The Maryland State House Credit: File photo

Affordable housing, paid medical leave, and campaign finance will all play a role in the 2020 Maryland General Assembly session, thanks to bills from state legislators in Montgomery County.

To kick off the start of the 90-day session on Wednesday, Bethesda Beat identified five key bills from local legislators. All would significantly affect life for residents in Montgomery County and the rest of the state, from transportation to neighborhood zoning.

Del. Vaughn Stewart’s Homes for All package

Some of the most recently announced legislation of the session has already generated national headlines for its ambitious approach to affordable housing.

Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Derwood) unveiled three bills on Friday to ease zoning restrictions for high-density housing and establish an ambitious public fund for mixed-income housing projects.

The “Homes For All” package, as Stewart branded it on Twitter, takes a three-pronged approach to housing affordability. The first bill would legalize more multifamily homes — including duplexes, triplexes and townhouses — in areas with high job opportunities, transit access or wealth.

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The second bill would introduce new real-estate transaction fees to fund public housing accessible to all income levels — similar to models found commonly in western Europe.

The third bill would strengthen tenants’ rights, allowing them to terminate leases more easily in cases of unsafe housing or harassment by landlords. It would also cut the time landlords are given to return security deposits from 45 days to 30 days.

Vaughn has publicly admitted that he expects the legislation — which would preempt local zoning — to be “incendiary.” But he’s received local endorsements, including from Montgomery Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson.

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Del. Ariana Kelly’s Time to Care Act

Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Bethesda) has announced plans to reintroduce the Time to Care Act, a sweeping bill to establish a public insurance fund for paid parental or medical leave.

Both employers and employees would pay into the fund through a new payroll tax, allowing workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child or sick relative, or to receive treatment during a health crisis. The bill didn’t pass in 2019, but Kelly said Tuesday that sponsors built a stronger coalition of support among legislators and constituents.

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“When D.C. moved forward with a similar program, we started getting a lot of pressure to provide the same benefits as those employees are getting,” Kelly said. “Maryland is actually an outlier as a blue state that doesn’t have a program like this.”

Details of the bill are still being drafted, but Kelly said she plans to introduce measures that would make it more palatable to the business community. Those include limiting the new tax to 0.5% of a company’s payroll spending and clarifying that costs couldn’t increase for companies already providing their employees with paid medical leave.

She thinks support for the bill has become more widespread since large corporations, including Walmart, have introduced similar internal policies. Kelly said the legislation would actually “level the playing field” for smaller businesses, letting them compete with larger companies for workers by offering the same benefits.

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Toll Lane Limits

Three state legislators in Montgomery County have announced legislation to limit Gov. Larry Hogan’s highway expansion plan along I-270 and the Capital Beltway.

Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda) and Del. Sara Love (D-Bethesda) plan to introduce bills specifically tailored to local concerns.

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Lee’s legislation would prevent state agencies from constructing toll roads and bridges without consent from the majority of counties affected by the project. It’s a direct response to local officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, who widely criticized what they see as the state’s lack of collaboration on the toll lane project. Frederick County also would be affected by the plan.

Love’s bill would prohibit the state from buying residential properties along the route, a response to constituent concerns that the toll lanes will break apart established neighborhood along both highways.

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Chevy Chase) plans to introduce a broader bill to provide greater oversight over the state’s public-private partnership (or P3) process. Right now, the three-member Board of Public Works, which includes Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, has final approval over all P3 construction projects submitted by the state.

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The toll lane proposal, which has gone through changes since it was first introduced in 2017, seems certain to clear the Board of Public Works at its latest vote on Wednesday. Hogan and Franchot recently announced an agreement to approve the next step of the controversial plan.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher’s consensual sexting law

A controversial decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals prompted Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Kensington) to introduce a new bill amending the state’s child pornography laws.

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In August 2019, the court ruled that a teenage girl who sent friends a one-minute graphic video of herself was technically her own pornographer under the state’s current laws. The 35-page opinion suggested that lawmakers amend the legislation to exempt juvenile “sexting” cases.

“The court essentially stated that the current laws resulted in that absurd outcome, but their hands were tied,” Waldstreicher said Tuesday. “I read about the case and decided to respond to what the judges are saying.”

The prefiled legislation, Senate Bill 45, narrowly amends the state’s child pornography laws to exclude minors who send a graphic photo or video of themselves to another minor. The law does not protect recipients of the images if they send them to other people, Waldstreicher said.

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Similar cases have been heard in states such as Washington and Minnesota. A growing number of other states have taken up legislation similar to Waldstreicher’s, exempting consensual sexting from child pornography laws. The American Civil Liberties Union and several doctors writing in the academic journal Pediatrics have urged states to reconsider their laws.

Del. Julie Palakovich Carr’s campaign finance law

Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Rockville) has prefiled a bill that would forbid foreign investors and “foreign-influenced corporations” from donating to political candidates or committees in Maryland.

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Free Speech for the People, a fair-elections nonprofit, announced Monday that it helped draft the bill, which is crossfiled in the Senate. In a press release, Palakovich Carr stated that House Bill 34 would “close a loophole that allows foreign-owned companies to influence elections in Maryland.”

There have been few high-profile examples of foreign campaign contributions in Maryland. But the law comes as states grapple with concerns over election interference and foreign influence in the 2020 presidential election. In August 2019, Maryland approved a $1.3 million contract to improve the security of state elections data.