House passes DC statehood, Senate prospects dim

By HANNAH FIELDS, RAYONNA BURTON-JERNIGAN and MADISON PEEK Capital News Service Washington Bureau

House Democrats passed legislation Thursday that would grant statehood to the District of Columbia. The 216-208 party-line vote sends the measure to the Senate, where it does not appear to have the necessary 60 votes to pass.

The Washington D.C. Admission Act, symbolically numbered H.R. 51, would create Washington, Douglas Commonwealth, with two senators and a representative in the House, totaling three electoral college votes. 

“Statehood for D.C. is about fairness, justice, and ensuring that all Americans have an equal stake in our republic,” the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, said in her closing remarks. “This is not about politics. It’s a fundamental voting and civil rights issue.”

The bill was authored and introduced by the District’s Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has been leading the movement for statehood for decades. The bill has 216 House co-sponsors; an identical piece of legislation passed in the House last year. 

Norton, who first introduced the bill 10 years ago with no co-sponsors, has argued continuously that District residents pay more in state and federal taxes than other states but have no voting representation in Congress. 

“Congress has both the moral obligation and the constitutional authority to pass H.R. 51,” Norton said. “This country was founded on the principles of no taxation without representation and consent of the governed, but D.C. residents are taxed without representation and cannot consent to the laws under which they, as American citizens, must live.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said statehood was a civil rights issue and a matter of equality of citizenship. 

“In no other democratic nation in the world, does the capital city of that nation not have a vote in their parliament,” Hoyer said. “Now our ‘parliament’ is called the Congress.”

Republicans called the bill unconstitutional. They also were upset over the implications of an overwhelmingly Democratic city adding two Democratic senators to a closely-divided Senate.

Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, said the bill attempted to ignore the Founding Fathers’ intent for the capital, adding that statehood would be an unconstitutional, impractical and blatant power grab.

“America’s government will become of the Democrats, by the Democrats, and for the Democrats,” Comer said. “H.R. 51 is all about the Democrats adding two new progressive U.S. senators to push a radical agenda… to reshape America into the socialist utopia they alway talk about.”

Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas, offered “retrocession” as an alternative, giving District residents full federal representation. Putting the District “back into Maryland would give them that added seat and would address that very issue.”

“The GOP is acting in good faith because we know that seat will be a Democratic seat, but it’s the right thing to do,” Fallon said.

Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-New York, rebutted Republicans’ arguments, saying: “There is no good faith argument for disenfranchising over 700,000 people, most of whom are people of color.”

The White House voiced its support for District statehood on Tuesday, issuing a policy statement saying that it “will make our Union stronger and more just” and calling on Congress to give the residents of the nation’s capital “long overdue full representation in Congress.”

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding a tie-breaking vote. The problem for District statehood, as it is for many other matters before the Senate, is that it would require 60 votes to end an expected filibuster by GOP opponents. 

No Republican senator so far has embraced District statehood. And some Senate Democrats have not said how they would vote on the idea.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is expected to press for a vote on District statehood. After the House vote, he tweeted: “This is about democracy. It’s about self-government. It’s about voting rights. I was proud to re-introduce this bill in the Senate, and we are working to make #DCStatehood a reality.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, and the chief statehood sponsor in the Senate, has asked former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman to help lobby undecided senators to vote for the House-passed bill, Forbes reported.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told the magazine there was “zero chance” he could be persuaded by his close friend Lieberman to end his vehement opposition to statehood.

The League of Women Voters urged the Senate to pass the bill.

“D.C. statehood is not a partisan issue but a civil rights issue which cannot be separated from the fight for racial justice,” League CEO Virginia Kase said in a statement. “As D.C. is a jurisdiction with a majority population of Black and Brown people, continued efforts to block full representation is discrimination against the people who live, work, and pay taxes in the District.”

“For decades, Congress has refused to vote on statehood, based on racist accusations that D.C. cannot govern itself,” she said. “ It is long past time that we dispel these racist and discriminatory excuses and deliver justice to the residents of our nation’s capital.”  

Maryland music venues struggle to stay afloat

Ottobar, a Baltimore indie-rock music venue, lost 95% of its annual revenue when it was shut down during the pandemic. (Photo Credit: Ottobar)

By MADISON HUNT 
Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau

Independent music venues continue to struggle financially to survive while in the midst of Maryland’s lifted pandemic restrictions and vaccine accessibility. 

Tecla Tesnau, owner of Baltimore’s indie-rock club Ottobar, said she remembers when she thought the pandemic was only going to last two weeks. 

“It was all of a sudden, we just ran into this crazy brick wall of COVID,”  Tesnau said. “We effectively went from a very successful business to zero business.”  

The home of rock lovers became a ghost town, and the once 30-member staff slowly went down to eight people as the pandemic continued, Tesnau said. 

According to the National Independent Venue Association — an organization with more than 3,000 independent live entertainment venues and promoters from across the country — independent music venues were the first to close during the pandemic and they will be the last to fully reopen. 

Ottobar lost 95% of their annual revenue, which is generated from ticket sales and concessions after they were forced to shut down because of the pandemic, Tesnau said.  

“It’s just absolutely devastating to realize that something you’ve worked so hard for, you’re just unable to continue to do,” Tesnau said.  

Fortunately, Ottobar was granted an award from Maryland and started a GoFundMe page in 2020 that a year later has generated almost $150,000, according to Tesnau. (https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-the-ottobar)

“The city really saved Ottobar,” Tesnau said. “Because the bills don’t stop coming just because you stop business.” 

On Jan. 15, Gov. Larry Hogan, R, announced his plans to distribute $30 million in awards to Maryland’s entertainment industry impacted by the pandemic, according to the governor’s website. 

The awards were given to 49 for-profit or nonprofit live entertainment and music venues, 27 independently owned movie theaters and 16 live entertainment promoters, the website said. 

However, even with the state’s financial assistance most music venues were still depending on federal funding to get through the pandemic, venue owners said. 

Audrey Fix Schaefer, head of communications for I.M.P —  an independent concert and promotion company — said federal funding will be the only thing that will help independent venues from closing. 

The Anthem, The Lincoln Theatre, Merriweather Post Pavilion and the 9:30 Club all fall under I.M.P’s production company.  

The National Independent Venue Association worked up to a year trying to get Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide $15 billion in pandemic relief to independent venues across the country. 

Schaefer, who is also a board member for the National Independent Venue Association, said they worked relentlessly to get the bill passed. 

“We fought for eight to then months to get some type of financial assistance, because there was none,” Schaefer said. “No matter how iconic of a venue you are, there’s just no way anybody could have prepared for this.” 

The bill got bipartisan support and was signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020, Schafer said. 

Unfortunately, local independent music venues still have yet to receive any grant money from this bill because of technical issues with the website, venue owners said. 

The portal was finally opened April 8, but the website crashed and has not been back up since, according to Schaefer. 

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for so many that have barely hung on,” Schaefer said. “And it is through no fault of their own, they’ve done all the right things.”

As well, this financial blow to many local music venues impacts surrounding businesses, music venue experts said.

According to a Chicago Loop Alliance study, for every dollar spent at an independent music venue, an additional $12 goes into surrounding businesses.

With the rollout of more vaccines and lifted restrictions, music venue owners said they are hopeful that they can return to normal operations over the summer. 

I.M.P. is encouraging everyone who gets their newsletter to preregister for the vaccine, and they even used Merriweather Post Pavilion as a COVID testing site during the pandemic, Schaefer said. 

“It’s something we’re trying to  partner for the health of the community, how lucky we are that there are vaccines available now,” she said. 

Tesnau also said she is excited about the vaccination rollout, and hopes that this means life can get back to “normal.”

“We can’t keep continuing to hold the pause button, we absolutely have to try to make plans to get back to what our lives used to look like,” Tesnau said.   

In Washington, Chauvin guilty verdict is call to pass police reform measures

Photo: Clay Banks

By JALEN WADE, JOY SAHA, JENNIFER MANDATO and CLARA LONGO DE FREITASCapital News Service Washington Bureau
After a jury on Tuesday found former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Democratic congressional leaders saw the verdict as a call to enact news laws against nationwide police brutality. 

“Because of smartphones, so many Americans have now seen the racial injustice that black Americans have known for generations,” Harris said in a nationally televised address from the White House’s Cross Hall.

“Here’s the truth about racial injustice: it’s not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem,” Harris said before Biden spoke. “It is a problem of every American, it is keeping us from the promise of liberty and justice for all.”

Biden repeated Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe.”

“We can’t let those words die with him,” the president said. “We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.””This can be a moment of significant change,” Biden said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that “while the state’s prosecution was successful, I know that nothing can fill the void that the loved ones of George Floyd have felt since his death.”

He said the Justice Department’s civil rights probe into Floyd’s death “is ongoing,”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a press conference from the Capitol that the verdict was a “step in the right direction.”  Pelosi thanked the jury for validating what she and the world saw on tape.

“George Floyd should be alive today,” she said on Twitter. “His family’s calls for justice for his murder were heard around the world. He did not die in vain. We must make sure other families don’t suffer the same racism, violence & pain, and we must enact the George Floyd #JusticeInPolicing Act.”

That legislation passed the House in March and now awaits action in the closely-divided Senate. 

“This bill would hold law enforcement account and build trust between law enforce and our communities” Harris said. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, urged the Senate to pass the reform bill.

“But we can only do so much by legislation alone,” he said. “Our nation must reckon with racial bias and with the reality that, even 158 years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, America is still not free from the legacy of slavery, segregation, and institutionalized racism. Justice, equality, and opportunity are still being denied to Black Americans, and we must all confront this painful truth.”

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer D-New York, said that the trial served to affirm what many people were already aware of, that Floyd had been murdered in cold blood. But Schumer said that the verdict alone did not end the rampant problem with police conduct in the country.  

The divide between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to protect have not yet been bridged, Schumer said. 

“We must remain diligent in our efforts to bring meaningful change to police departments across the country,” Schumer said. “The Senate will continue that work as we strive to ensure George Floyd’s tragic death will not be in vain.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, also urged action on the police reform bill named after Chauvin’s victim.

“While today’s verdict was just, we must think of the Black Americans who have never received justice,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “We must move with urgency to confront and defeat systemic racism in all its forms, and Congress must act immediately to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.” 

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said that the reform measure includes additional provisions that prohibit the “use of racial and religious profiling by police” and changes how law enforcement interacts with marginalized communities. 

“As a nation, we simply must do more to ensure that the basic human rights of Americans are protected at all times, even if they are suspected of a crime,” Cardin said. “We also must fundamentally reform our thinking and systems so that individuals are not assumed suspects because of the color of their skin or the clothes they wear. It’s morally wrong and a waste of legitimate police resources.“

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh also called for further action both nationally and locally.

“Justice has been done,” Frosh said. “But this cannot be the end. Systemic problems with policing and with equal justice require reform.”   

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, tweeted that “this verdict is justice served – but it is not justice for George Floyd.”

“True justice would be a country where George Floyd would still be alive today,” the senator said. “True justice demands action – it demands change & that we do everything we can to stop this from happening again & again & again.”  

Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, during an arrest made by four Minneapolis police officers, including Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, resulting in his death.

Chauvin’s trial began March 29. The jury found him guilty on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter.   

Following the verdict, Biden and Harris called the Floyd family. Biden comforted the family, saying the trial would be the start of change. 

Advocacy groups, while noting that the verdict was a sign of justice, still continue to fight for other issues. The NAACP website acknowledged that “the jury has spoken, but our lives are still on the line.” A link to a petition for police reform followed the statement. 

“We will never begin to achieve true justice for George Floyd until our country completely transforms public safety to save Black lives and reduce racist police violence,” the American Civil Liberties Union said on Twitter.

Cicadas will soon invade the state of Maryland

Michael Raupp is holding a group of newly emerged cicadas known as nymphs. (Photo Credit: Michael Raupp and the University of Maryland)

By MADISON HUNT 
Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau

Brood X, a new generation of cicadas, will begin to show up in Maryland in the next few weeks,  after a 17-year-long hiatus. 

These periodical cicadas  — cicadas that emerge every 17 years — are only found along the eastern half of the United States, according to experts. 

The red-eyed, “straw-nosed” bug will begin to show up as early as late April, will fully emerge by the beginning of May and last until June, experts said. 

Michael Raupp, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Maryland, said this will be one of the largest groups of cicadas the states have seen. 

“It’s called the Great Northern Brood,” Raupp told Capital News Service. “There will be literally billions, if not trillions, of these periodical cicadas emerging more or less simultaneously.”

This brood of cicadas are found in 15 states, ranging from Georgia to Northern Virginia, as well as along the state of Mississippi, Raupp said. 

This group is made up of three different species — Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula — according to The Washington Post. 

During their hibernation period, these cicadas have been feeding off the liquid found on plants and leaves known as sap, experts said. 

“Their immature stages, which we call nymphs, feed on a liquid diet,” Raupp said. “When the adults emerge they will also feed on this same fluid.” 

After the bugs emerge from the ground, typically at night, they will fly to vertical structures and shed their skin, Raupp said. By the next morning their exoskeleton will have hardened, and they will be able to fly, leading them to the treetops, he continued. 

This is where the noise begins, the distinct mating calls of cicadas are some of the reasons most people find these bugs annoying, according to experts. 

According to Raupp, the cicada’s sound levels can get as high as 80 to 100 decibels, which is the volume of a lawnmower or a jet aircraft going by. 

During their time in Maryland, they will become a delicacy to many animals and even some people, cicada experts said. 

“Birds will eat them, raccoons will eat them, turtles will eat them,” Raupp continued, “I will surely be snacking on a few as well.” 

These bugs are highly nutritious and high in protein, according to experts. 

Even though there is a lot of anticipation for the new wave of these unique bugs, there are also some negative connotations that come with them. 

Dawn Biehler, associate professor in the department of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who studies the social impacts and cultural connotations of insects, said she’s gotten different responses from the anticipated invasion. 

According to Biehler, Marylanders are either excited about the opportunity to reconnect with these bugs or they aren’t looking forward to one more thing adding to the tumultuous year. 

“People get really grossed out about the way they emerge from the ground, they seem like zombies in a way,” she said.

Biehler recommends that Marylanders prepare themselves by learning a little bit more about the bugs in advance, or prepare for another couple of months of isolation. 

Raupp also recommended that Marylanders cover their small trees and shrubs from the cicadas with netting gear. 

“They are going to damage the branches,” Raupp said. “The trick here is the netting should have a mesh size of one centimeter or less, that’s about three-eighths of an inch.” 

Raupp stressed that these bugs are a natural phenomenon, so there should be more of an embrace for these bugs than hatred. 

“It only happens a few times in your lifetime, so get out and enjoy these things,” Raupp said.

Disparities in COVID-19 vaccine allocation prompt state equity initiatives

The Maryland National Guard distributes COVID-19 vaccines at a mobile vaccination site in Howard County on April 7, 2021. (Sara Chernikoff/ Capital News Service)


BY SARA CHERNIKOFF AND THERESA COTTON
Capital News Service


Statewide disparities in COVID-19 vaccinations expose barriers that underserved populations face in avoiding life-threatening infection. Maryland’s early vaccination rollout shows a pattern of racial disparity mostly among Black and Latino residents. 

Healthcare disparities hold a firm grip on communities of color in Maryland, a reality that has only worsened with the pandemic. According to state data, an average of 62% of vaccine doses have gone to white residents, with only 21% of doses going to Black Marylanders. 

In Prince George’s County, Latino residents make up 20% of the population but only 5.7% have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the county’s vaccine dashboard.

As of April 6, Black people in Baltimore City have received 28.5% of the total vaccinations administered, despite accounting for 62% of Baltimore’s population. 

“We need to see decisions and structures put in place, for those with the greatest need for the vaccine, because they are the ones that are getting sicker, and that we provide the support so that those populations are able to access the vaccines,” Baltimore City’s first Chief Equity Officer, Dana Moore said. 

Health officials say they are working towards prioritizing vaccines for minority residents, but so far the data has not shown significant changes. 

Gov. Hogan created a Vaccine Equity Task Force with the goal of increasing vaccine distribution in minority communities, using the state’s first Tactical Operations Plan.

The ongoing plan, announced on March 4th, involves partnerships with community and private organizers including several churches to launch vaccination sites for hard-to-reach populations and improve vaccine allocation. The task force is working with the National Guard to send out mobile vaccine clinics to underserved communities. The buses are currently set up in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

The task force is also working with the Maryland Department of Health to send out mobile education units in Prince George’s County where there are lower vaccination rates. The truck is decorated with informational banners about COVID-19 and broadcasts messages about how to get vaccinated in both Spanish and English.

Lack of access to technology, transportation or language barriers may further contribute to disparities with Black and Latino populations. 

While 31% of Maryland’s population is Black, Black residents accounted for about a third of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 infections and 34.8% of COVID-19 deaths, when race was reported.

Latino residents account for 11% of Maryland’s population, but make up 17.7% of COVID-19 cases and 9% of deaths. 

White residents make up about 59% of the overall population, representing 40% of COVID-19 infections and 51.5% of deaths, according to U.S. Census data.

In early March in Montgomery County, 66% of the county’s white residents were preregistered for the COVID vaccine despite making up 43% of the population.  Meanwhile, only 8% of Black residents were preregistered while making up 18% of the population and only 9% of Latino residents were preregistered despite accounting for 20% of Montgomery County’s population, according to a letter from the Montgomery County Council sent to Gov. Hogan.

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a Pulmonologist and Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University, said that health isn’t achieved by one strategy. The biggest thing to emphasize is equitable strategies for vaccine access and enrollment, Dr. Galiatsatos said. 

Addressing health inequities through vaccine rollout

Six Flags America in Prince George’s County is one of 12 mass vaccination sites in Maryland. State data shows that a majority of people vaccinated at the site in Bowie are living outside Prince George’s county.

Vaccination rates for Prince George’s County and Baltimore City are among the lowest in the state, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health. Both localities currently are within the top four areas with the most positive cases. 

Many Black Marylanders were among those that plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, showing little hesitancy towards the emergency treatment, according to a recent poll conducted by Goucher College.  

In a press release about the poll results, Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said “Vaccine hesitancy has declined among Maryland residents over the past few months. Notably, our poll results also show that Black Marylanders are not significantly more hesitant to get the vaccine than their white counterparts. There are, however, differences across party lines: Republicans are more resistant to taking the vaccine than Democrats. The big picture is that most Marylanders will get the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them.”

Dr. Kim Dobson Sydnor, Dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, said the conversation of vaccine hesitancy should be reframed to ask if the medical system is worthy of people’s trust in receiving a vaccine. 

Sydnor points to a historical distrust towards medical systems by pockets of people in minority communities. Sydnor said a desire to better understand the vaccine is a logical response. “I think that gets interpreted as hesitancy but in reality it’s a logical response to a history and set of current conditions that would make someone pause.”

Efforts to reach more Black and brown communities during the COVID-19 vaccination process allows for healthcare professionals and community organizers to address key barriers. 

“One is that every hospital invests in their community engagement officers…energize them, where they have to approach the communities in a grassroots manner, work with them to achieve community-identified health interests, and then the resources to do just that…build that trust over the next decade or so,” Galiatsatos said. 

Offering support toward outreach and encouraging community-specific health initiatives leads to more hard-to-reach populations receiving public resources and protection from the virus, according to Galiatsatos. 

Challenges in vaccine rollout

Amber Allen is a special assistant in Prince George’s County’s Health, Human Services and Education department. Allen believes the greatest issue the county faces is an inequitable vaccine supply. “Prince Georgians really want this vaccine right now. Vaccine demand has been outpacing the supply,” Allen said.

More than 232,000 Prince Georgians are pre-registered and about 62% of those people have already been vaccinated as of April 6, according to Allen. 

Prince George’s County is the second-most populated county in Maryland but has the lowest vaccination rate in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Health’s COVID-19 vaccine dashboard.

Prince George’s County is still falling behind in registering and vaccinating a majority of its Latino population and residents from low-income neighborhoods who were hit the hardest by the pandemic. 

Allen said home-bound senior citizens are having trouble accessing vaccination sites. Other residents don’t have access to wifi or tablets to register online. The county is working on transportation issues and said residents without wifi should call 311 to preregister via phone, according to Allen.

Outside of county government outreach, Adventist Healthcare, the Latino Health Initiative and CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people, are working to vaccinate at least 600 Latinos a week in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force uses the Governor’s Wellmobiles as mobile vaccination sites for communities unable to access other vaccine sites. A truck sits outside Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Howard County on April 7, 2021. (Sara Chernikoff/ Capital News Service)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently opened a mass vaccination clinic at the Greenbelt Metro Station. The site is able to provide up to 3,000 shots per day. Prince George’s County Executive Alsobrooks said that 65% of vaccines at the site will be reserved for Prince Georgians.

Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead is the head of the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force. She said the new site located at Greenbelt Metro station gives greater access for Prince George’s county residents to vaccines, especially those without transportation. Birckhead said the community vaccination site will drive vaccine data to be more equitable. “This is where the whole of government meets equity,” Birckhead said. 

As of April 8, only 13.4% of Prince George’s County residents are fully vaccinated. In Baltimore City, 16.9% of residents are fully vaccinated, according to the Maryland Department of Health. 

Dr. Sydnor, Dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, said that health inequities already exist for underserved communities in Baltimore and that nobody made adjustments to address these issues when distributing the vaccine.

“If you start distributing things based on what you think is already an equitable and fair system, you would think you’re getting the outcome you’re looking for, but in reality, because the system and structure is already inequitable, that allocation also becomes inequitable,” Sydnor said.

Sydnor points to transportation as an example of inequity. “Baltimore City in particular does not have a mass transit system. If you don’t have a car and you have to get a vaccine — and some of these vaccines are being made available on a relatively short notice — that inequity that is already built in the system just gets amplified on top of what’s happening with the vaccine and the short supply in the first place.”

Outside of transportation and technical issues, a lack of consistent messaging about signing up for vaccinations has caused confusion and distrust for some residents.

Michael Scott is the Chief equity officer at Baltimore nonprofit Equity Matters. He said registering his mom for the vaccine in Baltimore was a complicated experience. Scott said the lack of a consistent and trusted source sending messages about the vaccine early on made it difficult to discern what the right course of action was when registering and making an appointment.

“Having a foundation of trust matters and trusting the wisdom of those relationships and those people will reduce the inequity and disparities,” Scott said.

Maryland looks to establish LGBTQ commission

By TOM HINDLE 
Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau

Del. Lily Qi recounted their stories to the House committee.

There was the patient who was asked to leave her doctor’s office when she told her physician she was a lesbian. 

There was the parent who was told to move to a different city when talking to a school principal about LGBTQ comfort and inclusivity.

Some state lawmakers are looking to make sure those stories become less common — or, at the very least, they are addressed.

So, lawmakers are putting forth a bill, HB130, that would establish a commission that aims to prioritize and address LQBTQ affairs statewide. 

The bill’s sponsor, Qi, D-Montgomery, believes the bill is a necessary measure toward understanding and inclusivity.

“The committee will serve as a home and bridge between the LGBTQ communities and those who love, serve, and care about them,” Qi said at a hearing on Jan. 14.

Qi is proposing a 15-person commission, with all members appointed by the governor, and then confirmed by the Senate. 

The commission is to work on a series of steps toward a more tolerant and educated state. 

It shall assess challenges facing LGBTQ communities, collect data regarding existing policies and discrimination, and then work with local governments to pass laws based on areas of need.

“This is part of the state’s responsibility that civil rights protections are there for the LGBTQ community,” Samantha Jones, president of LGBTQ Democrats of Montgomery County, told Capital News Service. 

The commission is also expected to publish an annual report regarding its progress, as well as denoting ways to approach discriminatory practices in the state.

“We don’t know what the issues are yet. But it will help educate people in the community,” Joe Clapsaddle, a spokesperson on LGBTQ+ issues for the Episcopal Public Policy Network, said. 

According to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2020 State Equality Index, Maryland is the 13th most tolerant state in the nation. 

The bill aims to address that ranking, and foster equality and understanding within the state, too. 

“There are political advocacy organizations, but there’s nothing like what we have for other groups that experience discrimination,” Sen. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore, said. 

Qi pushed a similar piece of legislation through the House last session, but it died when the Legislature shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic

And this time, the bill looks a bit different. 

Qi, in conjunction with Washington, has worked to tweak it in order to foster inclusion within the commission itself. 

Among the modifications is a stipulation that at least two individuals on the commission identify as part of the transgender community. 

They have also adjusted the language to coincide with other Maryland state commissions in an effort to expand its influence.

None of the members of the commission are slated to receive pay, and they are expected to appoint their own chairperson. 

They will serve four-year terms, and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms without a year-long gap in between.

Still, there has been some pushback. In a hearing, legislators raised concerns about some of the technicalities of the language, especially with the scope of protections.

“This is going further. Not only saying you can’t discriminate, but you have to proactively include certain protective classes. Is that what we want to do with other protected classes with amendments?” Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, said at a voting session.  

Despite those qualms, the bill passed a Senate committee on an 8-3 vote Thursday evening and will now go to the Senate floor — where Qi is optimistic it will pass. 

“This is really the time for us to act,” Qi said.