A Virtual Session
Maryland’s 90-day legislative session began with a lot of uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our presiding officers, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones worked all interim on health and safety protocols, incredible technology upgrades and some significant tweaks to the legislative process. Aside from the legislators, press, and a few select staff, the State House complex was closed to lobbyists, advocates, and the general public. Going virtual meant that Compass lobbyists and clients zoomed in to testify in bill hearings, attend work sessions, and meet with legislators.
Working in a new, virtual environment brought new challenges and some unexpected benefits too. While we lost some of the comradery of working side-by-side with Hogan administration officials, staff, and elected officials, the virtual nature brought a lot more transparency to the process and made it easier for many to participate in bill hearings. There were only about 2,500 bills introduced and just about a third, or 800 bills passed and are heading to the Governor for consideration. From now until the end of May, Governor Hogan will consider all the bills passed and can sign them into law, let them become law without his signature, or veto a bill.
Overall, this was the first “quiet” year for MDVMA in recent memory. This session, Compass Government Relations tracked and discussed nearly 40 bills with MDVMA’s legislative committee.
SB 156 (Sen. Kramer) The Veterinary Care of Retired Law Enforcement K-9s Act – PASSED
MDVMA has offered testimony for several years on this legislation that will create a fund to support retired law enforcement dogs. Oftentimes, they are adopted by their professional partners and work until they are nearly ready to retire. Providing for comfortable end of life and regular veterinary care for our K-9 state and local law enforcement employees makes sense and we were pleased to see the bill pass this year.
HB 381 (Del. Long) Animal Shelters – Standards of Operation – FAILED TO PASS
This legislation would have imposed stricter standards for animal shelters to achieve a 90% save rate, effectively converting government-run shelters into no-kill operations. Although well- intentioned, this legislation would have strained limited local budgets and shelter resources and led to reduced acceptance rates. The Maryland Department of Agriculture was very concerned about this legislation, and discussed opposing the bill with MDVMA. Ultimately, the bill was withdrawn before the hearing.
HB 234 (Del. N. Williams) – Criminal Law – Harm to Service Animals – PASSED
MDVMA strongly supported this legislation. From the testimony of MDVMA’s Legislative Chairman, Dr. Matthew Weeman: As veterinarians we have all sworn an oath to use our scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources and the promotion of public health.
HB 234 is a multifaceted component of this sworn oath. Service animals perform critical work which cannot be quickly retrained or developed. Significant costs are incurred to achieve the training standards required to perform these functions. It is critical that all service animals are provided the protective benefit of state statutes to ensure their work can continue unencumbered. Individuals who depend on service animals can be debilitated following the loss of their animal; it is critical we protect them. Additionally, establishing strict guidelines for addressing situations which may arise to quickly mitigate the economic damages and impacts to individuals that depend on these animals is important while also reducing suffering and to ensure care of an injured service animal.
HB 1080/SB 760 (Del. Moon/Sen. Ready) Animal Cruelty – Petition for Costs for Care of Seized Animal – FAILED TO PASS
After several conversations with the House Bill sponsor, MDVMA ultimately supported legislation that would allow individuals to file a petition for costs of care to the owner of an animal that is held while a court hearing for animal cruelty is occurring. County-operated animal shelters or control agencies can incur significant costs for caring for animals, especially in cases that require special treatment to restore the animal’s health. This bill would have put in place a process for county entities and nonprofit shelters to reasonably recoup their costs. Unfortunately, this bill did not advance in the 2021 General Assembly after its public hearing. MDVMA plans to meet and discuss the issue more with the sponsors over the interim.
HB 32/SB 708 (Del. J. Lewis/Sen. Feldman) – Recreational Cannabis – FAILED TO PASS
This legislation would have created a recreational cannabis regulatory and taxation framework with an emphasis on social equity. Typically, MDVMA tracks cannabis issues in the event they may impact the profession, in the past we’ve seen proposed bills adding veterinarians as authorized prescribers for CBD and had multiple discussions with the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Department of Health about guidance on CBD products for veterinary patients.
HB 154/SB 292 (Del. Bartlett/Sen. Beidle) – Increased Penalties for Causing Injury or Death to a Pet – FAILED TO PASS
At the request of the House sponsor, Delegate Sandy Bartlett, MDVMA supported this legislation that would have increased from $10,000 to $25,000 the maximum amount of damages that may be awarded to an owner of a pet from a person who purposely injures or kills a pet while acting individually or through an animal under the person’s ownership, direction, or control. Compass also discussed the bill with policy experts at AVMA to ensure correct positioning and advocacy on the bill, which unfortunately, failed to pass.
Economic and Employment Issues
HB 612/SB 496 (Speaker of the House and Senate President on Behalf of Governor Hogan) – Passed, and signed into law
This enormous package of state support for individuals, small business, and local governments was a bi-partisan effort to support Maryland families and businesses impacted by the pandemic. Known as the RELIEF Act, it included direct cash payments to Marylanders, funding to address learning loss, acquire PPE or other things necessary (like tech upgrades) to keep organizations running during the pandemic and a swath of new grant and loan programs covering everything from rural and agriculture-based business support, housing, community health providers, entertainment venues and Main Street programs, behavioral health, child care, and more. At MarylandTaxes.gov, there is a county-by-county list of COVID-19 Relief programs funded by the passage of this bill.
SB 787 (Sen. President Ferguson) Protecting Maryland Small Businesses from Digital Ad Taxes -PASSED
Last year, Maryland passed the nation’s first tax on the revenue from digital advertisements sold by companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. The tax applies to revenue from digital ads that are displayed inside the state and is based on the ad sales a company generates. A company that makes at least $100 million a year in global revenue but no more than $1 billion a year will face a 2.5% percent tax on its ads. Companies that make more than $15 billion a year will pay a 10% tax. Facebook’s and Google’s global revenues far exceed $15 billion. This new tax is already facing court challenges.
The bill introduced and passed this session, SB 787, prohibits advertisers from directly passing on the cost of the tax to customers by means of separate fees, surcharges or other line-item charges. The bill also suspends the effective date of the new tax for one year. MDVMA tracked the progress of this bill very closely due to the number of veterinary offices which use digital ads as an effective and affordable marketing tool.
SB 211/HB 375 (Del. Valderrama/Sen. Hayes) – The Time to Care Act – FAILED TO PASS
This bill establishes a family and medical leave insurance program that employees may take up to 12 weeks of paid leave in Maryland. The Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI) Program funded through shared employee and employer contributions, providing up to 24 weeks of benefits to covered individuals. The MDVMA Legislative Committee had a robust discussion about the issue. Seeking to balance the concern that employers would have incurred significant costs as a result of paying half of the FAMLI contribution rate versus a discussion of industry-standard leave benefits. Ultimately, MDVMA did not take a position on the bill this year, but we expect re-introduction in the 2022 legislative session.
HB 581/SB 486 (Chairman Davis/Sen. Augustine) Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act – AMENDED AND PASSED
MDVMA registered concerns about the bill as originally introduced which would have required counties and many frontline businesses to pay additional hazard pay, implement a new program for bereavement and health leave, reimburse employee healthcare costs, and allow employees the right to refuse to work. The bill was heavily amended – strongly easing the business community’s concerns – to eliminate hazard pay provisions, ensure health leave only applies prospectively and includes verification, narrowing the scope of who/what an essential worker is, and conforming the right to refuse provision to existing language under law. Finally, the bill only creates emergency standards for the current pandemic and would not apply to future states of emergency. The provisions of the legislation expire 6 months after the current state of emergency ends.
Health Care Issues
In this somewhat quiet and atypical session, there were fewer health care issues than usually introduced that impact veterinarians. This session the health committees focused primarily on responding to the pandemic, getting regular updates about vaccination efforts, funding local departments of health, addressing racial health disparities and behavioral health issues.
As always, the officials at MDA are a pleasure to work with and the SBVME helps us keep an eye out for concerning bills MDVMA should be aware of. Compass does fairly regular check-ins with MDA to ensure we’re all working together to protect and support Maryland Veterinarians. It’s also been a pleasure working with your association for so many years and we look forward to a continued partnership in 2021.