By Maria Wiering
At midnight April 8, the gavel’s ceremonial strike marked the end of the Maryland General Assembly’s 2013 legislative session, characterized by the Maryland Catholic Conference as “tremendously successful.”
Mary Ellen Russell, MCC executive director, pointed to a bill allowing people in the country illegally to drive legally in the state, and another implementing regulations aiming to reduce gun violence. The MCC supported both, and both passed.
The session’s pinnacle was the repeal of the death penalty, which passed in March.
The MCC has worked on the issue for two decades.
“It’s a great victory for all those who are working hard to demonstrate the value of our human rights, and it was a wonderful opportunity for the church to demonstrate how consistently we promote the sacredness of life,” Russell said.
Not all of the MCC’s key efforts were successful. An end-of-session drive failed to pass legislation mitigating the effects of last year’s law requiring certain jurisdictions to assess annual stormwater runoff fees.
The fees, which some are calling a “rain tax,” affect nonprofits including schools, parishes and charities, and are expected to cost thousands of dollars based on each site’s impervious surface area. Catholic Charities of Baltimore expects its fees to exceed $150,000.
The MCC is continuing to work with parishes and other nonprofit organizations to share fee-related concerns with officials representing the nine affected counties and Baltimore City. Fees must be established by July 1.
In April 14 letters to parishes in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, Archbishop William E. Lori, MCC chairman, encouraged Catholics to voice concerns at council meetings that week on their jurisdiction’s stormwater fees.
“This is money many of our parishes, as well as our schools and charitable institutions, cannot afford, and it will impact the important ministries and services we are providing – the very reason nonprofits do not pay taxes,” Archbishop Lori said.
Despite impending stormwater fees, the legislative session was a boon Catholic and other nonprofit schools. The final budget included more than $6 million for textbook and technology funding, which will boost the per-pupil rate from $90 to $95 for schools with a high percentage of students living in poverty, and $40 to $65 for other participating schools.
An additional $3.5 million is included in the state’s capital budget for grants for facility improvements and security upgrades for schools participating in the textbook and technology program.
Safety-net funding for programs affecting the state’s poor and vulnerable populations was also granted at fair levels, Russell said. However, a push to pass legislation prohibiting landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on their source of income failed, disappointing the MCC.
The bill, called the HOME Act, advanced further than in previous sessions, giving the MCC hope that if reintroduced, it could pass in 2014.
Legislation aimed at reducing the number of abortions in the state also failed, but the MCC declared victory on a bill requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabilities to pregnant employees.
The General Assembly will convene for its next session Jan. 8, 2014. In the interim, the MCC will be preparing for the 2014 midterm elections, when all legislators will face reelection. Gov. Martin J. O’Malley will also finish his second term, opening the seat for a non-incumbent gubernatorial race.