From left, Mike O’Halloran (National Federation of Independent Businesses), Del. Jessica Feldmark and State Sen. Justin Ready present an overview of the 2024 legislative session to the Howard County Chamber. (TBM / George Berkheimer)

The report from Howard County’s state legislators following the 2024 legislative session is generally positive, but many of the issues they grappled with are expected to return next year.

Speaking at the Howard County Chamber’s legislative wrap-up event, held at the Columbia Double Tree Hilton in May, elected officials provided an overview of the legislation they worked on this year.

According to Rory Murray, principal with Providence Strategies who moderated the event, 1,053 of 3,480 introduced bills were passed.

“We got a lot less money from the federal government this year than in previous years, but we worked to manage that on multiple levels,” said State Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Dist. 13). “One of the things I worked on the most was ensuring our shock trauma system was funded in the future.”

There are going to be future challenges for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, he acknowledged.

“Moving forward we have to constantly be reviewing,” Guzzone said. “We increased the cigarette tax to help bridge some time, but we need to see the results and think of other means of slowing the process, if needed.”

The legislature also approved $90 million in grant funding to address climate change. The funding will help public schools purchase and lease electric school buses, install electric vehicle charging infrastructure in low- and moderate-income communities, and electrify hospitals, schools, multifamily housing, and other community buildings.

Mental health win

For Del. Jessica Feldmark (D-Dist. 12), securing permanent funding to strengthen and expand Maryland’s 988 helplines was a big win.

“This is the National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Helpline,” she said, which is now supported by a 25-cent monthly fee on phone lines to ensure qualified professionals can assist callers experiencing a mental health crisis.

Over the past year, 988 phone call volume increased by more than 40%, webchat volume increased by more than 50%, and text volume increased by more than 900%, Feldmark said.

State Sen. Justin Ready (R-Dist. 5) said Maryland’s tax burden, high cost of living and business competitiveness remain big concerns for him.

“Some taxes went up, mostly dealing with long-term transportation funding issues,” he said. “We understand mass transit needs to be subsidized … but we have a fare box recovery of less than 10% in pretty much all of our transit options. We have to find ways to get more fare recovery from the mass transit side.”

Bridge response

Del. Courtney Watson (D-Dist. 9B) said the legislature acted quickly following the collapse of the Key Bridge to take up to $250 million from the Rainy Day Fund to support port businesses and employees, as well as independent contractors and truckers to ensure they aren’t lost to other ports or other businesses.

“The special bond funding for Howard County was $15 million,” Watson said. “We brought $1 million to support the hospital and its Behavioral Health Unit, $10 million to build the extended North Tunnel in Ellicott City, and funding for Howard Community College’s Workforce Development and Skilled Trades Center.”

With the expansion of artificial intelligence, State Sen. Katie Fry Hester said she passed a bill that will require the state to conduct an impact assessment to make sure state-purchased AI systems actually work and contain no embedded bias.

She also called on private businesses to help find AI solutions that could help the state, particularly in the health care industry.

“If we can find a way to shave 1% off billing expenses, that would save us a lot of money,” Hester said.

Del. Pam Guzzone (D-Dist. 13) said her legislation dealing with natural psychedelics resulted in a task force that will study their responsible use and issue a report due in December.

Used to treat PTSD, traumatic brain injury, severe depression and other mental health issues, these medications could benefit business by allowing people who use them to return to work and help support their families, she said.

“There are medications in this category that may be approved by the FDA within the year, so it’s coming,” Guzzone said.

New realities

Health care was also a focus for Del. Terri Hill (D-Dist. 12) this year, who passed legislation prohibiting noncompete clauses for licensed veterinary and health care professionals earning less than $350,000 per year.

She also introduced legislation to set up alternate pathways to license foreign physicians who come to the U.S. after practicing for five years in other countries.

“They have to repeat their residency and fellowship, so we’ve got great talent that’s being wasted,” Hill said. “We formed a work group to study that this summer and come back with a bill to establish the exact pathway to expedite that.”

For Mike O’Halloran, policy advocate for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, there was evidence of a change in attitude between the current Department of Labor and the previous department, evidenced by this year’s bills that sought to standardize penalties against employers for adverse actions.

“What concerns me is the penalty provisions when an employer unknowingly or mistakenly runs afoul of requirements,” he said. “We’re all adapting to these new realities.”

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