By Patricia Zapor
In a packed last few days of the 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly, legislators increased funding for the BOOST (Broadening Options & Opportunities for Students Today) scholarship program and approved several types of support related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislators also expanded a grant program for prenatal and infant care, passed measures intended to reform policing and approved a bill to get state and local governments out of the business of housing immigrants for the federal government.
The session ended just before midnight on April 12, leaving the Maryland Catholic Conference two days later still reviewing the details of dozens of bills that were wrapped up in the final hours of the session. Jenny Kraska, the MCC’s executive director, said she was pleased with some aspects of the session. The MCC weighed in on 180 bills in the session.
“Overall, for all of the complications because of COVID realities, a lot of great things came from this session,” she said in an emailed comment. “I’m proud of everything the Maryland Catholic Conference was able to accomplish and thankful to everyone who responded to action alerts and participated in Advocacy Day during the session.”
In a later phone call, Kraska called the increased funding for BOOST scholarships “the big ticket this year” and “a great victory.” BOOST provides funding for students in low-income families to attend nonpublic schools. More than 2,500 students — 1,354 of them enrolled in Catholic schools — received the scholarships in the 2020-21 school year. Another 1,300 applicants were on the waiting list. The legislators approved $10 million for the next year, an increase over the $7.5 million authorized for the last two years.
The average household income for recipients of BOOST scholarships is less than $36,000. The funds may be used to attend secular or religious nonpublic schools. Families may apply through noon on May 17 for scholarships for the 2021-22 school year. Information from a 2020 tax return is required.
For the current year, scholarship recipients are enrolled in more than 150 schools around the state, the vast majority of them affiliated with a faith group. Most schools have just a handful of BOOST recipients, but some have dozens, to as many as 246 enrolled at Bais Yaakov School for Girls, a Jewish academy for preschool through high school in Owings Mills.
Kraska also pointed to the passage of bills on prenatal care and providing pandemic-related relief. The Maryland Catholic Conference submitted testimony in favor of SB 777, expanding funding for the Prenatal and Infant Care Grant Program and broadening the list of what type of institutions may participate. Previously available to just counties, the legislation broadens the list of potential participants to include federally qualified health centers, hospitals and other providers of prenatal care.
One witness who testified in favor of the bill was Melissa Pelaez, a parishioner from Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Highlandtown area of Baltimore. She explained that when she became pregnant, she found a mobile clinic operated by Johns Hopkins which was able to give her a pregnancy test and prenatal care. She and her husband also could apply for financial aid through the clinic.
“It gave me peace of mind because it was something I didn’t have to worry about,” she said. Available services included wellness checks and information for new mothers about things such as diapers and car seats.
In its testimony, the Catholic Conference said that lack of prenatal care is a particular problem for Black and Latina mothers, who were twice as likely as other demographics to receive late or no prenatal care.
Another bill related to healthy families will create a state tax credit of $1,000 a year for donations of diapers, feminine hygiene products or cash earmarked for those products to pregnancy centers, diaper banks and shelters that register with the comptroller to be able to offer the credit, Kraska said.
Other legislation that should benefit Maryland’s immigrant communities included funding the creation of a state office for immigrant affairs. The goal of that office is to help immigrants integrate into “the life of the state,” Kraska said. Funding was approved for a four-person office.
Kraska said the MCC was still sorting through amendments to a pair of immigration-related bills approved in the session’s final hours. One, the Dignity Not Detention Act, prohibiting state and local jurisdictions from contracting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants, was amended to incorporate parts of a second bill the MCC also supported, the Trust Act.
In general, the Trust Act’s provisions would limit cooperation by state and local police in immigration enforcement. Exactly which elements were included and how they might play out was still being analyzed by the MCC staff, she said.
Kraska said pandemic relief bills also were important. The Legislature passed a bill guaranteeing access to legal counsel for renters who are facing eviction. Eviction is expected become a dramatic problem nationwide when government prohibitions of evictions during the pandemic expire. The Legislature approved more than $1 billion in pandemic relief, including more than $178 million in direct payments to more than 400,000 state residents and an expanded tax credit for low income residents.
Legislation to fund legal services for renters facing eviction was not approved, Kraska said, but there might potentially be resources available in a big expansion of funding for Maryland Legal Services Corporation. The nonprofit created by the Maryland General Assembly funds a range of legal services to the poor, including for immigration services, family law, foreclosure prevention and workforce legal assistance. Funding increased from $2 million to $8 million, Kraska said, through a bill that will give Legal Services money generated by the sale of state-owned abandoned property.
Other bills that were approved included:
- Abolishing the possibility of sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without possibility of parole. Maryland prisons house between 300 and 500 prisoners who were given sentences of life without possibility of parole, according to the MCC. The legislation will allow them to seek parole after serving 20 years. In a series of rulings since 2005, the Supreme Court banned death sentences for juveniles and ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
- Policing reforms including the repeal of job protections in the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a statewide use-of-force policy, limits on no-knock warrants and a requirement for police to use body cameras. Kraska made note of a provision that will provide mental health assistance for police officers.
- Creating a Mobile Laundry for the Homeless Pilot Program. It will provide funds to nonprofits that provide services to homeless people to create or expand mobile laundry services.