passed legislation that allows programs to provide telehealth services, including audio-only services. It also protects consumer choice, preventing insurance companies from requiring clients from using telehealth if they prefer in-person services. Vaughan called this “the big win” of the session, as it expands the tools available to health care providers as they seek to meet clients’ needs.
If health care provided a legislative victory for Catholic Charities and its partners, housing-related bills represented a painful disappointment. On the last day of session, key bills died that would have locked in and enhanced protections put in place during the pandemic to prevent evictions.
“Eviction reform has been on the agenda for a decade if not more. This was going to be the year the legislature fixed the process. Even in the face of an absolute crisis, the reform didn’t happen,” Vaughan said.
The General Assembly passed a bill that provides tenants with access to counsel in eviction cases, and requires landlords to inform tenants of that service. But a companion bill that funded the work did not pass.
“The hope is the state will be able to use stimulus funding to pay for it, but as of right now, it’s a program on paper only,” Vaughan said.
Two bills passed this session aim to enhance immigrants’ relationships with state officials. One prohibits state agencies – and some local agencies – from sharing information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in the absence of a criminal case. Vaughan said there was concern that the Motor Vehicle Administration, for example, had turned over information about undocumented individuals who applied for driver’s licenses to ICE, which then opened immigration proceedings against them. The second bill prevents police from inquiring about the immigration status of people who are not under arrest. This means that if someone is in a car accident or calls police for help, officers may not ask about their documentation.
“We want to make sure the immigrant community isn’t afraid to interact with police,” Vaughan explained.
As part of the expansion of the EITC, people who don’t have Social Security numbers and still file taxes – often undocumented individuals or those in families with mixed documentation status – now qualify for the tax break.
In addition, the legislature established the Governor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, modeled after Baltimore City’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. When funded, the state office will help coordinate immigrant services and act as a hub of information.
While the 2021 session has ended, advocates have not stopped working. Catholic Charities and its partners will continue building support around a key bill on family and medical leave for Maryland workers, which never came up for a vote this year. And they will continue pressing to ensure increases to social safety net programs, such as TDAP and TCA, continue over the long-term.
As 2022 is an election year, Vaughan also stressed the importance of learning about candidates’ positions, talking to people running for office and weighing in on key issues. Summer and fall are also good times to highlight priorities for current legislators.
“When they hear about something in June, it is one of five issues instead of being one of the 5,000 issues they hear about during session. That helps them remember,” she said.