Maryland’s Jewish community came out on top in a session that saw criminal justice reforms, debates about paid sick leave and end-of-life options and a number of projects funded, according to officials at the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Both the BJC and JCRC had a number of successful capital and budget requests as well as policy priorities pass or advance in the legislature.
The ABLE Act (Achieving a Better Life Experience), which both organizations supported, establishes a tax-advantaged savings program to help Marylanders with disabilities save for disability-related expenses including medical care, housing and transportation. The passage of the federal ABLE Act in 2014 mandated that state adopt their own legislation. Those aided by the legislation, which is akin to a 529 College Savings plan, will not lose other benefits from programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income or private insurance.
The JCRC and BJC also supported a bill that expanded the state’s stalking statute to include malicious behavior where the person intends to cause harm, knows or should know that the behavior would cause serious emotional distress to another person.
“It’s going to put a little more teeth to some of the stalking harassment issues,” said Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland government and community relations at the JCRC. “It basically gives the victim more protection under the law.”
Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.
While another BJC priority, the paid sick leave bill, did not pass, it made it out of committee on the House side for the first time in four years and got a floor vote. In the Senate, it got out of one committee but stuck in another, so there was no floor vote. Jews United for Justice also supported paid sick leave.
The JCRC is waiting to see if the Universal Voter Registration Act will be signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. The law would automatically register eligible voters. While the Senate bill did not pass, the House bill did on the last day of the session.
While the organizations were prepared to work together on a bill against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, research showed it was not necessary this year. Similar to current laws related to companies who do business with Iran, the bill would have prevented pension divestment, ensured that state pensions could not be invested in companies that support the BDS movement, and would have changed the state’s procurement contract process so that companies who support BDS could not earn state contracts. BJC officials researched both issues and found that while there is pressure on some companies, none have divested.
The End-of-Life Option Act, which would have allowed terminally ill individuals with six-month prognoses to obtain a prescription for a lethal drug, did not pass. While a number of Jewish advocates from the Baltimore area and Montgomery County rallied for the bill and its House sponsor, Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-District 13), is Jewish, the BJC and JCRC both opposed the bill based on traditional interpretations of Jewish law, and the BJC provided written testimony.
An issue the BJC has long supported, financial assistance for students in private schools, got some traction this year. While the Maryland Education Credit, which would have set up mechanisms to assist students in public and nonpublic schools, has struggled to pass in Maryland, the Fiscal Year 2017 budget includes a $5 million grant for nonpublic school students who are eligible for the federal Free and Reduced-Price Meals (FARM) program.
The money would be applied using the state’s per-pupil average for tuition and students who are FARM eligible will be ranked by highest need.
The legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) said was the biggest of any issues he’s worked on in his 18 years in Annapolis. The legislation helps low-level nonviolent drug offenders seek treatment, makes it easier for nonviolent misdemeanors to be expunged — Zirkin noted it was the single largest expansion of expungement law in the state’s history — and increased sentences for second-degree murder and child abuse murder.
“It was an extremely important piece of legislation to right-size our criminal justice system and do it in a way that, most importantly, protected public safety and actually enhanced public safety,” Zirkin said.
Jews United for Justice, which has been pushing for reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, highlighted law enforcement-related reforms that allow for anonymous reporting of police misconduct, and to require most police trial board hearings to be open to the public. It is also pushing to remove the notarization requirement for police misconduct complaints, extend the brutality complaint filing period from 90 days to one year and a day and allow a third party with first-hand knowledge of misconduct, such as a video recording, to file a complaint. The package also allows police chiefs and commissioners to appoint up to two civilians to their jurisdictions’ police trial boards.
Baltimore City Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) passed a new bill relating to “right to travel,” which has implications for travel to Israel. A previously passed bill said life insurance companies cannot arbitrarily deny someone coverage and make it more expensive based on past travel to Israel and other places with travel advisories. This year, he got a bill passed applying that same idea to future travel.
“The bill says that a state department travel advisory by itself is insufficient for life insurance companies to deny or increase rates, they need something else,” he said.
The JCRC received funding for a number of capital requests, including a $400,000 grant to renovate the Revitz House in Rockville, a Charles E. Smith Life Community. The community, which is subsidized by United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, is home to low-income seniors and disabled adults. The facility is 39 years old.
The JCC of Greater Washington will receive $150,000 from a bond bill that will allow the organization to build a security wall in front of its playground and make the playground more accessible for children with disabilities. The Jewish Foundation for Group Homes got a $50,000 bond bill to make renovations to about six aging group homes.
The Berman Hebrew Academy got a bond bill for $100,000 for repairs and renovations to the lower school playground. The Torah School of Greater Washington will also receive $200,000.
The BDS movement will continue to expose the apartheid conditions in Palestine just as was done in South Africa.