For many in Maryland’s Jewish communities, the recently-concluded 2014 legislative session was a success.
With a resolution to much of the kosher wine problem, the passage of a bill expanding prekindergarten to more Maryland children and the inclusion of an amendment to the budget denouncing the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, in addition to inclusion of many Jewish-supported budget points, both the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Baltimore Jewish Council are pleased with what was accomplished in 2014.
“It was an incredibly successful session,” said Cailey Locklair, the BJC’s director of government relations and public policy.
The BJC’s budgetary priorities this year included funding for domestic violence medical training, health care for the uninsured and underinsured, an elder abuse center, the Hillel Center for Social Justice and the Maryland/Israel Development Center, among others. A $50,000 bond bill to help Jewish Community Services renovate housing for developmentally disabled adults was also introduced by Del. Dana Stein and passed. Among the BJC’s policy priorities that passed were minimum wage and increasing the selection of kosher wine available to Marylanders.
The BJC reached an agreement with the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, Inc. and the Field Enforcement Division of the Comptroller’s office to help increase the variety and accessibility of kosher wine to Marylanders, a longtime issue for both the BJC and the JCRC.
Under the agreement, the comptroller created a website that lists kosher wines obtainable in Maryland and the distributors that sell them, retailers will be educated on how to order the wines, the number of kosher wines available in Maryland will increase to 1,000 by 2015 and distributors will maintain lists of the kosher wines they sell.
“We are extremely pleased,” Locklair said.
In both Washington and Baltimore, Jewish social service agencies secured funding to continue their work, including a bill Stein sponsored ensuring funding for the JCS’s work with homes for the disabled.
JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber agreed that the settlement reached wasn’t perfect, but it has paved the way for further gains in the future.
The BJC also supported the raising of minimum wage and had long supported medical marijuana. But the council spent a lot of time dealing with the issue of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
A rift between the two Jewish community organizations became apparent in early March when the JCRC and the BJC took opposite sides on proposed legislation that would have placed a financial penalty on state universities for funding faculty participation in ASA-sponsored events. The eventual inclusion of language in the budget condemning academic boycotts as well as the ASA’s boycott satisfied both organizations, but the March 5 and 6 hearings made the divide public.
“It could have been handled better on all sides,” said Halbur, noting that such a public disagreement between the two organizations threatens legislators’ trust in both to present them with ideas supported by the Jewish community as a whole.
The boycott bill, he noted, was the one blemish on the Jewish community’s record.
The inclusion of the amendment condemning the boycott is considered to be a win by both sides, though.
“It’s a huge victory for Maryland and for the Jewish community in Maryland that our state has taken such a strong stance on boycott, divestment and sanctions,” Locklair said. “The movement is only going to continue to grow and for our state to say ‘we don’t support the BDS movement’ … we couldn’t be happier.”
Additionally, while a transportation bill which would have required a French rail company tied to the transport of Jews to concentration camps to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors before they could bid for D.C.’s Purple Line contract died in committee, Locklair said it provided the BJC an opportunity to educate legislators about the Holocaust.
“It was a very good session,” said Halber. “Our priorities were passed, relations with legislators were strengthened.”
On the pre-K expansion, which would allow Jewish day schools to receive state funding if they choose to participate in the state’s program, Halber said, “It certainly has the potential to make Jewish families of lower income to access a Jewish education.” In February, members of the Orthodox Union joined with day school teachers and administrators to testify on behalf of the bill. Although the program could potentially result in day school prekindergartens functioning almost identically to public classrooms, those members of the Jewish community present said the potential good expanded access could do for local Jewish children would likely make any challenges well worth it.
The 2014 session, said Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), saw a lot of compromise among legislators.
For example, he pointed to the passage of bills dealing with marijuana and raising the minimum wage. Through series’ of changes and amendments the General Assembly managed to come to enough agreement on all to pass them.
“This was a less contentious year than other years,” said Stein.
Professor Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County called this legislative session one of the most boring in history.
“I don’t think there was a whole lot on the agenda and I think that was probably intentional because this is an election year,” he said, a theory to which Stein added that many of the hot button issues had already been dealt with. “Delegates and senators don’t want their positions to come back and bite them when they run for office.”
Other than decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, passage of an effective medical marijuana bill and raising minimum wage to $10.10, Norris said not much happened. And on minimum wage, he’s not convinced it’s significant.
“The $10.10 minimum wage doesn’t kick in until 2018,” he said. “By then, four more years of purchasing power will have eroded through inflation.”
With that in mind, he said Maryland legislators, generally known for being “deep blue liberal progressive” didn’t do much for the poor, but a lot for the rich including $15 million in tax breaks to movie producers, he said.
With this session being Martin O’Malley’s last as governor, Norris said he set himself up favorably if he decides to seek higher office.
“A number of these issues, such as minimum wage, marijuana, transgender discrimination and issues in prior years are all really good issues for Martin to use when he’s running for president because those resonate with the democratic base,” he said.
House Minority Leader Del. Nicholaus Kipke (R-District 31) said his party was pleased with the passage of the medical marijuana bill and bills advancing election reform in the state, but had hoped to see more work on taxes.
“We have a laser-like focus on tax reform in Maryland,” he said.
“Right now Maryland has a lot of assets — we have a good economy — but I think if we got our tax policy in a more competitive light, we would make our state so much more prosperous.”
Marc Shapiro and Heather Norris are staff reporters for out sister publication, Baltimore Jewish Times.