Legislative Wrap Up 2017
With that, another 90 days in Annapolis have come and gone, and what a session it was. Along the roller coaster ride, we had disappointments for sure, but we had some truly remarkable victories. The public health voice was in high demand on environmental issues. A summary of our five priority topics (seven bills) follows, but we tracked more than thirty! And through it all, we were guided by Jean-Paul Sartre, “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.”
To promote environmental justice in Maryland, we supported bills in two categories: addressing food deserts and lead poisoning.
Food deserts are a direct and wholly preventable result of action or inaction by state and local planners, business entities, and chambers of commerce. People in food deserts are doubly burdened as they lack access to markets or grocery stores with fresh, healthy, affordable food and yet, often have easy access to fast food restaurants and convenience stores with, cheap, unhealthy, processed foods.
- HB 1492 – Housing and Community Development – Food Deserts – Small Loans
Thanks to the hard work of Delegate Antonio Hayes, his staff, advocates, and community members, this bill PASSED. Corner convenience stores in food deserts across Maryland now have expanded access to funding to upgrade their facilities to accommodate healthy food options for the benefit of residents who are underserved by a deficit of grocers serving fresh, unprocessed foods.
In the U.S., African American children are twice as likely to have elevated blood lead levels than white children, and we know there is no safe level of lead. Common sources of exposure are peeling and chipping paint, drinking water, soil, and consumer products including makeup and toys. Once a child has been exposed, resulting health effects are irreversible. Lead poisoning causes damage to the brain and nervous systems, which can result in a range of effects, including hyperactivity, learning difficulties, behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems.
- SB 1195/HB 1625 – Environment – Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing – Blood Lead Level
This bill had been our priority going into session. It is imperative that we reduce the definition of an elevated blood lead level to 5 µg/dl to intervene in cases of lead poisoning. Unfortunately, the bill was introduced late in the session and did not have time to pass through the legislative process.
- HB 270 – Environment – Testing for Lead in Drinking Water – Public and Nonpublic Schools
This bill mandates that regulations are adopted to require testing for lead in drinking water at public and private schools, and for explicit follow-up actions and health notifications if an elevated lead level is detected. Testing water in schools where children are likely to be exposed will ensure primary prevention.
- HB 1325/SB740 Oil and Natural Gas – Hydraulic Fracturing – Prohibition
Fracking is now permanently banned in Maryland. After years of research, advocacy, and grassroots activism, Maryland is now safe from the threat of fracking. Businesses in Western Maryland that rely on tourism are given the certainty they need to thrive, and everyone can take deeper breaths without the fear of being poisoned. The mounting public health evidence tipped the scales for those who were wavering between the environmental and economic arguments. We celebrated with our colleagues who have been in the trenches for years and attended the Governor’s signing ceremony, but now we are right back to work with communities facing health threats from the existing natural gas infrastructure already in the state.
- SB422/HB602 – Keep Antibiotics Effective Act of 2017
In another public health victory this year, Maryland became the second state in the country to ban the daily application of antibiotics in animal feed for disease prevention. While we worked with opposition and compromised on the data reporting piece, the bill that passed eliminates the use of subtherapeutic doses given to animals that are not sick. Eliminating unnecessary antibiotic use is vital in the fight to prevent superbugs and the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases.
- SB 186/HB 229 Environment – Polystyrene Food Service Products and Polystyrene Loose Fill Packaging – Prohibition on Sale
We worked to make sure the public health arguments, both of direct exposure to styrene and also the public health concerns about trash accumulation in neighborhoods, were well understood in the debate. Unfortunately, the bills did not move in either chamber. We will follow this issue closely in the interim, as we expect a workgroup to emerge from the House.
- Override of the Veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act
We did it! In early February, the Maryland legislature voted to override the Governor’s veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. We’re on our way to a clean energy future. Make sure you call your legislator today to thank them for this vote! Since this happened so early in session, we switched our focus to support bills studying the current Renewable Portfolio Standard and codifying the EmPOWER program, all with the goals of improving clean energy access to low-income customers and overburdened communities. BOTH bills passed and now we will work to make sure implementation and enforcement are strong and equitable.