Md. House of Delegates elects Adrienne Jones as New Speaker

Following more than four hours of deliberation, the Maryland House of Delegates made history in a surprise decision Wednesday afternoon, voting Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, D-Baltimore County, the next Speaker of the House.

Jones, who served as Speaker pro tempore, becomes the first African American, and the first woman, to be voted into the position.

legate Adrienne A. Jones, D-Baltimore County, the next Speaker of the House.

She filled in for the late House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who had fallen ill during the session and died April 7 after being hospitalized with pneumonia.

For weeks following the close of the legislative session April 8, Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, and Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s, were considered the front-runners to fill the vacancy.

Jones initially expressed interest in being the next House Speaker but withdrew her name from the race last week.

As the special session drew closer to Wednesday, both McIntosh and Davis stated they had secured the 71 votes — a simple majority — necessary to win the election.

The Legislative Black Caucus announced its support on Tuesday for Davis. And in the midst of the Democratic Caucus’ deliberations Wednesday afternoon, the House Minority Caucus released a statement that it was pledging all 42 Republican votes to Davis.

The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post reported the Democratic Caucus voted 58-40 for McIntosh in its closed-door meeting, which would have given Davis, with Republican support, enough votes to win but at the cost of party unity.

Both the House Democratic and Republican Caucuses met for hours across the hall from each other in the Lowe Office House Building; the House Minority Caucus scheduled a press conference for 10:45 a.m., but time passed and there was no announcement.

Through various times during the late morning and into the early afternoon, members of both caucuses left and re-entered their meeting rooms. At one point, the Black Caucus left to have its own short meeting.

The full Democratic Caucus finally exited its meeting room around 2:30 p.m., where at a makeshift podium they announced unanimous support for Jones.

The unanimous vote was made official at a special House session roughly 30 minutes after the announcement. Both McIntosh and Davis spoke on the floor in support of Jones as new House Speaker, and Jones was visibly emotional as her colleagues spoke glowingly of her.

At a press conference following the vote, Jones thanked McIntosh and Davis, who she said placed the Democratic Caucus above themselves in working together and eventually backing her.

“It’s because of these two individuals that are flanking me on the left and the right,” Jones said while gesturing to McIntosh and Davis, “that I am in this position where I am today.”

Said McIntosh: “I think everybody agreed at the end that it was so important to find a candidate who could get to 71 … I think we all are better and stronger for it. We’re united. I think we’re even stronger.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Speaker President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, joined in congratulating Jones.

Hogan called Wednesday’s vote a “proud and historic moment” for Maryland, and Miller called Jones a “natural successor” to Busch.

Delegate C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, praised Davis, who he said had the votes secured, but was open to Jones as the next House Speaker to prevent a fracture within the party.

“Dereck Davis had it. He had that gold ring in his hand and he stepped back to save the Democratic Caucus,” Wilson said. “The Black Caucus endorsed him and I’m happy for Adrienne, but Dereck Davis had it. He was a gentleman.”

Wilson said a primary issue some Democratic lawmakers had with Davis was that he wasn’t as progressive as they would have liked.

“I keep telling them, African Americans aren’t as liberal as they think we are,” Wilson said. “We’re thinkers, we’re church-goers, we’re God-fearing people.”

Either way the votes tipped, history would have been made. McIntosh would have been the first openly gay House Speaker and the first woman, and Davis would have been the first African American House Speaker.

Jones has served as a delegate since 1997, notably sitting on the Appropriations Committee, which McIntosh chairs, for 16 years.

She oversees the agenda of a state that still has many unresolved issues from the past legislative session, notably issues over educating spending and redistricting.

“Adrienne has been spectacular,” Davis said. “She guided us through the roughest period I know during my 25 years down here. She did it with dignity and grace and she’s the best person for the job.”

By Daniel Oyefusi

A Larry Hogan Youth Movement?

As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan weighs whether to mount a primary challenge to Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president in 2020, he might want to look to young voters to boost his chances.

Among the audience of business and political leaders at Hogan’s “Politics & Eggs” event earlier this week at Saint Anselm College here were several college students who were interested in hearing what the governor had to say.

“I wanted to see (Hogan) first-hand,” said Kevin Chrisom, a freshman politics major at Saint Anselm. “The way he’s been able, in his five years as governor so far, to be so bipartisan…is very impressive.”

According to a recent Harvard University Institute of Politics poll, more young voters said they will vote in the 2020 primaries than they did in 2016. Forty-three percent of voters aged 18 to 29 said they would vote in the primaries, compared to 36 percent four years ago.

Further, Generation Z, those who will be 18 to 23 years old in 2020, will comprise 10 percent of the total electorate, up from six percent in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

Looking at the 2020 race, Hogan might find an opportunity to appeal to young Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats in states with open primaries with his bipartisan, pragmatic style of governance.

“He’s delivered the results (in Maryland),” said Brendan Flaherty, a sophomore politics major at Saint Anselm. “He can point to things that he’s done that truly benefit young people.”

Hogan has already said that he would target states with open primaries, in which voters don’t have to be registered with a political party in order to vote for a partisan candidate.

“Here in New Hampshire, for example, they like to be independent, they like to look at the candidates and kick the tires and meet people one-on-one,” Hogan told reporters after his speech. “I’m pretty good at retail politics.”

Students also pointed to Hogan’s genuine personality and endearing personal story — he successfully battled advanced non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma during his first term — as attributes that would appeal to young voters.

“I admire his leadership abilities, his strength,” Flaherty said. “As long as he doesn’t really stray too far from who he is, I think he’ll do just fine.”

Should Hogan mount a primary challenge to Trump, one of his first objectives would be to increase his name recognition.

Although he is popular in Maryland, enjoying a 69 percent approval rating in a deep-blue state, he would need to raise his profile at the national level.

Speaking at high-profile events like “Politics & Eggs,” where he can reach a large number of young people interested in the political process, is a good start, students said.

“Obviously New Hampshire is a big state for elections if he wants to run,” said Jordan Cook, a sophomore politics and history major at Saint Anselm. “So I think he just really needs to travel state-to-state and go to events like this where there’s young, passionate people like us that are interested in politics. Hopefully that will get his name out.”

Hogan revealed at the political breakfast that he intends to visit 16 more states in the next few months, in addition to the 10 he has already visited, in order to “continue listening” to people encouraging him to make a bid for the nomination.

“Keep coming to these events, keep coming to colleges, get the young people out — Republicans, independents, even moderate Democrats,” said Chrisom. “Just keep speaking to young people and going to events, I think is the greatest way to raise his profile.”

By Carolina Velloso

Hogan Keeps 2020 Door Open

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told a New Hampshire political breakfast Tuesday that he is “listening” to people encouraging him to mount a presidential bid against President Donald Trump.

But Hogan insisted he was not going to launch a “suicide mission” unless he thought there was a path to victory. While he considers a campaign, the governor revealed he is going to be visiting 16 more states.

“A lot of people have been approaching me,” Hogan said at “Politics and Eggs,” co-sponsored by the New England Council and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “People have asked me to give this serious consideration and I think I owe it to those people to do just that.”

Hogan dismissed the notion that he would consider a presidential bid with an objective not of a victory, but of weakening Trump in the general election.

“I’m not interested in just running to hurt (or) bruise the president. I have a state to run,” he told reporters. “I’m out here talking about things that I think are important.”

Hogan said he does not want to run unless he believes he has a chance at victory.

“I have a real day job that’s important to me and (to) the people of Maryland,” he said.

Hogan drew a comparison to former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, the first Republican to announce a primary challenge to Trump, saying that “it is a different calculus” for someone who is not a sitting governor.

Hogan’s remarks are nevertheless the strongest indication to date that he is seriously considering a bid for the Republican nomination.

Hogan revealed that he has already been to 10 states, and plans to visit 16 more over the next few months, playing coy as to his specific plans in each of those states. He said he is going to simply “continue to listen” to what people have to say.

“Obviously I have very strong concerns about the future of my party and the future of the country,” Hogan said. “I’m going to take as much time as it takes to make that decision.”

Tom Rath, a veteran Republican strategist in New Hampshire, said the path to a Hogan victory would be difficult, but praised the Maryland governor’s credentials.

“(Hogan) is is competent, fiscally conservative and fair-minded on social issues,” Rath told WMUR. “He won twice in a very, very Democratic state and has had success.”

“The question,” Rath said, “is whether there is enough support here for someone to challenge the president, who, at the moment, has not just the hearts of many Republicans but also has a strong hold on the organization.”

Hogan’s decision to keep exploring a presidential run comes less than a week after the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference and Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.

Hogan took aim at Trump for the revelations in the Mueller report, which concluded that there was no direct evidence of collusion, though it did not fully exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice.

“There was some really unsavory (and) disturbing stuff in the report,” Hogan said. “Just because aides did not follow his orders, that’s the only reason we don’t have obstruction of justice.”

Hogan stopped short of saying that the outcome of the report would weigh on his decision on whether to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination.

“(The report) did not make me proud of the president, and (it’s) certainly nothing to celebrate,” Hogan said. But he added that “it’s really about seeing what people think out there and whether there’s any path to victory and whether or not they’re really interested in having an alternative.”

A potential campaign strategy, Hogan indicated, might focus on the states that have open primaries, in which voters do not need to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote.

This would allow the moderate Republican, who enjoys a high approval rating in a state with a Democratic majority, to tap into undecided voters or Republicans yearning for more options.

“Here in New Hampshire, for example, they like to be independent, they like to look at the candidates and kick the tires and meet people one-on-one,” Hogan said. “I’m pretty good at retail politics.”
Hogan emphasized in his speech the legislative success he has achieved governing with a Democratic state legislatures, and some experts in attendance said Hogan’s history of bipartisanship could be an asset on the campaign trail.

“I think his remarks on how he has cooperated with Democrats in Maryland were well received, particularly among anti-Trump Republicans,” Andrew Smith, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and the director of the UNH Survey Center, told Capital News Service.

Smith, however, remained skeptical that a successful primary challenge to Trump is realistic for Hogan.

“I’m not sure that he convinced many people that he would be capable of defeating Trump for the nomination,” Smith said.

Hogan said he met with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on his trip. Hogan trails only Baker, also a moderate Republican in a deep-blue state, as the most popular governor in the country (Baker holds a 72 percent approval rating, while Hogan sits at 69, according to a Morning Consult poll).

When asked whether they discussed the 2020 election, Hogan replied: “A little bit.”

By Carolina Velloso

Governor Hogan Goes to New Hampshire

Larry Hogan will speak at a “Politics and Eggs” event in New Hampshire Tuesday as pundits wonder whether the Maryland governor will mount a primary challenge to Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

“The fact that Hogan is coming into New Hampshire is surely something of great interest to people who follow politics,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, which hosts the speaker series.

Held in the state with the first presidential primary, “Politics and Eggs” is considered a must-stop event for presidential hopefuls. The series serves as a “forum for local business leaders to hear from presidential candidates in an intimate setting,” according to its website.

Several candidates have already spoken at the series this year, including these Democrats: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro; former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, and California Sen. Kamala Harris. In addition, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California spoke before he declared his candidacy, while Republican Bill Weld announced the creation of an exploratory committee during his appearance.

“‘Politics and Eggs’ is a storied event,” Levesque said. “It’s the perfect place for (Hogan) to come and talk to some New Hampshire people and potentially explore running.”

Interest now turns to whether Hogan will officially enter the race after months of speculation that he was considering a bid for the Republican nomination. Hogan, a moderate, won a second term in 2018, becoming the first Republican to do so in Maryland in more than 50 years.

Hogan has long been a vocal critic of the Trump administration, but he has publicly underscored the difficulty of a primary challenge to Trump.

“I’m concerned about the Republican Party, I’m concerned about the country…and the broken politics of today. (But) I also don’t want to go on some fool’s errand,” Hogan told CNBC in March. “I don’t want to just run around the country and put my family and everybody through that kind of an effort for no reason.”

Hogan enjoys a 69 percent approval rating, according to a Goucher Poll, in a state where more than half of adults identify as Democrats.

Now, experts are wondering whether Hogan will use his history of successful bipartisan leadership to present himself as a sensible and unifying alternative to the divisiveness that has plagued Trump’s first term.

“Governors like (Hogan) do represent a segment of the Republican electorate that is unhappy with President Trump,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “So he could be speaking not just for himself, but for a segment of Republican voters.”

Even so, Hogan would face a steep uphill climb to the nomination.

Since 1972, no primary challenger to a sitting president has won his party’s nomination. Hogan would also be the second challenger to Trump, as Weld officially announced his candidacy this month.

“I think Trump will be the nominee very easily,” said Andrew Smith, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and director of the UNH Survey Center. “He likely won’t face any significant challenge.”

A February poll by Smith’s center found that when New Hampshire GOP voters were given a list a candidates from which they could select a preference, 68 percent favored Trump. But more tantalizing to potential challengers like Hogan, the survey also found that 57 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they hadn’t decided on a 2020 candidate.

Should Hogan enter the race, experts speculate that he might be using Tuesday’s event to better position himself for a run in the next presidential election cycle in 2024.

“‘Politics and Eggs’ is a good place to go,” said Smith. “It is attended by high-level Republican and Democratic operatives as well as business people in the state. If they think (Hogan) does well, or has a good message, they can boost him.”

Above all, the event might just be a convenient way for the governor to raise his national profile.

“It’s a cheap flight from (Maryland) to Manchester,” Scala said.

By Carolina Velloso

Van Hollen Joins in Bill to Bring Top Honors to Black World War I Heroes

During World War I, Army Sgt. William Butler charged a squad of Germans and overran their position “single-handedly” with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, freeing U.S. prisoners, and “taking some of his own,” according to a local historian.

For the actions of the soldier from Salisbury, Maryland, Butler was awarded the prestigious Croix de Guerre with Palm Award from a French general and the Distinguished Service Cross, was recommended for a Congressional Medal of Honor, and was praised by his commander and peers.

He never received the Medal of Honor for reasons historians believe were racially based, and he died a depressed man by suicide 29 years after coming home, according to Linda Duyer, a Salisbury historian who has studied Butler’s story.

“The more we looked into his heroism and his courage at the time, it became very clear that he was denied because of discrimination at the time, along with many others,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland.

On Thursday, Van Hollen, joined by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, introduced bipartisan legislation that would help retroactively grant Butler and dozens of other minority World War I veterans the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor.

This is an effort Van Hollen said would “right historic wrongs.”

Rep. French Hill, R-Arkansas, introduced a companion bill in the House.

“The country has to recognize its heroes, even though they are no longer with us, we have an obligation to them and to all veterans to send a clear signal that acts of heroism and bravery will not be overlooked by the country that sent them to battle,“ Van Hollen told Capital News Service.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen speaks to a crowd here on Thursday about legislation he introduced to help award a World War I Salisbury vet (pictured behind him) with the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Eugene “Jesse” Nash IV/Capital News Service)

Van Hollen unveiled the bill in Cambridge to the applause of around 60 Eastern Shore residents, many of whom were veterans of later wars.

Bill Sharpe, a navy veteran from Woolford, Maryland, walked into the event out of pure curiosity, and he left with the impression that the bill is a step in the right direction in ending discrimination.

“Anything that can correct the racism that is in this country . . . I am hoping we can get somewhere, some day where we don’t even know what racism is,” he said.

Michael Foreman, of Snowhill, Maryland, and a commander of the National Association for Black Veterans, celebrated the bill, saying, “Black veterans are finally getting recognized for what they did in the military.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” he added.

Joining the senator on the stage was Army Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Christopher Leins of the Valor Medals Review Task Force, Maryland Secretary of Veterans Affairs George Owings, the chairman of the Maryland WWI Centennial Commission, Joseph Suarez, and the co-chairman of the Valor Medals Review Task Force Research Subcommittee, Dr. Timothy Westcott.

For Duyer, the announcement of the bill that could finally grant the Army sergeant the nation’s highest honor was a victory she had been anticipating for nearly 20 years.

Duyer first encountered Butler’s history in a book about the African American soldiers of World War I.

While reading, she was surprised to come across the town of Salisbury, Maryland, the name of Butler, where she found “a whole section of the book was devoted to his heroism,” and a picture of him printed significantly larger than those of his fellow soldiers.

“When I first read that, I thought, wow who is this person from Salisbury?” she said.

Upon further research, she found, “there were a number of people who got medals … but the men voted and selected Butler to lead the parade” of his New York unit through Harlem after the men returned from deployment.

Duyer kept following the story through Butler’s denied application for a Medal of Honor on to his death, which she believes could be related to his depression after his presumed son, William Butler Jr., died the year before in “an accident by the railroad” while the Army private was stationed in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Since 2015, Duyer has been on a quest, along with a fellow researcher from New York University, Dr. Jeffrey Sammons, to get Butler honored for his service. They previously tried to secure the award through Sen. Ben Cardin’s office, but they said they ran through multiple legislative “roadblocks” until they “hit a brick wall.”

Duyer wanted to give up, but Sammons refused, so he teamed up with a task force from Park University in Missouri to push for bipartisan legislation that would fix the multiple problems in the Department of Defense that they said currently inhibit the retroactive rewarding of the Medal of Honor to World War I vets.

Van Hollen took up the cause.

“The Defense Department needs to be authorized to do this,” he said. “There are deadlines that prevent them from doing this review, and ultimately the work of the commission (that seeks and submits Medal of Honor applications) has to then be reviewed and validated by the Defense Department.”

Van Hollen’s bill would get rid of those deadlines and help ease the process of submitting applications to the commission, as well as require the Department of Defense to take a second look at all minority applications for the nation’s highest award from April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918, the last day of World War I.

Bill Would Provide Protections To Student Loan Borrowers

Wade Davis called Navient’s customer service in March, hoping to adjust the payment plan for his student loan. Davis, 36, and a freelance musician seeking full-time employment, said he couldn’t commit to his plan.
After telling a representative from Navient — one of the major student loan servicing companies — of his current financial situation, the representative informed him he would have to sign up for a month-to-month payment plan that Davis said isn’t feasible with his current financial situation.
Reiterating his financial struggles, Davis said he was frustrated with the representative whom he described as “rude” and “snarky” and who threatened litigation.
“They know what they are doing,” Davis said of the loan servicing company. “They have a license to treat people any way.”
A bill passed in the Maryland General Assembly would provide protections for Davis and other student loan borrowers who have complained of predatory behavior from loan servicers.
The legislation comes months after a report by the Maryland Office of the Inspector General claimed servicers placed borrowers in adverse situations.
House bill 594, sponsored by the late House Speaker Michael Busch, would prohibit student loan servicers from engaging in any deceptive practice — like giving false information to students or misapplying or refusing to correct misapplication of payments. The legislation was introduced at the request of Attorney General Brian Frosh.
The legislation would also require servicers respond to a written inquiry or complaint within 30 days and allow a Student Loan Ombudsman to refer complaints to the office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation, the primary regulator of financial institutions in Maryland.
In 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — a U.S. governmental agency tasked with oversight of banks, lenders and other financial companies — sued Navient for what then-bureau Director Richard Cordray called “failing borrowers at every stage of repayment.”
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, of the 878 complaints related to student loan servicing from Maryland borrowers, 402 are in regard to servicing problems by Navient.
While Davis, a Baltimore resident for the last 10 years, said he understands it is the job of servicing companies to receive payments from borrowers, he said he wasn’t appreciative of  what he believes was “predatory” behavior. He did not file a complaint, and said he was eventually placed on a new plan after tweeting directly to Navient and speaking with them again.
Navient did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Davis’ claims.
The Office of the Inspector General, an independent watchdog that oversees the U.S. Department of Education, released an audit in February regarding the department’s oversight of its student loan servicers.
The audit suggests the department did not do enough to hold servicers accountable when they strayed from their contracts.
According to the audit, 61 percent of reports showed noncompliance with federal requirements, including “failure to comply with requirements relevant to forbearances, deferments, income-driven repayment repayment, interest rates, due diligence, and consumer protection.”
The Department of Education hired eight loan servicers, private sector companies including Navient, to handle student loan repayment.
“I’ve never experienced a private loan (servicing) company that is out to see that you are performing well,” Davis said.
In response to the lawsuit filed by the Consumer Federal Protection Bureau, Federal Student Aid — which works in the Department of Education — requested an internal review of Navient’s practices.
When asked for response to the claims made by the Office of the Inspector General, Navient provided Capital News Service with a 2018 statement from the Department of Education that states the Federal Student Aid review “did not identify instances of systematic non-compliance, and did not result in findings, sanctions, or the establishment of a corrective action plan.”
According to written testimony submitted by the office of the Maryland Attorney General, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has received 1,768 complaints regarding student loan servicers from Maryland borrowers.
Many of these complaints include issues over lost paperwork, misapplied payments, servicers failing to correct misapplications and lack of information regarding best options for repayment, according to the testimony. 
In student loan complaint documents provided to Capital News Service by the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, borrowers brought up issues including miscalculation of public student loan forgiveness payments, servicers “harassing” them for payments they didn’t owe and illegally garnishing wages.
According to the Institute for College Access & Success, an independent, nonprofit organization, 56 percent of Maryland students graduate with an average of $29,314 in debt.
According to the Consumer Financial Protection, student loan debt in the country has increased to $1.5 trillion.
Frosh called the legislation a “Student Borrower Bill of Rights” that outlines what servicers can and cannot do. According to written testimony from his office, similar guidelines have been set or are under consideration in at least 15 states.
Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, called the legislation a “critical bill” that would benefit students who have been subjected to a “range of predatory practices.”
Frotman, who previously served as the student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said he worked with students and servicers to handle repayment. He said most complaints were regarding individuals who received bad information from servicers and was systemic of a larger issue across the country.
The passage of this legislation comes in the middle of a tug-of-war between state attorneys general and the Trump administration. On April 5, Frosh joined a group of almost two dozen attorneys general requesting that Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reverse the decision to keep student loan information from state law enforcement agencies.
“There is no legitimate reason for the Department of Education to halt student loan data sharing with state officials,” Frosh said in a press release. “The private companies contracted by the Department to service student loans are subject to state consumer protection laws, and the established practice of sharing certain student loan information helps states ensure these companies are complying with the law and borrowers are being treated fairly.”
By Daniel Oyefusi

Maryland Officials Join Opposition to Seismic Tests in the Ocean

Maryland officials have joined a host of congressmen in opposing the Trump administration’s plan to start underwater seismic testing along the Atlantic coast, operations that could lead to increased domestic production of oil and gas, but also could be harmful to marine animals.

The offshore seismic testing would be part of oil and gas exploration from Florida up the East Coast to Delaware, including the coast of Maryland.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and eight other attorneys general joined as parties to a lawsuit aimed at stopping the testing, which they said would subject marine creatures such as whales, porpoises and dolphins to extremely loud sounds.

“While the (Trump) administration continues to place the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our precious natural resources, attorneys general up and down the Atlantic coast will continue to fight these and other efforts to open the waters off our shores to drilling for oil and gas,” Frosh said in a statement. “Our filing seeks to prevent any seismic testing going forward while our lawsuit is pending.”

Frosh’s coalition includes attorneys general from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Governor Larry Hogan, who called for President Donald Trump to remove Maryland from the states involved in seismic testing, authorized the lawsuit against the federal government.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, also supports the suit against the administration.

“Seismic testing that blasts the ocean floor with high powered air guns threatens marine life, including commercial fisheries that are vital to the economy of Maryland’s coastal communities,” Van Hollen said in a statement to the Capital News Service. “That’s why I have repeatedly opposed proposals to allow this practice – and subsequent oil and gas drilling – off the Atlantic.”

The Trump administration’s plan was initially challenged by National Resources Defense Council, which said the testing violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Seismic testing includes underwater blasts that would occur approximately every 10 seconds for weeks or months at a time, the NRDC said. Right whales, a species that has seen its population dwindle to roughly 400 in the Atlantic, could be fatally harmed, according to the organization.

“Should (seismic testing) go forward, this blasting will irreparably harm marine species, from tiny zooplankton—the foundation of ocean life—to the great whales,” the NRDC said. “The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has authorized one company to harm more than 50,000 dolphins and another company to harm 20,000 more.”

The NFMS, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gave clearance to these companies under the condition that there be guidelines to protect nearby marine life. Stipulations require acoustic monitoring in the area where seismic testing is being conducted as well as a crew of observers onboard to alert operators if a protected species comes within a certain distance.

“NOAA Fisheries is clear in the documentation related to (authorizations) that we do not expect mortality to occur as a result of these surveys,” said organization spokeswoman Katherine Brogan.

The agency also requires testing to be shut down when “certain sensitive species or groups are observed” in the area.

Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the NRDC, told Capital News Service that the lawsuit is currently awaiting a decision from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.

While the administration and environmentalist groups wait for a decision on the lawsuit, seismic testing has yet to begin. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) hasn’t issued the necessary permits, but those permits could come out “any day,” according to Jasny.

If the BOEM issues permits to these companies, they would be required to give 30 days notice before beginning seismic testing. If the 30-day grace period passes and no decision is reached on the lawsuits, the companies would then have the green light to begin testing.

Five companies – ION Geophysical, Spectrum, TGS, WesternGeco, and CGG – have received clearance from the Trump administration and now await permits from the BOEM, Jasny said.

Maryland will Make Smoking and Vaping Age 21

What do cigarettes, Juul pods, rolling papers and nicotine-free vape juice all have in common? Starting Oct. 1 they will all be considered “tobacco products” in Maryland, and you will have to be at least 21 to buy them.

House bill 1169 and its corresponding Senate bill 895 will raise the smoking age in Maryland to 21 as well as reclassify all vape products and accessories as tobacco products regardless of their nicotine concentration.

Vendors will still be able to sell tobacco products to active duty service members who are at least 18 with military IDs.

Vapes have become a serious issue in schools, where their popularity has shot up in recent years. Usage of vapes by high school students nearly doubled last year, increasing from 11 percent in 2017 to almost 21 percent in 2018, according to the United States Surgeon General.

While vapes are popular among adults trying to quit smoking, they still present the risk of nicotine addiction. Though studies of their long-term effects are lacking, vapes have been deemed dangerous for children by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Photo by Charlie Youngmann / Capital News Service

Under this bill, selling tobacco products without a license could result in fines up to $1,000 and/or 30 days imprisonment. Licensed retailers who sell to people younger than 21 could face a $300 fine for their first offense, $1,000 for the second offense within two years of the first and $3,000 for a third offense within two years of the second.

Devin Farmer is a store supervisor at VAPE180 in Annapolis, Maryland. Farmer said he can understand why lawmakers would want to regulate the growing industry with teen vaping on the rise.

Though plenty of people between 18 and 21 frequent Farmer’s store, he said they have enough regulars over the age of 21 that the store should stay in business.

“While (this legislation) will cut back on us a little bit, it shouldn’t do too much damage to our actual business,” Farmer said.

The bill also authorizes the Maryland Department of Health to use people younger than 21 to conduct unannounced inspections of tobacco product retailers. Farmer said he’s experienced similar sting operations working at gas stations, but never at his vape shop.

Farmer said this practice could potentially work, “Maybe kind of as a scare tactic, maybe a once here and there kind of thing. I wouldn’t make it a normal, everyday kind of occurrence,” he said.

VAPE180 supervisor Devin Farmer. Photo by Charlie Youngmann / Capital News Service.

Annapolis resident and former vape store worker Ben Sloskey said he thinks this bill would not only be detrimental to the vapor industry, but also relatively ineffective at preventing teen vaping.

When he worked as a vape retailer, Sloskey said, most of his customers were primarily 18-22 and new to nicotine, or former smokers well into their 30’s. Recalling how easy it was for him to find cigarettes as a teenager, Sloskey said high school students will either go out-of-state or simply pay adults to purchase vape products for them.

In 11 other states including Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia, the age to purchase tobacco has been raised to 21, according to Delaware and Pennsylvania are among other states considering this change.

“How does the 18-year-old senior get alcohol for his party? He talks to a family relative or he talks to his friend,” Sloskey said. “There are people in high school who have an older group of friends because of something that they do in their free time,” he said.

Because this bill would also restrict people younger than 21 from entering a vape shop, Sloskey said younger children may begin to purchase fake IDs, not to get into bars, but to smoke and vape, he said.

Britani Ngo just turned 20 and has been vaping for about two years since she made the switch from cigarettes. As the store supervisor of VAPE180’s Linthicum, Maryland, branch, Ngo said she’s concerned about what this bill may do to her ability to work.

“Hopefully I can stay, but if it comes down to it, I don’t have much of a choice other than to really leave,” Ngo said. “Honestly, I’m just really scared. I hope for the best, I really hope I don’t have to lose my job because this job means everything to me,” she said.

Ngo said she also doubts that this bill will prevent people who are not yet 21 from getting access to vape products.

“People are underestimating just how easy it is to kinda get your hands on things nowadays. To be realistic, if there’s a will there’s a way,” Ngo said.

Ngo and Sloskey both stressed that vaping is often overlooked as a hobby and lifestyle. Sloskey noted the effort vape enthusiasts put into selecting and building their vapes to produce different results while Ngo explained that her store acts as more of a lounge than a place of intoxication.

“Wanting to be able to help people and then having somebody say I can’t help people under a certain age, that’s just kind of a blow in the chest to me,” Ngo said. “I do know a lot of people underage that smoke and eventually it’s just going to get worse and worse,” she said.

Julia Cen Chen-Sankey is a postdoctoral fellow with the National Institutes of Health. While researching her doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland, Chen-Sankey said that she found sweet vape flavors can act as a gateway into other tobacco products for young users.

High school students make up the largest group of vape users in the United States, with sweet flavors like fruits and desserts being the most popular with young users, Chen-Sankey explained.

While this bill will likely reduce the number of vaping high school students, Chen-Sankey said, restrictions on sweet flavors and marketing could further aid in preventing underage usage.

Chen-Sankey explained that even in products labeled nicotine-free, some traces of the chemical may still be present, or the packaging could be mislabeled. She said that the broad tobacco product classifications put in place by this bill would ensure that consumers are aware of the health risks of vaping, regardless of what they are purchasing.

A pair of failed bills this session—House bill 1185 and Senate bill 708—would have restricted vape packaging to exclude cartoons, teen mascots and other imagery deemed appealing to children.

“I’d like to see (the vapor industry) keep growing as it has. There’s honestly not a place in Maryland you can go without seeing a vape shop nowadays. They’re everywhere,” Farmer said.

Hogan Signs Bills on Hate Crimes, Cyberbullying

Gov. Larry Hogan, R, pored over almost 200 bills Thursday, signing into law measures concerning cyberbullying, hate crimes and a state-recognized Freedom of the Press Day.

At this stage, Hogan has the choice of signing a bill into law, allowing it to become a law without signing, or vetoing the bill — with the exception of legislation he’s already vetoed that has been overridden.

Thursday marked one of four bill signings Hogan has scheduled for April and May. Subsequent signings are scheduled to take place April 30, May 13 and May 23.

While these signings generally begin the day after the legislative session ends, Hogan delayed the ceremony out of respect for House Speaker Michael Busch, who died April 7, one day before the end of the session.

Hogan later on Thursday called a special session of the legislature for May 1, to allow the House of Delegates to elect a new speaker.

Hogan signed House bill 181 and Senate bill 103, named “Grace’s Law 2.0”, which will provide an updated version of the protections against cyberbullying put in place by the first “Grace’s law,” which was passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2013.

The law and its predecessor are named after Grace McComas, who killed herself on Easter Sunday 2012 after being cyberbullied, according to a Capital News Service report.

Hogan signed several bills that will increase penalties for threatening hate crimes or acts of mass violence, as well as a bill that will require the Maryland State Police to collect and record data on hate crimes.

Hogan also signed House bill 871 and Senate bill 690, which will reclassify human trafficking as a violent crime. House bill 734 and Senate bill 689 will increase penalties for labor trafficking as well.

A joint resolution Hogan signed will make June 28 Freedom of the Press Day in Maryland. The date chosen marks the anniversary of the shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis that resulted in the deaths of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.

Because the Capital Gazette newspapers cover Maryland politics and public policy, Rick Hutzell, editor of Capital Gazette Communications, said his paper couldn’t endorse an honor awarded by the state.

“The most important honor we get is from our readers who subscribe to us,” Hutzell said, echoing the paper’s editorial that addressed the measure. “Every day is press freedom day for us,” he said.

Hogan signed House bill 1428 and Senate bill 619, which will enact a new conflict of interest policy for the University of Maryland Medical System’s board of directors in order to increase transparency.

Soon after the bill’s introduction, an investigation by the Baltimore Sun uncovered no-bid contracts between the University of Maryland Medical System and its board members. Among these contracts was a deal to sell Democratic Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s book to the University of Maryland Medical System, according to a Capital News Service Report.

Hogan also signed Senate bill 521, which will require the Maryland Department of Health to provide more health service accessibility to veterans in order to prevent veteran suicide.

By Charlie Youngmann

Mourners gather in Annapolis to honor Michael Busch

Members of the Maryland General Assembly on Monday solemnly lined up outside the State House, as bagpipes played and state troopers carried in the casket of the late House Speaker Michael Busch, followed by his family.

Politicians, dignitaries and the general public gathered in the Maryland State House to pay their respects to the longtime speaker of the House.

Busch, D-Anne Arundel, died April 7, just one day before the last day of the legislative session — known as Sine Die — while being treated for pneumonia. He was 72.

A Maryland State Police procession escorted Busch’s casket — draped in a Maryland flag — and his family through a windy downtown Annapolis before stopping in the rotunda of the State House to lie in repose.

The members of the General Assembly filed in after the procession, while the public made their way through the opposite entrance of the building. Others filled the sidewalks and the grassy area outside the State House.

Several dignitaries, including Gov. Larry Hogan, R, gave remarks before the public visitation.

“Few have served Maryland with as much passion and dedication as Mike Busch did,” Hogan said early Monday afternoon. “And few will leave this earth as well-loved and esteemed as he was.”

Former United States Sen. Barbara Mikulski referred to Busch as “coach,” and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, lauded his commitment to Maryland over the years.

Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, teared up while speaking, calling Busch a “leader” and “friend.”

After the remarks, members of the General Assembly walked past Busch’s casket, some closing their eyes to say a prayer, and briefly speaking with Busch’s family before exiting the State House.

Another public visitation is scheduled for Tuesday before a procession escorting the casket for the funeral service. Following the service, Hogan is expected to present Busch’s family — his wife, Cindy, and daughters Erin and Megan — with the Maryland state flag from Busch’s casket.

According to a spokeswoman for Hogan, the governor has not yet received a request to call a special session to vote for a new House speaker.

By Daniel Oyefusi


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