Fracking ban is main success in Md. session

Maryland state Sen. Bobby Zirkin
Photo by Rebecca Gardner

BALTIMORE — The most recent Maryland General Assembly session was an eventful one for Jewish lawmakers and lobbyists in which many priorities were funded and top policy initiatives both passed and failed.

Lawmakers voted to pass a bill to ban the controversial natural gas extraction technique known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. They also approved legislation that would give five paid sick days to most Maryland workers.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), the Senate’s lead sponsor of the fracking bill, said he’s been working for more than a year to convince Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to ban the practice.

“It’s been a long haul to get this bill passed,” Zirkin said of fracking. “Gov. Hogan was more than willing to help [once convinced], and this was an issue that Democrats and Republicans exerted a lot of effort to get passed. It’s a prime example of ways decisions should be to benefit the people.”

While Hogan signed the fracking bill, it remains unclear whether the governor will authorize the General Assembly’s mandatory earned sick and safe leave bill that passed both chambers with a veto-proof majority. Hogan previously had said the legislation would be “dead on arrival,” but he remained mum on the last day of session on whether he planned to sign or veto it.

Zirkin, who opposes the bill in its current form, proposed an amendment to allow businesses to be exempt from having to provide the benefit by applying for a hardship waiver from the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Had his amendment been added for inclusion, Zirkin, an attorney who runs his own law practice and offers earned sick and safe leave to his employees, said he would have thrown his support behind the measure.

“With issues like these, we have to be careful we aren’t hurting our small businesses,” Zirkin said. “I heard from a local lifeguard company that this bill would have raised their expenses by $250,000, which would have put them out of business.”

Another issue of note to Zirkin and the Jewish community was a bill that would have that would prevented companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel from doing business with the state. The bill, which failed to make it to the House and Senate floors for a vote, is expected to be brought back up next year, according to its lobbyists and bill sponsors.

“Unfortunately, other matters demanded the attention of the legislators, resulting in the bills being sidelined this current session,” the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) wrote in a statement. “We’re confident that next year we will receive even further support on this issue and look forward to continuing to work side-by-side with our friends and allies in the state legislature until we secure overwhelmingly bipartisan passage.”

Zirkin, lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said there is a possibility Hogan, a supporter of the anti-BDS legislation, could issue an executive order on the matter before next year’s session. Sixteen states have adopted laws or executive orders targeting the movement.

“I would say not getting that bill passed this session was one of the biggest disappointments,” Zirkin said of the anti-BDS legislation. “It was extremely frustrating. I think, now more than ever, it is time for us to send a strong message that we will not stand for this.”

Despite the setback on the anti-BDS legislation, BJC officials said there were many positives to take away from the session.

As part of the fiscal 2018 state budget the General Assembly passed in late March, more than $5.5 million was set aside to continue the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program to help low-income students attend private schools.

Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, applauded the state’s decision to increase the funding for BOOST from the $5 million it received in its inaugural year in 2016. He noted it would ensure that more than 700 students at 10 different Jewish schools who benefited from the program this school year would again remain in the program.

“We’ve seen and heard from my families just how much of a difference this had made in their children’s lives,” Libit said. “We hope to see the program funded for years to come and that many more families can benefit.”

Jews United for Justice, which lobbied in favor of earned sick and safe leave, was also pursuing bills on police and rent court reform, which did not pass this year.

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