In his end of session letter, Senator Mike Lenett (D-19) includes a second-to-last paragraph that is a thinly-veiled slam on his possible challenger, Delegate Roger Manno. The paragraph says:
The Democratic Party could take a cue from the Republicans when it comes to sticking together. Democrats' lack of unity on the federal level has contributed to paralysis in Congress. On the state level, whereas Democrats should be working together to defeat Republicans and protect vulnerable Democrats across the state, they are instead lining up to bludgeon each other in Primary challenges in safe Democratic districts. Moreover, since there are only minor substantive differences between the candidates in such races, these races tend to be highly divisive, negative, and distracting from more important races, the outcome of which will have a significant impact on our values, such as the critical race for Governor. Such intra-party cannibalization results in massive squandering of resources that could be put to far better use. I understand that personal ambition is a powerful force and that politics tends to attract the hyper-ambitious, but at this crucial time for the Democratic Party -- where a disaster of the magnitude of 1994 cannot be discounted -- people must sacrifice their personal ambitions for the sake of strengthening our Party and protecting our values.Following is the entire end of session letter.
The 2010 Session of the Maryland General Assembly has ended. The 427th session of the state Legislature was dominated by the fiscal budget crisis. There were some notable successes, but there were also some notable failures. As I do every year right after session, I am sending you this report to summarize the legislative session and my own work. As always, I will tell you like it is, straight and candid, without the sugar coating I see too often from elected officials.
Moving Forward: Positive Developments
With state revenues suffering from the effects of the global economic downturn, we faced an extremely difficult fiscal situation and many hard decisions. Despite this, the General Assembly passed a balanced budget which cuts spending significantly yet protects critical investments including aid for our schools (ranked #1 in the country for the second year in a row) and passed other important legislation, all without raising taxes. Over the past four years, we have cut a total of $5.6 billion from the state budget, along with 4,000 state positions. As a result of our fiscal responsibility, Maryland is one of only seven states to earn a AAA bond rating.
We are a lot leaner, but we maintained critical funding for our top priorities. We provided $5.7 billion for K-12 education and more than doubled the funding to protect and support the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The General Assembly also allocated $20 million for the new Job Creation and Recovery Tax Credit Program, which offers a $5,000 tax credit for any business that hires an unemployed Marylander. Our budget also allots $5 million for the new Maryland Small Business Credit Recovery Program, which will make it easier for small businesses to obtain much-needed capital to get our economy moving again. We also provided $5.2 million to implement a new foreclosure mediation program to help families save their homes and $131 million to provide energy assistance to an estimated 259,000 Maryland households. Our healthcare program funding has extended healthcare coverage to more than 160,000 Marylanders.
This session, we cracked down on sexual predators by requiring the most serious sex offenders to be monitored by law enforcement for the rest of their lives and increasing the penalties to a mandatory 15-year prison sentence for second degree rape or sexual offense against a child. We also expanded the information contained on the State's sex offender registry, improved the linkage between Maryland's and other states' registries, and reformed the Maryland Sexual Offender Advisory Board so that its members will be required to have relevant experience and expertise.
Bills I Passed This Session
I'd like to tell you about the just-completed legislative session. Notwithstanding a few bitter defeats and the challenges of having no money for many progressive initiatives, it was another very successful session for me. I passed 11 bills in the Senate, 8 of which are becoming law. A ninth bill also is becoming law because it was incorporated verbatim by the Speaker of the House into his Safe Schools bill (more on that below). In addition, three more of my bills were substantially incorporated into other passed legislation and another was adopted by the Governor in an Executive Order. I didn't get everything I wanted, but I was very pleased with these results.
Developmental Disabilities -- Recipient Rights (SB 465). During difficult economic times, it is often our most vulnerable citizens who are negatively impacted. I have been an outspoken leader in the Senate on developmental disabilities and mental health issues. Last summer, I publicly opposed the Governor's funding cuts for disabilities services, a call to which many of my colleagues later joined (the Governor did refrain from further cuts). This year, I focused on how to mend a broken system under which disabled individuals are unable to have their funding levels reassessed when their health conditions change. A working group of stakeholders was formed to tackle the problem, which led to my successful bill clarifying the process of requesting funding for needed services and ensuring that individuals receive a fair hearing if the services are denied. This will go a long way towards guaranteeing that individuals receive the funding they need.
Voting Rights for Individuals Under Guardianship (SB 28). Under current law, disabled individuals under guardianship are automatically disqualified from voting. This bill removes that automatic disqualification and restores the civil rights of thousands of disabled and, until now, disenfranchised, individuals.
Protection for Tenants Caught in Foreclosures (SB 654). Everyone knows about the plight of homeowners who fall behind on their mortgage payments and lose their homes in foreclosures, but often overlooked are the thousands of tenants who have been thrown out on the street with little or no warning, through no fault of their own, when their properties are foreclosed upon. Building on the groundbreaking law I passed last year, this bill requires notice to tenants of their rights when their properties go into foreclosure proceedings, including the right to remain in their homes for a period after the foreclosure.
The Maryland Communities for a Lifetime Commission (SB 31). As our society continues to age, we have a growing number of seniors and baby boomers who want to age in place rather than be forced into institutions. But we have yet to seriously and comprehensively confront the challenges of our transforming society. Following up on my work on the Statewide Empowerment Zones for Seniors Commission, this bill will take the next step toward developing and implementing a statewide plan to overcome obstacles and enhance aging-in-place services. The bill is intended to pull together all the haphazard and unconnected efforts of a number of state agencies into one streamlined and coordinated inter-agency process for this initiative.
Civil Penalties for Violations of the Overtime Wage Law (SB 694). Wage theft is a problem that affects all workers, but particularly low-wage workers. Seeking to ensure that the working men and women of Maryland earn their fair and legal wages in this tough economy, this bill will apply triple damages against companies that deny workers their rightful overtime wages.
Task Force on Long-Term Health Care Facilities (SB 655). In recent years, private investment firms have bought some of the nation's largest nursing home chains. Concerns have been raised as to whether the quality of nursing home care has declined as a result. This Task Force, which I will co-lead, will investigate whether business practices governed by the profit motives of private investment firms is affecting the quality of care.
Community Democracy (SB 416). Last year, I passed two bills to restrict the ability of condo and homeowners association boards to close their meetings to residents. This year's bill will expand the open meetings laws to require associations to provide advance notice to residents of any meeting at which the budget will be voted on and to provide residents an advance copy of the proposed budget. The budget (and its affect on dues) is the most important matter determined by the boards and this bill will give residents the opportunity to provide meaningful input.
Criminal Background Checks for Psychologists (SB 1041). Psychologists tend to have substantial influence over their patients, particularly children, who place great trust in their therapists to treat their duress, disorders, or other problems. This bill requires a criminal background check for a psychologist license to protect the safety and well-being of patients.
Legislation Passed Within Other Bills
Ban on the Use of Hand-Held Cell Phones While Driving. For the past four years, I have been a leader in the fight to make our roads safer by prohibiting the use of hand-held cell phones and text messaging while driving. Last year, we finally prohibited texting while driving. This year, I joined with Senator Stone, the Senate's most senior member, and House Environmental Matters Chairwoman McIntosh, to pass the hand-held cell phone ban. On the Senate side, I put the bill (SB 19) in with a violation being a primary offense, and Senator Stone put it (SB 321) in with a violation being a secondary offense (which means a driver would have to violate another law in order for a police officer to issue a ticket for use of the phone). As it turned out, there were not enough votes for the primary offense bill so, working together, we brought Senator Stone's bill to the floor, where we had one of the toughest floor fights of the year. I co-led the floor debate, in which we had to defeat 14 amendments designed to weaken the bill, after which we passed it by one vote! Afterward, I appreciated Senator Stone's kind remarks, stating "I want to especially thank Senator Lenett for his leadership on this bill. The bill's passage would not have been possible without Mike's passion and determination over the last four years. This is as much his bill as it is mine."
Prohibiting Sex Offenders From Attending the Same School as Their Victims (SB 836). This bill was in response to a tragic situation that occurred right here in District 19 last year. Three high school boys raped a 17-year-old girl from Magruder High School. The boys admitted to the crime in juvenile court, were given probation, and two of them were allowed to return to the same high school as the victim (one was even in the same class as the raped student). Obviously, the girl was extremely distraught by this and her parents had to move her away to another school and uproot her from her social and academic life. This bill will prevent such a horrible "revictimization" from occurring in the future. I had the distinct honor of working on this legislation with the Speaker of the House, which he included in his Safe Schools Act (HB 1160). I passed my bill in the Senate, but it got tied up in a House committee in the closing hours of session. Fortunately, the bill passed within the Speaker's bill.
Maryland False Health Claims Act (SB 279). I was lead sponsor #2 on the Governor's bill to strengthen the State's ability to fight fraud in the healthcare system, and to incentivize whistleblowers to disclose fraud and protect them when they do. This bill will save tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. I also introduced a False Claims Act (SB 167) bill that would have applied to any kind of fraud against the State or a local government but only the healthcare fraud bill was passed. I intend to continue to fight for the broader law because we are leaving millions of dollars in State and local recoveries on the table.
Ban on Toxic Deca (SB 353). Deca is a certain toxic chemical used in furniture and electronics that is linked to adverse neurodevelopmental effects in young children. It also causes a thick black smoke when burned, harming firefighters and hindering their ability to fight fires. I've been working with child advocacy groups and firefighters for several years to ban deca. This year, we were able to pass a weaker version of the bill with a later effective date and a number of exceptions. I will continue to work with the State Fire Marshal to strengthen this legislation next year.
Bills I Passed in the Senate But Which Did Not Achieve Final Passage
The End-of-Life Health Care Disclosure Act (SB 812). This bill would require health care facilities to maintain and disclose to patients their policies on honoring advance directives and implementing patients' end-of-life health care choices. I passed the bill in the Senate, but opposition from the hospital and nursing homes associations prevented the bill from moving in the House.
Student Athlete Concussions (SB 865). Physicians have sounded an alert that too many young people are suffering serious injuries as a result of concussions and the failure to respond appropriately. This bill, brought to me by Children's Hospital and several children's health groups, would require the Department of Education to develop a concussion awareness program for coaches, student athletes, and their parents on the nature and risks of concussions, how to spot them, proper criteria for removal from and return to play, and the reporting of injuries. The bill passed in the Senate, but ran out of time in the House.
Bills Incorporated Into Executive Orders
Maryland Comprehensive Energy Plan (SB 910). Long-range energy planning in Maryland has not existed since electricity deregulation in 1999. This has resulted in consideration of new energy generation projects on a first-come, first-served basis, with no direction or goals and little regard for the environment. This bill, which was a top priority for the leading environmental groups, would provide a blueprint for achieving a clean, reliable, and affordable energy future for Maryland. Governor O'Malley, who has thanked me for my leadership on this issue, adopted the idea and soon will be issuing an Executive Order to carry it out.
Other Legislation on Which I Played a Leading Role
Advance Voter Registration (SB 292). I was the Floor Leader in the fight to provide a uniform age to pre-register to vote at age 16. Although it does not change the voting age of 18, allowing younger people to pre-register has long-term benefits in increasing participation in the political process. By allowing students to register through the high schools, the bill will avoid the current problem of students arriving at college without realizing they have missed the deadline to register. It also will allow young people to register when they apply for their driver's license. This bill was a top priority for Common Cause, Maryland PIRG, and FairVote, which wrote me a letter stating: "Your efforts were crucial to advancing this important legislation to expand the franchise and get a new generation of young people involved in civic life."
The Safe Schools Act (HB 1160). This bill will improve communication between the Department of Juvenile Services and the public schools regarding students who have been adjudicated delinquent, expands the list of offenses that must be reported to school officials, prohibits students convicted or adjudicated of rape or a sexual offense from attending the same school as the victim (my bill), and directs local school systems to develop a policy to address gang activity.
Protecting Student Privacy (SB 778). I was lead sponsor #2 of this bill to prevent schools from forwarding students' results in the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and other private student information to military recruiters without parental consent.
Public Investment Protection Act (SB 785). The long-term decline in living standards of the middle class is now exacerbated by the economic downturn. Working with Progressive Maryland, I was lead sponsor #2 of this bill, which would grow the middle class by requiring that all tax dollars flowing to private contractors create good-wage jobs with health care benefits. For my work on this and other progressive issues, Progressive Maryland featured me in a profile titled "Progressives in Action" (see http://progressivemaryland.org/page.php?id=2467).
Some Notable Disappointments
On the other side of the ledger, there were some notable disappointments. For one thing, we failed to resolve the systemic causes of our structural budget deficit. Although it is a complicated problem and no one has all the answers, we keep putting off the most difficult decisions about how to fundamentally restructure our government for long-term sustainability. Clearly, most legislators did not want to confront this issue in an election year. But we cannot afford to put off the tough decisions or simply wish they would go away with a rebounding economy.
There are some in Annapolis who want to solve some of the state's fiscal problems by shifting them to the local governments. I strongly opposed such an attempt with respect to teacher retirement benefits. At one point, a provision was included in the budget bill that would have shifted a large amount of those costs onto the backs of local governments. Such a move would have a devastating and disproportionate impact on Montgomery County, costing the county up to $70 million by fiscal year 2015. Counties are struggling with their own deficits and merely shifting the burden to them does not solve anything. All it would cause is teacher layoffs, larger classes, more portable classrooms, reduced benefits, and higher taxes. Fortunately, we were able to strip that provision from the final budget bill, but I expect it to rear its ugly head again next session.
We also failed to protect our state retirement funds. Our formula for funding the retirement and health benefit plans of our teachers and state employees is out of whack. Everyone knows this. The problem is it would cost the state about $550 million to realign it and make it actuarially sound. We cannot afford to do that now, and there is no imminent threat to the state's ability to pay its obligations, but the failure to confront the problem means it will continue to get worse.
What is most incredible is that the Senate Pension Subcommittee rejected my bill, the Public Pension Fund Protection Act, which would have protected our funds from fraud and improper investments. States across the nation have lost billions in "pay to play" public pension fund scandals involving conflicts of interest, influence peddling, kickbacks, and side deals. The federal government and 36 states are actively investigating this conduct. But we failed to take action to protect our funds. The legislation would have erected certain safeguards, such as restricting retirement system employees from leaving their state jobs and immediately soliciting investments in the private sector, mandating disclosures of conflicts of interest, political contributions and gifts, and requiring registration of private investment agents with the State Ethics Commission. These measures would have protected the integrity of our public pension fund investment process and the safety of our retirement funds.
We also missed important opportunities to help those who are struggling in this economy. One of the barriers blocking the unemployed from getting back into the workforce is the rising use of credit reports to deny jobs. Recent reports are that 40-45% of employers are now using credit screening for job hiring. The current economy has caused many people to have financial difficulties, and their credit reports have taken a hit. How will the unemployed get back to work if they're barred from employment because of financial difficulties that were caused by the loss of a job in the first place? Even more disturbing is that this practice of credit screening is being used as a cover to mask discrimination against minorities and seniors. My Equal Employment Protection Act (SB 312) would have prohibited this offensive and unfair practice. Unfortunately, the bill, which was the subject of extremely strong opposition by business groups and special interests, came up one vote short in committee. You can bet I'll continue this fight next session.
Finally, this was by far the worst year for the environment in the four years I've been your Senator. I was named Environmental Legislator of the Year last year and work closely with several Senate colleagues on pro-environment legislation. This year, such legislation was largely stymied, sometimes even without the opportunity to vote. Developers, business groups, and other special interests were able to block bills to: facilitate stormwater management projects (Sen. Raskin); enact new energy efficiency standards for televisions (Sen. Pinsky); prevent toxic pollution from coal ash dumpsites (me); require electricity suppliers to enter into long-term renewable energy contracts (Sen. Pinsky); provide for green State building standards (Sen. Frosh); ban arsenic-laden additives from chicken feed (Sen. Pinsky); create oyster sanctuaries (Sen. Frosh); prohibit the building of new carbon-spewing incinerators near schools, health care facilities, and neighborhoods (me); cut down on plastic bags that clog our waterways (Sen. Raskin); provide environmental protections for demolition projects (Sen. Harrington); and provide for centralized reporting of pesticide usage data to help save the Bay (me). As Environment Maryland stated: "The Chesapeake Bay is getting thrown under the election year bus in favor of campaign contributions. I've never seen special interests get their way so universally." I agree completely.
We Need to Change the System in Annapolis
Having just been elected as your State Senator in 2006, I had never been in the Legislature during a General Assembly election year. Having now experienced it, I can tell you quite candidly it is noticeably different and not in a good way. All around me, I saw the power and influence of special interests, always present, rise to a level I had not seen before. When it comes to election years, money talks. But if I've learned anything from this experience, it is this: special interests have only so much power as legislators are willing to give them. Lobbyists and special interests generally do not like me because I am fiercely independent-minded. They often try to make my life more difficult in Annapolis, but it just makes me fight harder.
Another thing I learned over my first term, highlighted this year, is that Annapolis needs to change. The General Assembly is still too influenced by a cadre of powerful lobbyists and special interests. I've observed many instances in which they were able to stop a piece of progressive legislation that would have had enough votes to pass. Even attempts to reform the system have been thwarted. The campaign finance reform bill and the Maryland Open Government Act, bills on which I was a leading co-sponsor and which would have increased the transparency, accessibility, and accountability of the Legislature, were denied a vote. Legislation to prevent corporations from end-running the political contribution limits by spreading their contributions among affiliated entities also was not permitted a vote. I believe things will only change when legislators stand up to special interests and have greater concern for "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." I intend to keep fighting for better government as I move up in leadership. I am one of the few new Senators to be given a leadership position, having been named Assistant Deputy Majority Whip after my first year in office. It's the lowest rung of the leadership ladder, but it's a start. I believe I will have the opportunity to move up in leadership next session.
Democrats Must Stay Unified and Keep Their Eyes on the Prize
The Democratic Party could take a cue from the Republicans when it comes to sticking together. Democrats' lack of unity on the federal level has contributed to paralysis in Congress. On the state level, whereas Democrats should be working together to defeat Republicans and protect vulnerable Democrats across the state, they are instead lining up to bludgeon each other in Primary challenges in safe Democratic districts. Moreover, since there are only minor substantive differences between the candidates in such races, these races tend to be highly divisive, negative, and distracting from more important races, the outcome of which will have a significant impact on our values, such as the critical race for Governor. Such intra-party cannibalization results in massive squandering of resources that could be put to far better use. I understand that personal ambition is a powerful force and that politics tends to attract the hyper-ambitious, but at this crucial time for the Democratic Party -- where a disaster of the magnitude of 1994 cannot be discounted -- people must sacrifice their personal ambitions for the sake of strengthening our Party and protecting our values.
I hope you found this Report to be useful. Feel free to contact me any time about these or other issues of concern. Your feedback is essential to my ability to address the issues that affect our lives and our communities here in District 19. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call my office at 301-858-3151. Also, as always, constituents can reach me directly, 24/7, on my personal cell phone at 301-523-3366. Thank you so much for all your support!
With warmest regards to you and your family,