Assembly Session a reminder that power still favors the wealthy

Progressive Maryland activists and staffers fought to get pro-people legislation through the 2016 Assembly session. PM's Justin Vest reminds us why to victories can be so hard to come by.

/By Justin Vest/ The 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly came to a close at midnight on Monday and lawmakers certainly didn’t disappoint at disappointing Maryland’s most vulnerable residents. Legislators seemed to take expectations and completely flip them on their head. It was thought by many that issues like paid sick leave and expanding the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) were shoo-ins whose time had finally come. On the other hand, we all knew police reform was going to be an uphill fight.

 The session started out strong with the Democratic majority overriding six of Governor Hogan’s vetoes from the 2015 session including one that returned the right to vote to 40,000 formerly incarcerated people, making them eligible to vote in the April 26th primary. But despite positive messages from both chambers, politics as usual got in the way of what stood to be a historic session.

 Advocates, including Progressive Maryland, have been fighting as part of the Working Matters coalition for four years to win paid sick days for the 700,000 uncovered Maryland workers. Fearful of a veto by a first-year governor, some members of the General Assembly thought it best to punt on the issue until now. The bill passed the House with a solid majority for the first time ever. The bill was poised to come out of the Senate committee, but the last minute vote was canceled when it became clear that a tax package loaded up with goodies for corporations and the very wealthy was falling apart.

 That same tax package did include one important component for progressives–expansions to the state Earned Income Tax Credit. The changes would have allowed younger workers ages 18 to 24 to benefit from the credit along with workers without dependents. The EITC is already one of the most effective anti-poverty policies in existence, enjoying broad bipartisan support including President Barack Obama and Speaker Paul Ryan. Approximately 240,000 Maryland workers would have benefited from the expansion by seeing the average tax credit increase from $74 to $375. That money would have gone directly back into the local economy, but a policy benefitting workers without also providing handouts to the wealthy wasn’t seen as a priority by those in power.

 The good news though is the legislature did come together to pass a comprehensive criminal justice reform package that increases funding for rehabilitation programs while reducing overly punitive policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing. Another bill championed by Progressive Maryland–a lead organizer of the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability–brought significant changes to policing in the state. We came together with activists, victims of police violence, and even law enforcement personnel to demand common sense changes that put people first and eliminate special rights for officers. Among the changes are provisions making it easier for victims and witnesses of abuse to file complaints, including anonymously, creates an independent training and standards commission that will modernize recruitment and set best practices with an emphasis on community policing, increases transparency into department operations, and requires departments to track the number of officer-involved incidents and take preventive action.

 There’s still plenty of work to be done, but everyone should take a moment to celebrate the victories we achieved this session, both in terms of successful legislation and the unprecedented progress made on other bills. We only achieved what we did thanks to the hard work and dedication of hundreds of volunteers and supporters. But this session also serves as a reminder that politics–at least for those playing the game–isn’t necessarily about doing what’s right for those in need.