ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus failed to win recognition as an official delegation in this year’s General Assembly, but members were heartened by the passage of a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday, funding for black colleges and universities, and fighting teen smoking.
Those victories overshadowed several failures, including commissioning a study of the death penalty in Maryland and pushing additional consumer protections in utility deregulation, several of the 38 members said.
“I think we did very well,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, vice-chairman of the caucus. “You will see an enhancement in black education. All of the historically black colleges will be substantially credited.”
Yet, changes in ethics guidelines worried some of the black lawmakers. The assembly failed to pass an amendment that would give the caucus the same designation as other legislative committees and geographic delegations. That means that the black caucus, along with the women’s caucus, cannot accept dinner or drinks at receptions thrown by interest groups.
“We were just a little concerned about the ethics bill,” said Delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George’s. “The African American community in this state has some unique problems. You can go (to lobbyist’s receptions), but you can’t eat.”
But overall, it was a good session.
McFadden noted that a new One Maryland initiative, which gives tax credits for projects in economically depressed areas, will be a boon to African American Marylanders.
The assembly also passed a law giving public schools a day off to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Previously, Maryland public schools held special activities to honor him on that day.
The caucus praised passage of a 30-cent tax hike on cigarettes, which they hope will deter teen-age smoking. Delegate Obie Patterson, D-Prince George’s, said Gov. Parris N. Glendening promised caucus members they would be included in discussions about how to spend Maryland’s $4.4 billion tobacco settlement. The caucus favors using it for health care.
Caucus members also were disappointed by utility deregulation legislation, which will allow utility companies to compete for customers in Maryland, much the way long-distance telephone companies do.
“It didn’t provide the safety net for consumers that it should have,” said Delegate Rudolph C. Cane, D-Wicomico, who this year became the first black lawmaker from the Eastern Shore.
The General Assembly session was distinctive for more than just legislation for some members this year. Several caucus members were involved in racial and police incidents that drew statewide interest.
After freshman Delegate Melony Griffith, D-Prince George’s, complained of shoddy service and racism at a popular Annapolis restaurant, the manager there was fired. The manager, Jeb Bello of the Treaty of Paris restaurant, last week filed a $3 million lawsuit against Griffith for allegedly staining his reputation and getting him fired.
“Simply because she is a delegate, and more because she was black, she’s being sued,” McFadden said. “That’s absurd.”
The caucus also forcefully criticized Charles County School Board member Margaret Young for refusing to sign a proclamation recognizing February as Black History Month. The lawmakers fired off a letter to Young and held a news conference to criticize her.
And several caucus members rallied to defend Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D- Baltimore, who accused police of excessive force in an incident in which she was arrested. Police accused Conway of interfering with an investigation of a car accident outside her office, then handcuffed and arrested her.
Conway said she was inquiring about the welfare of a 6-year-old girl who was hurt in the accident and refused to apologize to police. The charges against her were later dropped.
With the session over, the lawmakers are turning their attentions to the future. They are energized about an annual national convention for black state lawmakers that will draw 1,500 black officials to Baltimore on Oct. 1.
The caucus’ executive director, Sean Christian, said the group will plan its agenda for the 2000 General Assembly session in more detail during the convention. Instead of listing broad policy areas, it will draft actual legislation, he said.
“We will have a new agenda,” Christian said. “We are going to lay down the rules for 2000.”