February 5, 2021
Monday marked the beginning of Black History Month, a time to honor the work and lives of countless Black Americans. Black Americans have been integral leaders, trailblazers, and advocates throughout American history, and that is no different during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To name just a few: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Marylander and lead National Institutes of Health scientist, worked for months on researching, developing, and producing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black American to serve in this role, is bringing her experience and advocacy to the White House. And Baltimore photographer Devin Allen’s powerful images of this summer’s protests, following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other Black people, were featured on his second Time Magazine cover

This month, the Baltimore Sun is running a compelling series of essays from Baltimoreans on their hopes for racial justice and equity, which I highly recommend reading. As the authors of the essays said so well, a necessary part of celebrating Black History Month is acknowledging the racial inequity and injustice that still permeates our society, and for legislators to respond by passing legislation that addresses this in education, environmental justice, policing and public safety, housing, and public health.
RELIEF Act and HBCU Funding Pass Senate
This afternoon, the Maryland Senate passed the Governor's RELIEF Act with the Senate's Recovery Now program added on to urgently support Marylanders in the greatest need. The $1.5 billion plan is a necessary step in supporting individuals, families, and small businesses through the next few months as vaccine distribution ramps up. We know the stakes are incredibly high to get support out as quickly as possible. The plan now moves to the House for their consideration before final passage.

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 1 to invest an historic $577 million in Maryland's Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The legislation passed with unanimous support through the Senate and will hopefully help to resolve the longstanding lawsuit between Maryland's HBCUs and the State for program duplication. The funding in Senate Bill 1 will be disbursed over 10 years so long as the lawsuit is resolved by June 1st and will inject much-needed funds to support our HBCUs through the COVID-19 crisis.
Reforming a Broken UI System
Going into the 2021 Legislative Session, the Maryland General Assembly knew that responding to COVID-19 meant putting processes in place to fix a broken Unemployment Insurance system. National data from last December showed that Maryland had one of the lowest claim-processing rates in the country, leaving too many individuals stuck in adjudication purgatory, waiting for their claims to be processed by the Department of Labor. Though we know our frontline claims processors have been working extremely hard to address the thousands of new claims during the past 11 months of the pandemic, it is clear that more needs to be done. 

Yesterday, I joined Speaker Jones, Senators Kelley and Klausmeier, and Delegates Davis and Carey to announce a package of reforms to address the crisis in Maryland’s unemployment system. The bills will bring about immediate fixes, including:
  • Increasing call center staff;
  • Making it easier for claimants to receive payments via checks or direct deposit;
  • Allowing claimants to leave a callback number with the UI office;
  • Improving reading accessibility on the unemployment system website and offering information in more languages; and
  • Creating metrics for claim adjudication and requirements for response times.

These are real solutions that will help people. As I said during yesterday's announcement, we hope to do this in a bipartisan way with the Administration. If the only alternative solution is to make it easier to deny people, we have failed as a State. We must make this process work for people who are struggling instead of making it harder for them to receive the benefits they deserve.
Vaccination Updates in Maryland
Vaccination locations continue to expand across Maryland. Vaccines are available by appointment at 51 pharmacies and grocery stores across the State, with 18 additional sites opening at CVS locations next week. Maryland’s first mass vaccination sites also opened today at the Baltimore City Convention Center (accepting appointment sign-ups here) and at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County. Still, vaccine supply remains incredibly limited and many Marylanders have reported difficulties with navigating the process of signing up for vaccine appointments. 

On Monday, the Senate Vaccine Oversight Group met for the second time for a weekly update from Acting Secretary Schrader. Senators raised questions and concerns regarding the State’s vaccine allocation and details about the new vaccination sites. Acting Secretary Schrader stated that Maryland is facing a shortage of second doses for the vaccine due to lower federal allocations, which was later denied by the federal government. Disappointingly, Maryland does not have clear guidance about whether individuals should sign up for vaccine waiting lists with multiple providers, something we hope to have an answer on next week. 

Marylanders need a centralized and user-friendly way to sign up for appointments. On Tuesday, Acting Secretary Schrader mentioned that a statewide phone number is being tested to make vaccination appointments easier, one approach that I hope to see implemented that would benefit Marylanders without consistent broadband access. The Vaccine Oversight Workgroup will continue meeting every Monday afternoon at 4pm and can be watched on YouTube if you want to follow along.
JPR Works on Police Reform Bills
Last Friday afternoon, the Judicial Proceedings (JPR) Committee held its first of its three open work sessions to discuss bills related to police reform and accountability. Last week’s work session covered Senate Bill 178 “Anton’s Law”, sponsored by Senator Jill Carter, which would allow law enforcement officers’ misconduct records to be accessible under certain provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act. Future sessions will include bills covering use of force standards, duty to intervene, duty to report, whistleblower protections, and the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. 

I am thankful for the tireless work of Chair Smith, Senator Carter, Senator Sydnor, and the other senators serving on JPR, who are thoroughly committed to this work and have brought multiple stakeholders to the table for their perspectives. Though these conversations are not often easy, they are necessary to ensure that our State’s systems of criminal justice and public safety are equitably serving all Marylanders. If you are interested in attending future work sessions, information to join virtually will be posted on the General Assembly’s website.
Racial Impact Statements to be Included in Analysis
Speaker Jones and I announced a pilot program to require racial impact statements in the legislative analysis of all major criminal justice bills. Racial impact statements will quantify whether disproportionate harm or burden is being placed on communities of color.

This will be a key framework for legislators to ensure that our laws are dismantling structural and institutional racism, not contributing to it. The nonpartisan analysts at the Department of Legislative Services (DLS) will be partnering with Bowie State University and the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center to create racial impact statements that will supplement the fiscal and policy analyses that DLS currently develops.
Governor Hogan's State of the State Address
On Wednesday evening, Governor Hogan delivered his annual State of the State address virtually, focusing on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, economic relief, and K-12 education. While I echo some of the Governor’s points, particularly on the need for both short and long-term solutions to the pandemic, I had hoped for more discussion about the disparate impact of COVID-19 on people of color and people experiencing poverty. 

As we know, this impact is evident in every aspect of our society, from the disproportionate rates of infection and deaths among people of color in Maryland, to the digital divide making online learning nearly impossible for some students, to our small, minority, and women-owned businesses experiencing deep financial challenges.

If our State is to truly move forward to heal and rebuild, we must do so through a realistic lens that names the problems in order to build solutions that serve all Marylanders. I look forward to working with the Governor on these policies, including urgently moving forward his RELIEF Act and Senate’s Recovery Now Program, that passed the Maryland Senate this afternoon.
More News
On Tuesday, the Baltimore Sun’s Editorial Board published a passionate and compelling op-ed on the ways Maryland’s vaccine rollout has been frustrating for many individuals, and offers solutions for remediation. I agree wholeheartedly with the Editorial Board’s calls for a multi pronged distribution plan, and a centralized way for Marylanders to sign up for a vaccine. As the editors write, more needs to be done “to manage people’s expectations and build confidence, rather than chaos, in the system”. 

This week, State health officials and the CDC confirmed two additional cases of the novel South African COVID-19 variant in Maryland. This variant is believed to be more transmissible than other strains of the virus. I continue to emphasize that following public health best practices of mask-wearing, social distancing, limiting indoor gatherings, and hand washing are still necessary to curb transmission, even as vaccines are distributed. 

Baltimore City Public Schools revised its school reopening timeline, now calling for K-2nd grade students to return March 1, 3rd-5th grade and 9th grade on March 15, and seniors on April 12. 

The “Domino Sugars” sign, a fixture of Baltimore, will be retired March 1st and replaced with a new sign. The new sign is anticipated to be unveiled on July 4th, and was designed to match the look of the original sign, but is more durable and environmentally friendly. 

On Thursday, twelve Baltimore high schoolers who were part of the program COVID Slam presented their solutions to an urgent challenge faced by Baltimore youth related to remote learning: mental health. The student teams followed a project management-style experience map to develop and present solutions, including piloting an alternative communication tool for students and running out-of-school time, youth-led Zoom meetings. 

After a few milder winters, we experienced a few days of snowfall from Sunday to Tuesday, with Baltimore City reporting 4.2 inches of snow. Thanks to the City Department of Transportation and all agencies involved in snow removal, responding to requests for help, and keeping our residents safe.
If there is anything we can do to help, please do not hesitate to contact my office via email, bill.ferguson@senate.state.md.us, or by phone, 410-841-3600.