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Maryland Senate, House debate on Equal Rights Amendment, housing policy during Saturday session – Baltimore Sun

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As the clock neared the end of this year's session of the Maryland General Assembly – with dozens of bills still to be passed – the longest debate during a Saturday House meeting was one that had lasted for half a century.

The Equal Rights Amendment, which supporters say would strengthen protections for women in the U.S. Constitution, has always been the subject of heated debate in state capitals and in Congress.

But 52 years after Maryland was one of the first states to ratify it, the amendment has still never been adopted at the federal level — and Democrats in Annapolis said it was time to reaffirm the state's support.

“This bill says that Maryland believes that the foundation, the bedrock of democracy is that every person is valued and every voice must be heard,” Del said. Bonnie Cullison, a Democrat from Montgomery County, in the House of Representatives before the resolution passed largely along party lines.

House Republicans held a 35-minute debate against the resolution amid a roughly two-and-a-half-hour session to pass the bill. Both the House and Senate met to get as much done as possible before the final day of the annual three-month session in Annapolis on Monday.

Hundreds of bills have already been sent to Democratic Gov. Wes Moore's desk. Other measures sent to him Saturday or advanced in the process included measures to fund the state's trauma systems, incentivize affordable housing development and authorize $1.8 billion in debt for capital projects.

A $63 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, meanwhile, received final approval in both chambers on Friday after weeks of disagreement over whether to pass new taxes to address future deficits. The compromise included higher taxes on tobacco products and new fees for vehicle owners.

On Saturday, the resolution reaffirming commitment to the ERA was among dozens that received final approval. While advocates say it would protect women's health care — including abortion rights — and other areas such as employment discrimination, the amendment is facing opposition from Republicans who say it is unnecessary and unenforceable as Congress's original directive from 1972 to the states was limited in time to ratify it.

“This is nothing more than virtue signaling,” Del said. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican from Baltimore County, during the debate in the House of Representatives. “This is completely meaningless in front of you.”

Democrats said they were voicing their support at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has rolled back federal protections on abortion.

“If it’s not in the Constitution, it can be removed at any time,” Del said. Terri Hill, a physician and Democrat from Howard County.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat from Baltimore County, authored legislation last year to introduce a ballot question that, if approved by voters in November, will enshrine reproductive rights in the Maryland Constitution.

Although she typically doesn't comment during the floor debates she oversees, Jones once called out Republican Del. on Saturday. Mark Fisher of Calvert County laughed as he stood to introduce an amendment after Cullison's impassioned speech.

“Laughing? At what? What's funny?” Jones asked him from the podium.

Fisher replied with a smile, “The funny thing is, I have an amendment at my desk,” to which Jones said, “I guess you couldn't answer that, right?”

The constitutional amendment, which would have called for a convention of states instead of ratification of the amendment along with other unrelated demands, failed.

Other work in the House on Saturday included introducing a bill to expand current funding sources for trauma centers by increasing vehicle registration surcharges – from $17 to $40 – and increasing fines for impaired driving violations. Senate leaders have approved the bill but must pass it on Monday. This also applies to the multibillion-dollar capital budget that funds projects such as improvements to public parks and libraries across the state.

In the Senate, lawmakers gave final approval to two of the governor's three housing-related bills that must be passed in the House on Monday.

Both the Housing Expansion and Affordability Act — which focuses on zoning changes to incentivize development — and the Renters' Rights and Stabilization Act — which aims to protect renters — have been controversial.

The zoning law would, in part, allow development in more densely populated areas and prevent local governments from setting “unreasonable” boundaries or requirements for development.

Sen. Mike McKay, an Allegany County Republican, was the only member of his party to vote in favor Saturday, citing concerns about obstruction of local control when explaining his position.

“I feel and understand local zoning control, but we have a housing problem and we have to do what we can,” McKay said. “I believe this will reduce the price of a home in Allegany County by $30,000 to $40,000. … So I want to thank everyone for their support and thank the governor for this good bill.”

The tenant bill would, among other things, create a new state advocate for tenants and increase the eviction burden on landlords.

Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, gave a lengthy speech criticizing the governor for a “disappointing lack of strategic vision” before ultimately voting for it because he was working on amendments that would make it less offensive. He said he believes the bill will discourage landlords from renting to tenants or building new rental units.

“Maryland’s landlords are in for a shock. They are convinced that the state of Maryland views them as enemies, that Governor Moore views them as enemies,” West said.

Moore testified on both housing bills in House and Senate committees earlier this year, calling them key priorities for addressing what he described as the state's housing affordability crisis. Expanding housing supply and protecting tenants at risk of eviction would help reduce costs, he said.

Lawmakers will return to the State House on Monday and are expected to work by the midnight deadline to settle remaining business for the year.

April 6, 2024: Senate President Bill Ferguson smiles at the State House before the start of the Senate session Saturday afternoon.  (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)
April 6, 2024: Senate President Bill Ferguson smiles at the State House before the start of the Senate session Saturday afternoon. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)