By: Jeff Barnes, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Calling it a “life and death crisis,” — particularly in Baltimore — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, R, announced Thursday he will redesignate his violent crime package as emergency legislation.
The emergency designation would allow the legislation, a package of bills led by a measure to increase penalties for certain gun crimes, to take effect immediately upon Hogan’s approval. The bills would first need to pass each chamber of the General Assembly with a three-fifths majority.
During a State House press conference, Hogan voiced his frustration with the Democrat-controlled General Assembly for focusing on a proposed multibillion-dollar overhaul of the state’s public schools — known as the Kirwan Commission plan — while failing to advance his violent crime package.
“We don’t want to hear any more excuses. There cannot be any more delays,” Hogan said.
Hogan’s bills — The Violent Firearm Offenders Act, The Judicial Transparency Act, The Witness Intimidation Act of 2020 and The Victims’ Right to Restitution Act of 2020 — have yet to advance out of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee since being heard on Feb. 6. The cross-filed bills were heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 4.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, took exception to Hogan’s claim that the legislature was not making crime a top priority.
“The bills have already been heard, I think it’s about making sure that they actually do something,” Ferguson said after the Senate session Thursday. “Not only have they gotten a fair hearing, but they are also a constant conversation of our leadership.”
During his press conference, the Republican governor scoffed at a comment made Monday by Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young during testimony for Kirwan-related legislation, in which the Democrat mayor called the school’s plan “a matter of life and death.”
Since the 2020 General Assembly session began Jan. 8, Hogan said, 104 people have been shot and 39 people have been killed in Baltimore.
“The actual and the only life and death crisis is the people being shot and killed every single day on the streets of our largest city,” Hogan said.
Hogan’s office has repeatedly cited a January Gonzales Maryland poll, which identified crime as the top issue among 31% of 838 registered voters, compared to 16% who deemed education the top issue. Hogan said during the news conference that the public overwhelmingly supports his proposed crime-prevention legislation.
“I don’t believe there have ever been bills on any subject that have ever had more enthusiastic and nearly unanimous support,” Hogan said. “The public is literally crying out, pleading with the legislature to take these actions.”
The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that the Democrats were unlikely to pass the Violent Firearms Offender Act — Hogan’s signature crime bill — as they oppose the bill’s mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes. In that article, Hogan suggested that lawmakers who don’t support his legislation are out of touch with voters and should consider stepping down.
During the Senate floor session Thursday morning, Ferguson gave an impassioned defense of Sen. William “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, the chair of the Senate committee that heard Hogan’s bills. Smith, a lieutenant with the United States Navy Reserve, was deployed to Afghanistan before the conclusion of the 2019 session and was tapped this year to lead the committee. Ferguson said any calls for him to step down are “totally unacceptable.”
“There’s no question no one feels comfortable with where things are when it comes to the status of violence across the state,” Ferguson said. “The only solution will be when we come to the table together and solve it.”
After the session, Smith told Capital News Service he was grateful for Ferguson’s remarks and said Hogan was “engaging in hyperbole.”
“To wield tools of fear-mongering and shift the debate, you’re not helping anyone,” Smith said. “You’re not helping anyone in Baltimore.”
Smith said later Thursday he wanted more evidence that Hogan’s legislation would decrease gun violence and other crimes before he would support it.
Sen. Charles Sydnor, D-Baltimore City, and Baltimore County, who also serves on Smith’s committee, told Capital News Service the committee has doubled up on voting sessions this week. He said the committee is considering all ideas to help solve the crime issue.
“I don’t think anyone bill is being held up more than any other,” he said.
During the press conference, Hogan also took aim at Democratic legislation introduced Thursday that would expand the state’s sales tax to help fund the Kirwan plan.
Under House Bill 1628, the state’s sales tax would be reduced from 6% to 5%, while being expanded to include professional services that currently aren’t taxed.
The addition of professional services, which would include things like legal services, daycare, and landscaping, is expected to bring in an additional $2.6 billion a year.
Hogan said the tax increase is “not ever going to happen” during his term as governor.
“This will destroy everything we’ve done for five years,” he said. “It will destroy our economy.”