The MSBA recently welcomed Democratic State Senator Craig J. Zucker, from District 14 in Montgomery County, as part of its Coffee and Conversations With Legislators program. Sen. Zucker met virtually with former State Senator Bobby Zirkin, to discuss his recent legislative updates, his personal and professional background and the road to Annapolis, and how MSBA members can stay involved and connect with legislators.
In 2020, Sen. Zucker became Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, after having served as Deputy Majority Leader. He serves on the Budget and Taxation Committee, where he chairs the Education, Business, and Administration Subcommittee. In this capacity, Sen. Zucker reviews the budgets of all higher education institutions in the state and seeks to ensure that tuition remains affordable. He also serves as Vice-Chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee which helps invest in our local arts, cultural and historical landmarks.
Prior to his election to the House of Delegates in 2010, Sen. Zucker spent more than 15 years as a dedicated public servant. Most recently he served as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Maryland State Comptroller, where he worked directly with Maryland’s legislators, executive branch, and community and business leaders across the state. Before that, he was Director of Maryland Home Care for an association, helping to improve the lives of the more than 5,000 underpaid home healthcare workers throughout Maryland by securing their first wage increase in nearly two decades.
Sen. Zucker reports that over his nearly 20-year tenure in the State legislature he has largely been able to set aside party politics and work across party lines for the good of all Marylanders. The dawn of social media has changed the practice of politics in recent years, though, in that legislators often get attacked online. While in some ways he thinks it is good that advocates are emboldened, he thinks they sometimes cross the line and fail to see politicians as humans. He thinks social media is good in that it raises awareness of issues, but it has also created an environment where information that is not entirely factual can spread.
The Budget and Taxation Committee makes sure the State can operate – in other words, it allocates money and brings in revenue to fund the State. In Maryland, the Governor sets a budget, and then the General Assembly can cut the budget or allocate funds in order to make sure it is balanced. Under the Maryland Constitution, the General Assembly is tasked with balancing the budget and providing an education budget.
Sen. Zucker explained that the capital budget for the State of Maryland is decided by the Capital Debt Affordability Committee, formed by legislators, the Governor’s officers, the comptroller, and the State treasurer. It’s typically about $1.1 billion and is sent out around the same time the Governor sends out his operating budget. Each legislator can request capital funding for things like community projects, roads, hospitals, and schools, and then they negotiate with one another to determine what money they will be allocated in the budget.
Sen. Zucker then shared some insight into what the recent legalization of sports betting means for Maryland. He explained that the legislature saw that numerous surrounding states passed laws permitting sports betting, and put a question on the November 2020 ballot seeking approval, and received overwhelming support from Marylanders. Sen. Zucker thinks the legislation they came up with is fair and equitable and supports small, minority, and women-owned businesses in a comprehensive and meaningful way. He is hopeful sports betting will be up and running soon and he believes it will generate between 17 to 20 million dollars a year that otherwise would go to other states. Sen. Zucker then discussed the details of the bill and the process of obtaining sports betting licenses.
The sports betting licenses are broken down into categories, based on the size and type of the establishment. There are a limited number of licenses, and they will be granted on a first come first serve basis. At this point, the General Assembly’s involvement with sports betting is complete and it is up to the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission to get it up and running.
The conversation then moved to the 211 Mental Health Services Hotline. Sen. Zucker discussed how the pandemic fundamentally transformed him, and he felt it was important to work to make significant changes that would help other people during his time in office. After Congressman Jamie Raskin lost his son to suicide, Sen. Zucker had discussions with some of his colleagues about mental health, and they were inspired to create a free mental health check-in line that Marylanders could use to seek help before they reach a crisis point. It is the first of its kind in the nation and hopefully will serve as a model for other states. After they knew the bill establishing the check-in line would pass he reached out to Jamie and asked if he would like it to be in his son’s name, and he said yes, so it was changed to the Thomas Bloom Raskin Act. Sen. Zucker also explained how people can access the check-in line, and what services it provides.
They hope it will save lives and help people before they are in crisis.
Sen. Zucker then talked about the potential passage of legislation legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. His understanding is that the House of Delegates will most likely put something forward and they will have to work through it in the Senate. His sense is that it will be proposed in about two years, not in the next session which will be focused on economic recovery and redistricting, but he concedes he could be wrong.
At the end of the conversation, Sen. Zucker explained the work he has done with regard to helping improve education throughout the State. Maryland used to have one of the top education systems in the country but it keeps falling. He and some of his colleagues came up with a blueprint to address issues affecting education. They also created a blueprint fund, that is separate from the education fund, and identified revenue sources they could capitalize on, and have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to help with summer school, learning loss, and getting kids to where they need to be.
You can listen to the entire conversation here.