By Christopher Gunty
The staff of the Maryland Catholic Conference will find it a little more difficult to work with legislators in Annapolis as the 2021 session of the General Assembly opens Jan. 13.
“The committee hearings will all be virtual,” Jenny Kraska, MCC executive director said. This will be her second session heading the conference, whose office is just a block from the capitol.
The state Constitution requires votes be cast in person, but it has not yet been announced whether the members of the assembly will come in once a week to vote – socially distanced, of course – or have one massive voting session toward the end of the session, which closes April 12. The state House and Senate may take different days of the week for voting.
“It’s going to look very different,” she told the Catholic Review, “but we’re all in the same boat together, so we’ll be trying it out and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”
The Maryland Catholic Conference is the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, from the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington and the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.
One of the challenges the MCC staff will face is the inability to have conversations with legislators or their staff members in the corridors or offices of the capitol.
“For us, most days during session, we are at the State House from morning until the last committee hearing,” Kraska said. “And so, missing out on all those conversations that are happening throughout the day and having the opportunity to drop into somebody’s office” means those opportunities will be missed.
Rules for testifying during bill hearings will vary by chamber. Senate committees will allow a maximum of 10 people for “in-person” testimony – four in favor, chosen by the bills sponsors, four opposed and two who favor the bill with amendments. On the House side, up to 50 will be able to testify.
Anyone can submit written testimony, but such testimony will have to be submitted no later than 48 hours in advance of the hearing.
As of early January, the MCC staff had not been able to review all of the 800 or so bills that were pre-filed before the session. “The language of the bills has just started coming out in the last week or so,” Kraska said in a briefing Jan. 7 for Catholic publications that cover the state’s dioceses.
Kraska said it appears the legislative session will be very focused on relief for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the crises that have come out of the spread of COVID-19. She expects such legislation to look at housing, unemployment issues and relief for small businesses.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) introduced Jan. 11 the RELIEF Act of 2021 to provide more than $1 billion for Maryland working families, small businesses and those who lost jobs due to the pandemic. The proposal includes direct payments for low- to moderate-income families and tax credits and relief for small businesses.
Passing a state budget will be a high priority for the General Assembly, which will also consider overriding the governor’s veto of an education plan from the Kirwan Commission that recommended spending about $4 billion per year on education priorities.
Outside the COVID realm, Kraska expects police reform and racial justice issues to come to the forefront. The MCC hosted two virtual town halls in October – one in the Archdiocese of Washington and one in the Archdiocese of Baltimore – that brought together people from the faith community, civic leaders and police officials.
Both town halls provided a good debate and airing of different opinions to see what kind of reform can develop, Kraska said. “There are definitely two sides that are very sort of entrenched into what they want to see happen. And I don’t know that we’ll get either side getting (everything) they want.
“But I think that sometimes the best legislative solution is when we can get something that everyone has to give a little and no one is going to be completely happy,” she said, noting that she thinks there can be consensus between Republicans and Democrats.
While there are some factions that are calling for “defunding” the police, that’s not what the church is seeking.
“During the conversations that we had in the town halls, there wasn’t a call to defund police. It is more, what can we do within the structures that we have to hopefully improve and make good changes?” she said.
The MCC also expects to again fight a battle against physician-assisted suicide. “We expect it to come back. The proponents of that legislation have made it their mission to try and get it passed in Maryland,” Kraska said.
The MCC collaborates with other groups, including Maryland Against Physician-Assisted Suicide and disabilities-rights groups, to oppose the legislation. The MCC notes that PAS seeks to legalize the intentional taking of human life and also that there have been significant problems with legislation proposed in the past that cannot be rectified.
No bill on physician-assisted suicide had been pre-filed as of Jan. 7.
In the education realm, the MCC hopes that Hogan will provide $10 million for BOOST – Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students – that gives students from lower-income families the chance to attend a private school.
Garrett O’Day, MCC deputy director, said the MCC also seeks level funding at $6 million for the textbook and technology program that assists private schools with resources that are provided to students at government schools, and continued support for the Ed DeGrange Aging Schools Program, which provides funds for capital improvements at older facilities.
M.J. Kraska, associate director for social and economic justice, said the MCC is looking at a bill to provide mental health services for police officers. The conference is also concerned about several immigration bills, including four that it plans to support.
Paid family leave and housing justice packages are at the forefront as well.
Jenny Kraska briefed members of the Catholic Labor Network on workers’ issues Jan. 6. “One of the new pieces is a Senate bill that would establish an office under the governor’s purview on immigrant rights,” she said. The office would be tasked with providing a conduit to help immigrants engage in civic life in Maryland. Such legislation has not been introduced before. MCC plans to support the bill.
Molly Sheahan, associate director for respect life advocacy told Catholic publications the MCC will watch bills on human trafficking and education on sexual abuse, in addition to legislation on the beginning of life – bioethics, pregnancy and parenting support.
For more information on issues the MCC is following and to sign up for the Catholic Advocacy Network, visit mdcatholic.org.
Email Christopher Gunty at editor@CatholicReview.org