Senate President Pro Tem Melony Griffith (left) shakes the hand of Senate President Bill Ferguson on Jan. 12 after he is sworn in to continue as the chamber's leader. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
Senate President Pro Tem Melony Griffith (left) shakes the hand of Senate President Bill Ferguson on Jan. 12 after he is sworn in to continue as the chamber's leader. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

The Maryland legislature convened last week for its annual 90-day session, the third straight amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic with the state closing on nearly one million confirmed cases.

Masks and face coverings remain required inside the State House with legislators showcasing some with a message including Del. Nick Charles (D-District 25) of Forestville outlining his support for public schools.

Del. Darryl Barnes (D-District 25) of Upper Marlboro wants to ensure a Black agenda remains a priority that includes legalizing marijuana for recreational use for adults, police reform legislation from Gov. Larry Hogan and the environment.

Within those proposals, Barnes said to begin the 444th legislative session Jan. 12, mental health must be an integral component.

“We need to look at diverting a lot of our dollars towards mental health,” he said. “Not only for our elderly population but our youth because of this pandemic. We are seeing more and more people who are in need of the assistance they deserve.”

Members of the Maryland House of Delegates stand and applaud on Jan. 12, the first day of the 90-day legislative session in Annapolis. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-District 47) of Cheverly said he plans to craft legislation focused on behavioral health, especially inequities among Blacks and Latinos.

Augustine recommends some money from the more than $2 billion budget surplus be used to pay for mental health treatment for problems like depression, suicide and domestic violence connected with people isolated in the home.

“It could be used to help [people] immediately and it is investments in people today that will help long term,” he said. “If we can help people live a full and productive life by giving the behavioral health concerns they need, it pays off for us in the long term. We need to make sure people are safe. If there’s anything we need to do as a legislature, then we need to do that.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (right) walks down the steps alongside Keiffer Mitchell Jr., Hogan’s chief legislative officer, inside the State House in Annapolis en route to a press briefing on Jan. 12. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

One bill that has received major support deals with paid family and medical leave.

A recent poll from OpinionWorks of Annapolis shows 88% of respondents endorse the program for which proposed legislation would grant workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave.

Two main differences from current sick leave and family leave policies: the bill called the Time to Care Act focuses on long-term care such as following childbirth and a family member caring for someone with a “serious health condition” for which workers can receive partial wage replacement.

Sen. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Kris Valderrama (D-District 26) of Fort Washington will again sponsor the legislation they say “is common sense.” Both used personal time to take care of family members.

Valderrama, who joined Hayes and advocates on a virtual press briefing Thursday, Jan. 13, feels more “confident” this year the bill could pass because House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) not only made it a priority but verbally expressed it.

“I feel like this is the time,” she said. “It’s such a big issue on the federal level and nationwide. It’s not just a Maryland issue. It’s resonating with [Jones] even more.”

However, some Maryland groups may not offer that same support.Mary Presley, executive administrator with the Maryland Motorcoach Association, wrote in a Feb. 16, 2021, letter the legislation would hurt small businesses with “yet one more costly employer mandate our members can ill afford as they struggle to overcome a global pandemic.”

‘Honor and a privilege’

After being sworn in to represent the 25th Legislative District in Prince George’s County, Karen Toles paid homage to her father, who brought her to the State House as a legislative page when she attended Forestville High School.

Maryland Del. Karen Toles (right) hugs Dyana Foster after Toles was sworn in Jan. 12 to represent the state’s 25th Legislative District, which encompasses portions of Prince George’s County. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

“To come back in these chambers and serve in this capacity, what an honor and a privilege,” said Toles, a former Prince George’s Council member from 2010 to 2018.

Toles, who recently graduated from the University of Baltimore Law School, will serve on the House Judiciary Committee.

One topic she will focus on is ghost guns, which are privately manufactured firearms often used in crimes. The guns are typically made of plastic, can be assembled using 3D printers and, most importantly, don’t have serial numbers, making them untraceable.

Toles works as a community affairs director for Prince George’s State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, who made it one of her legislative priorities.

A similar ghost gun bill didn’t get approved in last year’s session in Annapolis.

According to a legislative summary from Braveboy, county police had about 210 cases involving ghost guns last year.

“This legislation will close the loophole for the manufacturing and use of ghost guns in violent crimes in Maryland,” the summary said. “This legislation is aimed to make clear that ghost guns should be considered firearms for the purposes of the public safety article and for the purposes of the use of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence.”

As for the first day of business Wednesday, several people drove to Annapolis to celebrate Toles such as her sorority sisters with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

“I’m so excited about her being in this body,” said Kym Taylor of Bowie, who’s running for a seat in District 23B that could become consolidated as part of District 23. “As a council member in her District 7, she did a lot for those constituents. To have her here on a different level and now with a degree in law, she’s going to be a fantastic asset.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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