State lawmakers look to plug-in disconnected Marylanders

Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK, Md. –– Maryland state lawmakers aim to amend inequities in broadband internet access that the coronavirus pandemic has accentuated. 

“There’s a great deal of urgency now,” said Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D–Anne Arundel, the Senate sponsor for one of two related bills presented Tuesday to a House of Delegates committee. 

Broadband provides the high-speed internet access needed for online school, teleworking, telehealth appointments, access to court proceedings and, increasingly, social interaction.

Kevin Kinnally, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties, said access is a statewide issue, affecting internet users in counties rural, urban and in-between.

If you can stream Netflix without constant lagging, you have broadband, Kinnally said.

Lawmakers and organizations should approach broadband as a utility, much like water and electricity, rather than as an amenity, said Andrew Coy, executive director of the Baltimore-based Digital Harbor Foundation. 

Coy said that a newly formed statewide office should measure broadband performance in different neighborhoods to combat the “very justified concern” of digital redlining –– a concern supported by data.

Two-thirds of Marylanders without broadband access live in Baltimore or in a metro county, according to a study the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation published in January 2020.

Coy told Capital News Service he understands that a statewide office created to expand broadband access won’t alleviate the state’s digital divide, but he said it’s a step in the right direction.

Broadband accessibility is often linked to population density, which leaves some rural residents without any wired access, but living in a city with access doesn’t guarantee fast internet.

Provider costs may limit the capacity of a household’s connectivity.

In a letter written Tuesday to Attorney General Brian Frosh, three Baltimore councilmen and the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition asked for an investigation into Comcast’s data cap as a form of “predatory price gouging.”

If customers without an unlimited plan reach their monthly data limit, Comcast charges them a fee, a restriction that is especially troublesome given Baltimore’s lack of network competition, said Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition co-founder and volunteer Adam Echelman.

In a statement to Capital News Service Thursday evening, Comcast spokeswoman Kristie Fox called the company’s limit of 1.2 terabytes a “massive amount of data,” adding that the “very small percentage” of customers who exceed their limit will have six months notice before facing fees.

Of the roughly half a million Marylanders without access to wireline –– as opposed to wireless or fiber –– broadband, 40% are African American, according to the Abell report. 

Living in a city without wireline likely means living without internet, Echelman said.

The bill Elfreth sponsors, SB0066, would include a statewide audit of the “availability, reliability and affordability” of broadband services in every county.

Del. Carol Krimm, D-Frederick, who sponsors the second bill, HB0043, told Capital News Service that a new state office for broadband would succeed Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s Office of Rural Broadband, which was created to improve broadband in Maryland’s sparsely populated areas. 

Krimm proposed expanding funding beyond state and federal CARES Act dollars for the office, tapping into prospective sports gambling revenues if needed.

Broadband access affects internet users of all ages.

Perhaps most consequential, more than 100,000 households in Maryland with children younger than 18 don’t have broadband access –– of these, a disproportionate number are poor, African American and Hispanic, according to the Abell report.

In her testimony Tuesday in support of Elfreth’s bill, SB0066 and HB0097, director of advocacy for AARP Maryland, Tammy Bresnahan, said elderly people in particular rely on broadband for telehealth, telemedicine, civic engagement and social interaction, and she explained that isolation has been a pressing issue for them during the pandemic.

Retired Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Gary Bair said in his testimony that broadband will be crucial for the proper functioning of state courts, citing that civil and family proceedings –– in which there is no right to counsel –– may be especially vulnerable to disruption without reliable internet access.

“As we recover from this pandemic, we’re going to need it in every system across the state,” Community Development Network of Maryland Executive Director Claudia Wilson Randall said in her testimony for Krimm’s bill. 

Friday Groove: My New Year’s Resolution

Photo: Blocks

Towards the latter half of 2020, I found myself in a bit of a rut. 

Now I’m not referring to the routine I’ve had since last March, where I wake up, shower, make a pot of coffee and watch reruns of Cheers for eight or nine hours while I get work done. I’m referring to the same 10 or 20 albums I would shuffle through when I wasn’t watching 80’s sitcoms.

See, one of the downsides of not being able to shop for records as frequently is I fell out of practice of finding something new to listen to on the daily. And while I certainly have my favorites I like to keep in the rotation, I pride myself on being able to mix things up pretty often. That wasn’t happening anymore.

I knew I had to break the monotony… and fast.

While many have New Year’s resolutions to eat better, exercise more or lose weight, my New Year’s resolution this year was a bit different. I decided that I would listen to a different album, in its entirety, every day for the whole year.

In an era where music is defined by streams and playlists, it seems like listening to an entire album is something of a lost art. Oftentimes, I’ve found that the single an artist puts out isn’t even the best track on the album that follows. One song doesn’t tell the whole story, but an album does.

But alas, I’ve been listening to complete albums since I’ve been listening to music. My real intention with this resolution is discovering new (to me) music and rediscovering music that I hadn’t heard in some time. 

So on January 1, I started combing through my thousands of CD’s and vinyl records and pulling out anything I hadn’t listened to since at least the early days of the pandemic, and in some cases, long before that. After the first week, I posted what I had listened to on Facebook, both to have my friends keep tabs on me, and to chronicle what all I had listened to.

Now here we are, roughly a month in, and I have to say, this has been the most fun resolution I’ve ever made. Not only am I listening to different music everyday, but I’m learning more and more about the music as I read the liner notes for these albums (another thing you don’t get with streaming). 

But perhaps the best part of all this is the discussion I have with friends about what I’ve been listening to. Through sharing this resolution with others, I’ve found even more songs and albums to listen to, and learned even more about the music along the way. Some have even taken what I’ve listened to as recommendations, so they’ll have something new to try too.

I think at some point, whether now or a little ways down the road, everyone should try something like this. Maybe if you just listen to singles and playlists, listen to a whole album. If you do listen to whole albums, try something that might be a little outside your comfort zone. Even if you don’t have access to physical media, branch out and listen to something new. 

You’ll be glad you did.

Tony Sheaffer is editor-in-chief for The Sting and writes Friday Groove, a weekly music column.

Bill adds canine support for veterans in treatment courts

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland legislators are introducing a bill that would allow for certain support dogs to assist veterans participating in a rehabilitation process through the Veterans Treatment Courts. 

These dogs provide companionship and support to the veterans in an effort to minimize the stress and anxiety that can come with judicial proceedings. 

“Knowing the struggles that veterans have with PTSD and other traumas, I thought it was a perfect fit,” Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, the bill’s lead sponsor, said at a Tuesday Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing. 

In order to be considered a therapy or facility dog, there are several criteria that need to be met.

A facility dog is a dog that has graduated from a nationally recognized assistance-dog organization and has been teamed with a facility dog handler.

A therapy dog needs to have received training in providing affection and comfort to individuals who need emotional support and also must have graduated from a program that certifies therapy dogs and their handlers.

Under this bill, a veteran conducting a status review with a judge, meeting with an attorney, or probation, pretrial or court case manager would be eligible for canine assistance in the counties that voluntarily agree to participate in the program, according to a state legislative analysis. 

“I see the potential of the bill as being significant,” Bob Norton, president of the Maryland Military Coalition, told Capital News Service.

“This would be another door that would open up a pathway for veterans,” Norton added. 

The first Veterans Treatment Court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008 and the courts are designed to help veterans rehabilitate and readjust to once again living life as a civilian keeping in mind some of the mental health challenges that many of them endure. 

Currently, there are seven counties in Maryland with operating Veterans Treatment Courts and in fiscal 2020, 133 individuals participated in these programs, according to a state legislative analysis.

“The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 1 in 5 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffers from PTSD or significant mental anguish,” Brian Smith, a Gulf War Combat Veteran, said in support of SB0007 at a Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee Hearing Tuesday. 

SB0007, and a crossfiled bill, HB186 sponsored by Del. Michael E. Malone, R-Anne Arundel, stipulates extending the current Court Dog and Child Witness Program, which was enacted into law during the 2020 legislative session. 

That law allows dogs to support child witnesses in courtrooms statewide for those counties that elect to participate beyond the previous jurisdictions of Anne Arundel and Harford counties. 

The program’s voluntary nature ensures that it will be a low expenditure bill.

The volunteer aspect is one of its most important elements because specifically trained handlers and dogs are required for its implementation and effect.

Facilities like the Dogwood Acres Pet Retreat with two locations in Maryland partner with the court system and help to provide some of the necessary handlers and canines through the Caring Canines Pet Therapy Program.

The initial Courthouse Dog and Child Witness Pilot Program was launched in 2016 in both the Anne Arundel and Harford County Circuit Courts. 

At its infancy, the program only allowed for child witnesses testifying in criminal proceedings to be accompanied by a therapy or facility dog.

However, from 2016-2019 it was expanded to include child witnesses in civil proceedings and was also renamed the Court Dog and Child Witness Pilot Program. 

“After a few years of observing, we believe there is enough resources to expand the program to help veterans,” Simonaire told Capital News Service.

The policy’s further expansion is dependent on the amount of requests and resources available.

The committee has not yet scheduled a vote but Simonaire said he is hopeful it will be voted on in early February.

“Our veterans were there when our country called, we should be there for them in their time of need,” Smith said.

“Give a veteran a second chance and give a dog a job,” Smith added.

Md. Senate adds $520 million in pandemic relief spending

Capital News Service

SILVER SPRING, Md. — State lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a $520 million amendment to the governor’s $700 million omnibus pandemic relief bill that would provide immediate support to Maryland’s small businesses and struggling residents. 

Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, said the framework of Gov. Larry Hogan’s, R, Relief Act of 2021 is a good start, but the Senate’s amendment will serve as a more targeted package to complement Hogan’s broader bill.

“We know that this crisis has not been felt equally; an equitable recovery is essential,” Ferguson said Wednesday.

The Senate Recovery Now Amendment directs $45 million toward health services and assistance, including mobile and 24/7 mental health services.

“With COVID-19, we have watched as Black Marylanders represent 41 percent of COVID deaths while only representing 30 percent of Maryland’s population,” said Sen. Antonio Hayes, D-Baltimore.

The amendment would provide $14 million to 25,000 people living in health enterprise zones — health department-designated areas that receive particular attention from the state to reduce disparities, improve health outcomes, and reduce costs associated with hospitalizations. 

The amendment also designates $20 million to fund mental health initiatives, including substance use disorder treatment to 40,000 Marylanders over the course of six months; $10 million provides grants to every county to assist with vaccine distribution and administration; $1.5 million of this would fund mobile health clinics, to expand access to vaccines.  

The Public Health Job Corps would also receive $1 million to fund the recruitment and training of people to administer vaccines.

Public services and welfare are allocated $59 million, which will replace lost fundraising revenue for firefighters, fund food banks and developmental disabilities administration grants, and erase utility debt for 10,800 households.

An allotment of $22 million would restore temporary disability assistance benefits to roughly 7,500 people, provide higher grants for 15,000 recipients of disability benefits, and will increase grant funding by $100 per month. 

Businesses struggling due to the pandemic will receive $125 million in assistance. The funds will help small and minority-owned businesses, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, according to Sen. Melony Griffith, D- Prince George’s and a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

“It’s been really hard to watch business owners make really hard decisions like whether or not to layoff employees or close temporarily or permanently,” Griffith said. 

Assistance for some 2,200 Maryland businesses totaling $26 million has been made available for those that can demonstrate need and have not received aid in the past. The extra relief would help fill the gaps to make sure businesses such as those that do not collect sales tax would still be eligible for some type of aid, according to Ferguson.

To aid businesses not eligible for the governor’s plan, which would allow some businesses to hold onto sales tax dollars, $40 million in grants have been made available.

As with restaurant relief, businesses must demonstrate need and have not received past monetary assistance to qualify. 
Roughly 22 percent of the amendment’s funds are to be directed toward education assistance.

Programs providing eight weeks of summer school or tutoring for 25,000 students and assistance to local governments in the quest to return to in-person school will each receive $50 million.

Hogan announced last week he is encouraging all school districts in the state to reopen by March 1. 

Community college job training programs will also receive $15 million in response to COVID’s effect on the job market.
Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said that several streams of funding were available to pay for the amendment. 

The amendment would draw on $320 million from the state’s rainy day fund, as well as $100 million from the local income tax reserve fund. Extra funds committed to the Maryland retirement fund totaling $75 million would be redirected to the program for 2021 and 2022.

Guzzone stressed that the money taken would not have negative effects on pensions, describing the allotment as extra cash to boost the system. 

“We don’t have to do that, especially in this point and time when the most critical needs are right now,” Guzzone said.  
Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci told Capital News Service that many of the proposals in the Senate amendment “consists of things we’ve already done or are doing through $700 million in economic assistance programs.”

Board of Public Works approves settlement for McNair family

Photo: ABC News

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — After a two-year-long process, a family will be awarded a $3.5 million settlement from Maryland after their son, Jordan McNair, died during a university football practice.

The Board of Public Works voted unanimously during a meeting Wednesday to approve the request from the University of Maryland, College Park for the full settlement of all claims made by Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson, the parents of McNair. 

“No amount of money is ever gonna bring back Jordan to his family,” Comptroller Peter Franchot, D, said at the meeting. “The McNair family entrusted the University of Maryland with Jordan’s care and quite frankly, a number of people failed him.”

McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman for the University of Maryland, was hospitalized after he collapsed on the field because of a heat stroke in May of 2018.

On June 13, 2018, just 15 days later, McNair died.  

An investigation into McNair’s death found that the university’s medical staff failed to identify McNair’s symptoms, which contributed to his death.  

“Marty and Tonya are relieved that this fight is over and to put this behind them as they continue to mourn Jordan’s death,” Hassan Murphy, attorney for McNair’s parents, said in a statement on Jan. 15.

McNair’s parents founded the Jordan McNair Foundation after their son’s death to educate others on the signs of heatstroke and heat-related illnesses with hopes to reduce the occurrences, according to the organization website

“While Jordan is not with us to build his legacy, as a family we are doing it for him. This is his legacy,” Martin McNair wrote in a letter on the website. 

Current university President Darryll Pines announced in an email to students Wednesday a partnership with the foundation that will center on student-athlete safety.  

Pines stated that Maryland Athletics has already implemented 41 reforms to enhance safety for student athletes after tw0 external reviews were conducted on the program. 

McNair’s death also contributed to changes in leadership and administration at the University of Maryland. 

A few weeks after the tragedy, reports began to raise questions about a “culture of intimidation” and abuse under the then-head football coach, DJ Durkin, and the rest of the coaching staff, as reported by NBC Sports.  

After announcing his resignation as president of the university, then-President Wallace Loh decided to fire Durkin amidst growing pressures from fans, students, and alumni, Loh announced in an email to students on Oct. 31, 2018.  

The university has since hired Mike Locksley to be the head coach, which is a decision that Marty McNair told ESPN he fully supports.

In addition, the board voted to approve a wetlands license for a project in Somerset County to extend natural gas service by installing pipelines under the Manokin River, Taylor Branch, and Kings Creek.

Speakers at the meeting against the project cited potential impacts to climate change as well as the belief that renewable energy would provide greater benefits as their reasoning for opposing.

Franchot and others who spoke of their support discussed the economic parity and access to heating fuel the project would bring to Somerset County, which they stated is the poorest county in the state.  

The board also voted to approve funding to the following:
–$121,735 toward the replacement of fire suppression equipment in the Maryland State House Building
–$889,200 toward the Sewer Sentinel Project to detect COVID-19 in wastewater and alert health professionals and citizens at risk
–$115,000 toward the Medical Cannabis Commission to add a contractor to assist in awarding additional licenses to meet the growing demand for medical cannabis

At Large: You’re Living in the Greatest Time to Be Alive

red and black love print on gray concrete floor
Photo: Ian Taylor

 No surprise: 2020 was definitely a rollercoaster year, mostly with lows and highs that made your stomach squeal. 

And, let’s be honest, 2021 has so-far provided plenty of rocky moments — whether it’s a violent insurrection and claims of election fraud that persisted nearly to the day of President Biden’s inauguration, numerous deaths of beloved celebrities, including Larry King and Hank Aaron, the additional 80,000 deaths and counting from the coronavirus; and the brutal reminder on the night of January 24th that you’re still enrolled at Zoom University and you haven’t read a single syllabus. 

Nothing can change the pain that comes from any of these events. However, we are living in the best of times to tackle these challenges. 

Swedish author and historian Jonah Norberg penned a masterfully written book in 2016 titled Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. You’re probably thinking, “That’s the most 2016 take,” but use this as my humble recommendation if you’re looking to adopt a more optimistic outlook for the year ahead. It will give you one

Ronald Bailey, in his review at Reason (where I spent summer 2018), explains that Norberg wrote his book for three reasons. “First, because something important happened,” writes Bailey. “Second, because no one believes it. And third, because it’s dangerous that they don’t believe it.” 

What’s the big thing that happened? Humanity got better at simply… being alive. 

Some examples, from Norberg’s book, are the drastic improvements in life expectancy from a mere 31 years in 1900 to roughly over 70 years, as recent as 2019. Or that having a disability is no longer an early death sentence. Not to mention, more than 37% of the world’s population in 1990 lived in abject poverty, or the equivalent of $2 per day, whereas today’s measures show that figure at less than 10% percent

If you’re skeptical of violence and war (myself included) there’s some good news: our world is not only less violent, but battle deaths per year have been in a long term decline since 1946

If you’re saying, “Yes, Leonard, my classes are online, we’re in an ongoing pandemic, and this all seems to have no end. What are you talking about?” 

As much as we all might abhor online classes, imagine this pandemic had happened in 2005, when neither the technology nor the widespread technical ability to adapt existed and educational futures could have quite possibly been stalled. Even worse, there would have been a significant educational gap between the wealthy and well-connected and everyone else. 

Despite spending a year locked indoors, missing concerts and outings, skipping Thanksgiving, and missing much more, two vaccines have been developed in less than a year that remain 90% effective. These vaccines soon enough will be readily available at little to no cost

If that’s not enough to at least make you feel like we’re not totally lost, getting a new outlook should probably be atop your New Year’s resolutions. 

That is: unless you’ve stopped them already. 

Leonard A. Robinson is editor-at-large of The Sting.