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?
Zirkin: I absolutely support the findings of the Commission and am fully committed to the K-12 funding reforms. This past Session, we maintained our commitment to public schools by investing over $6. 5 billion dollars in K-12 education, the largest commitment in history. Local schools gain an increase of almost 3% in funding compared to FY18. We fully funded all Thornton formulas and the GCEI, ad we funded an additional $11.4 million to fund the interim recommendations of the Kirwan Commission. In addition to the budget items, the Legislature moved to guarantee funding would be available for future funding reforms by insuring that money from casino revenue is placed into a “lockbox.” It is estimated that $500 million more would be allocated for education funding once the lockbox is fully implemented following a 4-year phase-in. $400 million per year in school construction funding was made as a new baseline for state budgeting under legislation passed this Session. The bill also creates a new $10m fund for projects related to improving school security, and assists the development of public-private partnerships for schools construction, largely developed on local jurisdictions’ priorities. The legislation requires an assessment of school facilities to create a “common language” around facility needs so as to prioritize projects on their merits. In its totality, we insured that when reforms are handed down from the Commission, Maryland will be prepared to fully implement those recommendations, and I am in strong support of them. As I have been for 20 years.
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?
Zirkin: This year’s capital budget includes over $2.6 billion of transportation spending. Thousands of Maryland residents rely on Metro to travel around the DC metro area, but unfortunately Metro in both the DC and Baltimore regions has been historically underfunded. This Session, we passed legislation mandating an annual $167 million appropriation from the Transportation Trust Fund to pay for a cost-sharing formula shared between Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. The money will be used for capital investments for the Metro system. In addition, the legislation also requires an allocation of an extra $178 million over three years to the Maryland Transit Administration for their operation of the subway in Baltimore, which was recently closed for a month for emergency repairs. Following the economic crisis in 2008 Maryland cut back on payments from the Transportation Trust Fund to local government. This Session, we reversed those cuts. In FY 2019 a total of $178.1 million will be paid to local governments and by FY 2023 those payments will equal $264.7 million. It is always a challenging balance between funding our roads and mass transit but it is obviously critical to do both. Several years ago, I supported revenue enhancement for the purpose of funding our transportation needs and that has helped, but we still fall short. Mass transit is critical, albeit expensive infrastructure that must be funded alongside roads. As we move forward, I believe that mass transit needs additional funding to create a better balance with other transportation infrastructure.
Do you support the legalization of recreational marijuana?
Zirkin: In my 20 years in the Maryland General Assembly, I have seen the historic change in our approach to marijuana. I was a sponsor of medical marijuana which is finally coming on-line, bringing needed medications for individuals with cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, and other debilitating ailments. Along with then-Senator Jamie Raskin, I was proud to be part of the committee that ironed out details of that legislation. It has not been smooth, but we seem to finally be there. Several years ago, I sponsored successful legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. And I led the effort for expungement of past marijuana convictions. It is my strong opinion that we have historically wasted vast law enforcement resources on a failed approach to marijuana. And the disproportionate effect of criminalization on minorities is undeniable. I was proud to lead this bipartisan and successful effort to reform our laws. This past Session, I sponsored additional legislation to further decriminalization efforts by increasing “de minimus” amounts and to begin to reform “PWID’ laws. Those efforts were successful in the Senate butfailed in the House. I personally believe that adults should be permitted to recreationally use marijuana, as long as use does not affect others. For example, smoking in public and around children should not be permitted, and penalties for driving under the influence should be severe. But I believe that consenting adults should have the choice, and that a legal structure is far better than drug dealers and crime associated with the drug trade.
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?
Zirkin: Protecting our environment is critically important to me. We have made great progress over my time in office, particularly in the area of renewable energy, but we have a long way to go. I am excited to be endorsed by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters for my commitment to the environment. Last session, I was proud to be the lead sponsor of legislation making Maryland the 3rd State to ban fracking, a dangerous process for gas extraction. This session, I introduced legislation for a Constitutional Amendment ensuring a clean environment for Marylanders. While many states have adopted Constitutional Amendments for the environment, Maryland has yet to take that step. I plan to continue that effort. This Session I was proud to support legislation aimed to deter offshore drilling off of our Coast. The bill recognizes offshore drilling as an extremely hazardous activity and would hold individuals engaged in offshore drilling strictly liable for all damages caused by a spill. President Trump announced in 2017 that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accords, a horrible decision. Following that announcement, states announced that they would continuethe framework of the Paris Accords. Legislation passed this year assures Maryland’s commitment. Additionally, Maryland has been a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a “cap-and-trade” program relating to climate change. Legislation passed this year continues that involvement. For 20 years, I have been a staunch advocate of the environment and that commitment has never wavered.
What steps should Maryland take to ensure the broadest possible access to affordable health care?
Zirkin: Providing high quality and affordable healthcare is critical and the General Assembly has been active in this area, particularly in the wake of President Trump’s undermining of the Affordable Care Act. This Session we passed a 2.75% tax on the premiums that health insurers sell in Maryland next year - the same tax that they were exempted from paying this year by the Federal government. This new temporary tax will create a Reinsurance program, which will help cover the most expensive claims from people insured on the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. The state will also seek federal funds to extend the reinsurance plan, and charges the Maryland Health Insurance Coverage Protection Commission with studying the long-term stability of the state’s insurance market and the possibility of requiring all Marylanders to buy health insurance as a way to replace the federal “individual mandate” that expires in 2019. We will need vigilance in this area as drastic changes may come down from Washington. We must also work in a broad area of healthcare coverage, including affordability of prescription drug coverage. This Session, we passed legislation insuring pharmacy benefits managers cannot prohibit a pharmacist from assisting patients in more affordable prescription drug coverage. This was the latest in a series of bills passed over the last term on prescription drug coverage, an area that also requires constant vigilance. As healthcare continues to become more expensive, we have to continue to find new ways to provide affordable and quality access to Marylanders.
What role should the state play in helping Baltimore address violent crime?
Zirkin: 343 murders and over 600 non-fatal shootings in 2017. With Baltimore declared the most dangerous city in the nation, it is imperative that leaders at all levels take significant action. In the last two years, the Justice Reinvestment Act focused on non-violent offenders and helping to divert addicts out of the criminal justice system and into treatment options. This Session we focused on the specific issue of repeat violent offenders and a holistic approach to crime in Baltimore. The number of individuals committing violent acts in Baltimore is relatively low, but accountability is unfortunately not severe. This Session, a package of bills passed the General Assembly, including enhanced penalties for repeat violent offenders, accountability for gun violence, funding for important programs such as Safe Streets, LEAD, and Witness Relocation, penalties for witness intimidation, and expungement opportunities. The package also included a gang task force, penalties for Fentanyl dealers, and resources to combat gun trafficking. This crime package was important and long overdue. Being smart on crime means holding violent offenders accountable while treating addiction and mental health issues in the treatment system. Citizens in Baltimore and across our State demand real action to make sure that repeat violent offenders are held accountable for the carnage and terror that they create and that there are long term solutions to violence. We produced such a package of legislation this session. So goes Baltimore, so goes the State. And so we all have a shared commitment and a shared responsibility to our City.
How would you characterize Maryland’s business climate? What can the state do to foster the creation of more family-supporting jobs?
Zirkin: Maryland’s business climate is a work in progress and there have been greater strides in recent years. Creating a better business climate is obviously essential to job creation and retention, but it cannot be accomplished at the expense of important regulations in the areas of environmental protection and worker safety. Recent legislation such as paid sick leave and new ideas of increasing the minimum wage will certainly assist individuals to work at a decent wage and raise a family. With any such legislation, we have to be careful not to adversely affect our small businesses in a way that might cause job loss. For example, the small business tax cut passed to ameliorate the effects of paid sick leave was an excellent idea. As I have always said, the devil is in the details of this legislation. To continue to maintain and enhance our business climate, factors such as an educated and healthy workforce are critical. This is why we continue to fully fund K-12 and higher education and search for new ways to provide affordable and quality healthcare and create better public safety. In addition, it is time for the state to consider reforming state business taxes, particularly for small business and a tax credit for angel investors.
Do you support the creation of a non-partisan, independent body to draw legislative and congressional district maps after each census?
Does the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights adequately balance protections for police and the public? Should it be changed, and if so, how?
Zirkin: It is critical for public safety that there is mutual trust and support between law enforcement and the communities that they serve. Over the last few years, we have implemented reforms designed to enhance the relationship. Unfortunately, events such as the Baltimore gun task force have interrupted those efforts. Specifically, in 2016, as the result of a task force chaired by then-Senator Catherine Pugh, legislation was passed that included the following: eliminating the need for notarization of complaints, complaints may come from individuals with first-hand knowledge, increased statute of limitations for filing complaints, shortened period for obtaining counsel, open hearings, and the establishment of alternative dispute resolutions to complaints. The bill also established a Community Program Fund to assist local law enforcement agencies in establishing community law enforcement programs and violence intervention programs and established whistleblower protections. LEOBR serves an important role in creating a real process to handle citizen complaints and maintain due process for law enforcement. There are certainly areas for possible continuing reform within LEOBR such as insuring open meetings for citizen review boards and permitting citizen participation on those boards that do not currently allow for participation.
What strategy would you adopt to address the opioid addiction and overdose crisis?
Zirkin: Opioid related deaths continue to be at record levels in Maryland and across the nation. Many individuals who get addicted to heroin started on prescription painkillers. And despite improvement, treatment options continue to be underfunded. The Legislature has passed countless bills over the last term with the problem continuing to worsen. Clearly, we need to fully fund treatment options both inside the corrections facilities and outside. We made strides in that direction in the Justice Reinvestment Act but 8-507 treatment beds need to be fully funded and treatment must be available on demand. Our criminal justice laws need to play a part as well, by insuring that addicts are diverted from the criminal justice system into the treatment system, while volume dealers, kingpins, and dealers using children in their distribution chains are held fully accountable. We have to continue to insure that painkillers are not oversubscribed and that the ‘pill mills’ are shut down and individuals making profits from these operations are held criminally accountable. It will be interesting to research the interplay of medical cannabis with this crisis as patients are diverted from opioids for pain treatment. There is no easy answer to this epidemic, but we will continue to be vigilant in searching for new and creative ways to get people out of addiction and out of danger from overdose and assist in obtaining the treatment that they need.
What if anything should the state do to address income inequality?
Zirkin: Maryland already has a progressive tax system. The most effective way to raise individuals out of poverty is to provide a great education, access to affordable healthcare, and job opportunities. Only in that way can there be a long term solution to income inequality. Those goals are accomplished in a variety of ways as discussed previously.
Do the state’s Public Information Act and open meetings laws adequately ensure Marylanders’ ability to exercise oversight of the government?
Zirkin: To my knowledge, they do.