ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, Maryland lawmakers will be gathering for their annual legislative session this week to focus largely on helping the state recover from the coronavirus pandemic and to take up policing reforms.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced a $1 billion COVID-19 relief plan Monday that will require legislative approval. It includes tax relief and payments of up to $450 for individuals and $750 for families in need who have claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Hogan also is proposing ending local and state income taxes on unemployment benefits. The plan includes $300 million in tax relief to help Maryland restaurants and small businesses by allow them to keep up to $12,000 of sales tax over the next four months.
On Wednesday, senators will convene for the first day of the 90-day session behind transparent enclosures that have been built around their desks. In the House, a quorum of delegates will convene in the House chamber, while others will gather in a nearby office building and participate remotely.
The Capitol will be closed to the public for the session, as delegates who are immune-compromised will sit socially distanced in the gallery where members of the public usually sit. Floor sessions and committee hearings will be shown online, with members of the public about to testify virtually during bill hearings.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this will be a session like none other, that will be incredibly challenging,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “We are simply going to have more challenges in the sheer logistics of the legislative process, and so that’s going to require us to prioritize what’s most important and most urgent.”
The General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, and the Republican governor also will be contending with a projected budget deficit of roughly $750 million for the next fiscal year. They are hoping more federal aid will help address the gap, while lawmakers also will look for savings in other parts of the budget to help recovery efforts.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones said lawmakers will be working on long-term help to help people get back on their feet, particularly regarding unemployment assistance. Lawmakers were inundated with complaints from Maryland residents about difficulties navigating the state’s unemployment system during the pandemic, Jones said.
“So we are looking at expanding benefits for those that have been long-term unemployed from COVID and implement some structural reforms to the Department of Labor, and we’re looking also to get some support for those small businesses that have not laid off employees during the pandemic.”
Lawmakers also will consider direct assistance to help people avoid eviction and to pay utility bills.
Broadband reform and improvements to virtual learning will be priorities as well, after the pandemic exposed disparities in technology as students worked online from home. Legislation to create incentives for teleworking also will be before lawmakers.
A House workgroup worked for months to develop law enforcement reforms after protests in cities around the country last year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Recommendations include requiring all police departments to use body cameras by 2025 and creating a standardized, statewide, use-of-force policy. Legislation also would ban chokeholds and create stronger punishment for use-of-force violations.
The Senate also has been working on a package of police reform measures. Ferguson said there was strong agreement between the two houses on different policy areas under consideration.
“Passing substantial legislation that truly reforms law enforcement in a way that we restore trust accountability and transparency is a must-pass package of bills this year,” Ferguson said.
Both Jones and Ferguson also voiced confidence they would override Hogan’s veto last year of a sweeping education measure that includes billions of dollars in new funding over 10 years. Ferguson said there will be an emergency companion measure to work in tandem with last year’s legislation to make adjustments due to the pandemic.
“It is more important now than ever that we have a road map for the next 10 years to improve our public educational options in Maryland,” Ferguson said.
RISING SUN — It was cold and windy but the sun was out and so were generations of Benjamin Haines’ family.
Albeck Farms played host Sunday morning to a visitation for the family mourning the loss of Haines, who died Jan. 2 at the age of 80.
The Gorilla tape came out to secure poster boards to easels to fight the breeze that kept toppling the heartfelt displays. On top of the traditional boards of photos, there were messages that the youngest would miss their “Doritos party” with Pop-pop and that Haines was their hero.
Lowell Haines, Ben’s son, said it was a family effort that devised the tractor focused visitation.
“We couldn’t do anything at the funeral home,” Lowell said. “So we felt like it was a good idea to get all of Dad’s tractors out and have them drive by.”
He said his dad would get a kick out of seeing the younger generation seated on his tractors for the event.
“He enjoyed seeing his great grandkids driving the tractors,” Lowell said.
Founded by Al and Becky Haines, Albeck Farms was the first family farm to be incorporated in Maryland. That happened in 1958. Al and Becky were the parents of Ben Haines.
Haines was not only a farmer but also active in the farm community including past president of the Cecil County Farm Museum. He was at the helm in 2014 when an arrangement was made with Cecil County Public Schools to lease the property the Cecil County Farm Museum now calls home off Appleton Road in Elkton.
Haines was also active in the Calvert Grange, the Farm Bureau, the Waterloo Boys (A group promoting agriculture and history through its connection with John Deere) and the 4-H All-Stars.
While he was not a member of the fair board, Don Moore, president of the Cecil County Fair, said Haines was a steady presence.
“He always helped with the tractor pulls, ag showcase, and the tractor driving contest among other things,” Moore said. “He was always a phone call away if you needed something.”
In this age of masks, social distancing and capacity issues, Lowell Haines said this was the best of a bad situation.
“Under the circumstances this was all we could do and be safe,” he said. “Fortunately we had a place we could do something and be safe.”
There was a steady stream of pick-up trucks, cars, motorcycles and more passing the family at the farm off of Telegraph Road.
“He’d probably say it wasn’t necessary,” Haines said as he watched a truck stop and study a photo-laden poster. “But then he’d be proud.”
BALTIMORE — The Maryland Transportation Authority has added more hours of operation at the E-ZPass Customer Service Center in Perryville starting Saturday with hours from 8 a.m. until noon.
E-ZPass will also extend its Thursday hours to 6:30 p.m. to help customers needing to renew or establish commuter toll accounts, pay for video tolling or resolve billing issues.
These extended hours are temporary, according to MDTA spokesman John Sales, but there’s no expiration date.
The Perryville Customer Service Center is located at 1 Turnpike Drive off Chesapeake Overlook Parkway. While construction is ongoing at the Hatem Bridge on Route 40 in Perryville the CSC at that location is closed. Toll plazas are being removed now that the tolls are being collected electronically on the Havre de Grace side of the Hatem Bridge.
MDTA returned to its full cost tolling Jan. 1 after lowering the rates for commuters in March at the start of the pandemic.
Those who only use the Hatem Bridge can get unlimited crossing for $20 per year. There is also a second Hatem-only plan that provides unlimited crossing for two-axle vehicles and provides a 30% discount for towing a boat, other trailered item or a trailer. That includes a 25% discount when using the other six toll facilities.
To get more information go to www.ezpassmd.com
ELKTON — A woman who caused a chain-reaction crash that killed two Cecil County men near Chesapeake City in October 2018 received a 30-month jail term on Monday, as part of a binding plea deal.
Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes imposed a maximum three-year sentence on the defendant, Kimberly Ann Morgan, 31, of Chester, Pa., for criminally negligent vehicular manslaughter and then suspended all but 15 months of that penalty.
Baynes then imposed an identical sentence on Morgan for a second criminally negligent vehicular manslaughter conviction and ran it consecutively to the first penalty, also in accordance with the binding plea agreement reached by Assistant State’s Attorney Robert E. Sentman and Morgan’s defense lawyer, William G. Christoforo Jr..
Morgan, who is four months pregnant, according to information released by Christoforo during Monday’s courtroom proceeding, will serve her 30-month term in the Cecil County Detention Center. The judge gave Morgan credit for 48 days that she had served in jail as a pretrial and pre-sentence inmate.
In addition, Baynes ordered Morgan to serve three years of supervised probation after completing her two-and-a-half year term.
(In a binding plea, the judge imposes the sentence and the period of probation negotiated by the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. After agreeing ahead of time to the terms of the binding plea agreement, the presiding judge cannot reduce or exceed the agreed-upon sentence and probation period.)
Shackled and clad in a pink inmate uniform with black “CCDC” letters on the back, Morgan tearfully addressed the judge moments before sentencing, although her allocution could not change the agreed-upon penalty that she would receive.
“I apologize to the victims,” Morgan cried, glancing back slightly and quickly toward a group of relatives and friends of the victims seated in the back of the courtroom, while standing at the defense table. “I’m sorry to you and everybody else. That’s it.”
During their lengthy investigation, Maryland State Police troopers determined that Morgan did not possess a driver’s license “issued by Maryland or any other state” at the time of the deadly crash, according to prosecutors, who also reported, “Evidence revealed that she was falling asleep while driving, prior to the crash. Morgan told investigators she knew she caused the crash by crossing the double yellow line.”
Morgan, however, did not have drugs or alcohol in her system at the time of the crash — a conclusion based on the negative results yielded by a standard MSP blood kit taken at University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore, to which a critically-injured Morgan had been flown by an MSP helicopter crew shortly after the fatal collision, the prosecution and the defense both reported.
Killed in that domino-effect collision on Augustine Herman Highway (Route 213) near Spears Hill Road were Richard Gestewitz, 53, of Charlestown, and his front-seat passenger, Charles Sutton, 70, of North East. Relatives told the Cecil Whig that Gestewitz and Sutton, a dear family friend, were avid outdoorsmen who were traveling south to make their last crabbing outing of the season, when they were killed in the chain-reaction crash.
MSP investigators determined that Morgan was driving a 2003 Mitsubishi Galant in the northbound lane on Route 213, near the Chesapeake City Bridge, at approximately 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2018, when her car crossed the double-yellow centerline and entered the southbound lane.
Morgan’s car then crashed into the left rear tire of Gestewitz’ southbound 2002 Mazda B3000 pickup truck, which was towing a John Boat on a 2006 Bear boat trailer. After that impact, Morgan’s Mitsubishi continued southward in the opposing lane and struck the boat trailer and boat, before crashing head-on into a 2009 Chevrolet Silverado operated by Kenneth Lewis Haines Jr., 60, of Elkton.
“As a result of the Mitsubishi striking the left rear wheel of the Mazda, the wheel detached from the truck, causing the Mazda to rotate counter-clockwise and overturn. The trailer/boat separated and traveled off the right side of the southbound lane. The Mazda overturned into the northbound lane, landing on its left side, and continued to rotate and slide . . .,” prosecutors outlined in a written statement released after Monday’s sentencing.
At that point, according to prosecutors, a northbound 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt driven by Watson Horace Tinch, 55, of Galena, crashed into the roof of the overturned Mazda.
Gestewitz and Sutton were trapped inside the Mazda, and Morgan and her passenger, Caitlyn Little, 21, of Colora, were trapped inside the Mitsubishi, prosecutors said. Sutton was able to self-extricate from the truck, but he then went into cardiac arrest and died, prosecutors added. Cecil County Department of Emergency Services paramedics pronounced Sutton and Gestewitz dead at the scene, prosecutors reported.
Having suffered what were classified as “life-threatening injuries,” Morgan was flown by MSP helicopter to the Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore. Little suffered serious injuries, and an ambulance crew transported her to Christiana Hospital in Delaware. An ambulance crew transported Tinch to Union Hospital in Elkton, where he was treated for minor injuries. Haines, who also suffered minor injuries, refused medical treatment at the scene, but he later went to Union Hospital, according to prosecutors.
Binding plea agreement
In October 2019, after a year-long MSP investigation, a Cecil County grand jury handed up an 18-count indictment against Morgan, whom investigators then arrested on Nov. 20, 2019.
On Oct. 19, one year after she had been indicted, Morgan pleaded guilty to two counts of criminally negligent manslaughter as part of a binding plea agreement reached by Sentman and Christoforo. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the remaining 16 charges against Morgan.
Baynes accepted Morgan’s guilty pleas and scheduled her sentencing.
But Morgan, who was free on a $10,000 bond, failed to appear for her Dec. 7 sentencing, and she did so without providing an explanation. All other parties involved in the criminal case were present that day, including surviving family members of the victims. Baynes issued a bench warrant for Morgan’s arrest and instructed that she be held without bond, once captured.
On Dec. 10, three days later, Elkton Police Department investigators arrested Morgan while conducting an unrelated raid at a residence in the unit block of Hollingsworth Manor, police said. The unrelated, court-approved search yielded two loaded handguns, one of which had been reported stolen in Wilmington, Del., and the arrest of a 22-year-old Elkton man, police added.
Morgan was at that Hollingsworth Manor residence when the raiding officers arrived there and, aware that she was wanted on a bench warrant, investigators took her into custody, according to court records.
During Monday’s sentencing, Sentman told the judge that Morgan gave EPD officers a “fake name and age” when she initially was detained by them.
The prosecutor told Baynes that he had viewed Morgan as a “person taking responsibility,” when she entered her guilty pleas during the Oct. 19 hearing, and that his opinion of Morgan changed after she failed to appear for her Dec. 7 sentencing.
Sentman described Morgan’s failure to appear for her sentencing as “an insult” to prosecutors, the court and the surviving family members of the victim.
Later in the proceeding, Christoforo explained that Morgan “got scared,” and that’s why she failed to appear for her Dec. 7 sentencing.
Sentman expressed regret for having offered Morgan the binding plea deal — which precluded him from changing his sentence recommendation on Monday. Sentman also told Baynes that, given the developments in Morgan’s criminal case during the past month, he would have asked the judge to impose the full six years in sentences on Morgan — if he were not bound by the binding plea agreement.
Toward the end of the hearing, Baynes told Morgan that she was “very fortunate” that her defense lawyer was able to negotiate the binding plea agreement because, otherwise, he would have imposed a jail term greater than 30 months.
Baynes also cautioned Morgan to “comply with each and every condition of probation,” once released from jail, because a violation could result in her serving an additional 30 months — the time that had been suspended from her penalty.
Addressing the judge briefly before sentencing, Christoforo reported that Morgan is remorseful and that she has been “beating herself up” over what happened.