Do you support the findings of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education? Are you committed to funding associated reforms, and if so, how?
Al-Shareffi: I broadly support the preliminary findings of the Commission, particularly its preliminary recommendations on the need to implement state-funded pre-K reflecting the importance of early childhood education, as well as their strategies on increasing standards and diversity in our teachers. While I welcome the Commission’s recommendations on “equitable” distribution of resources with priority to less wealthy jurisdictions, I would hasten to add that the education funding formula should be adjusted to also take into account the added need for resources, both in terms of general funding and in capital improvements, to school districts that are rapidly growing, such as those in my district and in Montgomery County as a whole. In terms of funding, this can be best assured by holding the state accountable in fully funding education, not only through the Education Trust Fund, but also in maintaining and increasing the allocation to education from the general fund, which appears to be slipping. The Education Trust Fund must be used as a supplement to general education funding from the state, not as a means of slowly replacing those funds. If this can be done, then we will be able to afford the investment in education.
Is Maryland’s transportation spending appropriately balanced between roads and transit? Does the state have the resources to meet its transportation needs? With the cancellation of the Red Line and the advent of BaltimoreLink, is the Baltimore region adequately served by transit?
Al-Shareffi: I believe the current transportation funding balance is appropriate. I welcome the dedicated funding to Metro that was agreed during this legislative session. I’m also cautiously supportive of Governor Hogan’s public-private partnership plan to expand I-270 and other highways, provided that the plan receives a favorable environmental impact statement and he sticks to his promise of zero public funding for the initiative. I do feel the Baltimore candidates can speak more persuasively about their transportation needs, but I do support a revival of the Red Line and believe that while BaltimoreLink can be a useful means of streamlining public transport services to Baltimore, a revival of the Red Line would still be necessary.
Do you support the legalization of recreational marijuana?
Al-Shareffi: As a physician, although I do not believe marijuana to be a miracle drug or panacea that some legalization supporters purport it to be, I feel that the evidence on harm vs. benefit clearly supports a legalization of recreational marijuana use under a regime where use would be regulated and taxed, similar to alcohol sales in the state, and drawing upon the lessons learned by states that have already legalized recreational use of marijuana. Such legalization should also make provision for the growing of a small amount of marijuana for personal use. I believe passionately in the need to provide more funding and resources for drug treatment programs, especially free and subsidized inpatient resources (for all drug addictions), and increased research into the benefits and harms of cannabis, which have been lacking to date due in part to marijuana’s continued classification as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act. An important priority would be to create a simple test equivalent to the “breathalyzer” for alcohol levels, that can aid in enforcing laws to prevent people from driving while under the influence of marijuana, as these cases might increase with legalization.
At a time when the federal government’s commitment to Chesapeake Bay restoration is questionable, what new steps should Maryland take to protect this resource?
Al-Shareffi: I am heartened by the fact that recently announced federal funding cuts to the Chesapeake Bay restoration did not materialize and I would work closely with our federal representatives to make sure that federal funding continues. While ultimately Maryland should be willing to step in to provide funding should the federal government falter, I believe announcing this explicitly would not be politically wise, as it may paradoxically encourage the federal government to end its support. I am also in favor of increased publicity to the great restoration work as well as encouraging citizens to volunteer their time and efforts to the cleanup process.
What steps should Maryland take to ensure the broadest possible access to affordable health care?
Al-Shareffi: I am in favor of Mr. Jealous’s “Medicare-for-All” plan for Maryland. With a supermajority in the legislature and (hopefully) a Democratic governor, I believe it would be possible to pass this legislation, building on the “all-payer” model in existence in Maryland to a system where all our residents can have access to quality healthcare that is available to them regardless of whether or not they are lucky enough to have a job that provides healthcare benefits. As a physician who worked in the mental health field, I am also excited by the prospect of increased mental health care, both in the outpatient and inpatient capacity, that such legislation would provide, as too many Marylanders, even those with insurance, often find it very difficult to see a mental health provider.
What role should the state play in helping Baltimore address violent crime?
Al-Shareffi: I believe this question is best addressed by candidates from the Baltimore area, and I would not presume to impose solutions on them. That said, I have some thoughts. The best way to reduce violent crime is to provide hope for the populace. This starts with providing business-friendly policies that encourage an influx of quality jobs that can provide economic support to residents and also provide the tax dollars to fund other initiatives. These other initiatives include strong support for education, both in terms of the quality of teachers and school resources, and also in providing ancillary services such as free and subsidized lunches and after-school programs. This will allow students to focus on learning and achieving the skills they need to succeed in higher education or vocational training, and then get those high quality, high paying jobs I spoke of earlier. By breaking the school-to-prison pipeline and replacing it with school to training to great jobs pipeline, communities will have the hope needed to break the yoke of violence. Additionally, addressing the role of drug addiction and drug dealing that goes hand-in-hand with violent crime cannot be overemphasized. By providing more funding for drug addiction treatment, including 24⁄7 centers as proposed by Mr. Jealous, those addicted to drugs can find hope. Finally, focusing on community-police cooperation and implementing visible patrols to disperse known areas of drug dealing can give confidence to citizens of a new future and make it more difficult for crime to continue with impunity.
How would you characterize Maryland’s business climate? What can the state do to foster the creation of more family-supporting jobs?
Al-Shareffi: Mediocre business climate. On the one hand, we have a highly educated and skilled workforce, generally low crime rates, and generally good access to transportation (although we still have room for improvement in these areas), and yet Maryland consistently ranks poorly on business climate surveys, primarily due to a high number of government regulations and a high state corporate tax as compared to other states. These are not easy questions to solve, as decreasing the state corporate tax rate will of course mean a cut in services or new taxes, neither of which are popular, while many of the regulations in place protect families and the environment, particularly in terms of paid sick leave. The best thing we can do is foster a culture of unwinding regulations to only those absolutely needed, improving infrastructure and education, and reducing the corporate tax burden gradually. Once these efforts pick up steam, we can invest more in advertising and promoting Maryland as a great place to do business. I am also quite supportive of the unprecedented incentives being offered to entice Amazon to build its second headquarters in the state. While the effort may or may not succeed, the fact that we have made the top 20 shortlist is a statement of support to Maryland’s business climate and is certainly welcome.
Do you support the creation of a non-partisan, independent body to draw legislative and congressional district maps after each census?
Al-Shareffi: Absolutely in support. If left to politicians, politicians as a class will support their narrow partisan interests, as they have in virtually every state in the United States. While democracy is not always served with experts and technocrats making important decisions, on the very question of where the districts should be drawn, it is important to have a neutral and respected body put in charge of that, allowing free and competitive elections for our state and federal offices.
Does the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights adequately balance protections for police and the public? Should it be changed, and if so, how?
Al-Shareffi: I think that the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, on the whole, does an adequate job of protecting police but still allowing for reasonable investigations of police officers who are accused of misconduct. The public largely realizes the special demands put on police officers as a consequence of their duties, including the potential to face unwarranted allegations of excessive force, and having a regulated procedure that protects the rights of police officers is fine. My biggest concern, however, is not the law as written but how the law can be applied inappropriately to shield misconduct. Therefore, I would be in favor of a provision that allows the Governor, if systemic problems are reported with a jurisdiction, to enact a civilian review board, that would be able in those extraordinary circumstances of questioning police officers and having access to ongoing investigations. By having this “emergency option” open in extraordinary circumstances, the public can be better protected, but only if the Governor (acting on the public’s behalf), feels that individual police departments have not upheld their responsibilities adequately to root out misconduct.
What strategy would you adopt to address the opioid addiction and overdose crisis?
Al-Shareffi: This is an issue that I feel very strongly on, given my experiences as a physician in the mental health field, and having dealt on a professional and personal level with many individuals addicted to opiates. The response to the opioid crisis must be multifaceted. In the first place, we must ensure that naloxone, the fast-acting medication that can reverse an opioid overdose and potentially save lives, is available in large quantities for first responders. I would also strongly support having naloxone available in public buildings, like libraries and city halls, on the same basis as AEDs (defibrillators), as this will save lives. Beyond this, we must fund more 24⁄7 crisis centers and have greater capacity for inpatient rehabilitation. Often, those addicted to opioids will seek help, only to be faced with long delays in getting an inpatient bed, which in some cases can be a death sentence. Increasing capacity for inpatient facilities as well as providing more resources for sustained remission in the community is key. Finally, we must go after the few unscrupulous physicians who illegally prescribe opioids, as well as those who don’t know better an have been prescribing opiates to treat chronic pain, contributing to this disaster. The few pharmaceutical companies that used unethical tactics to push their medications or hide data must also be held to account, in class-action lawsuits similar to those used against tobacco companies, with proceeds used to fund treatment efforts.
What if anything should the state do to address income inequality?
Al-Shareffi: The best way to reduce income inequality is by creating a business-friendly environment, strongly supporting preK through grade 12 education, and providing incentives to reduce the cost of higher education and vocational training. Giving our children the best education possible will give them the tools to succeed in high paying jobs and as entrepreneurs, while creating the right environment for business will lead to high paying jobs. The higher employment levels we have, the less income and racial disparities in employment will arise, and the better off everyone will be. Of course, as a function of capitalism, there will always be some income inequality, but the smaller this gap is between rich and poor, the more social cohesion will exist and this will pay off in safer neighborhoods and prosperous communities.
Do the state’s Public Information Act and open meetings laws adequately ensure Marylanders’ ability to exercise oversight of the government?
Al-Shareffi: I have not had any problems in accessing, for instance, the budgets for cities in my district or other published documents. However, if there are any instances of public meetings where the public is denied entry or information requested by the public that is not released, contrary to law, then I would be a strong advocate to redress those wrongs and promptly. The best government is an open government and if elected, it would be my honor and duty as a delegate to make sure that there is maximum transparency by state and local officials in the exercise of their duty.