Jones, the first Black person to serve as a presiding officer in Maryland, this week plans to unveil what she is calling a “Black agenda,” one designed to attack systemic racial inequalities in housing, health, banking, government and private corporations.
In an interview last week, she said she hopes the package of bills and actions will move Maryland toward a fairer, more just system.
Leaders of the Maryland Senate are also proposing a slew of recommendations aimed at racial equity, focusing on environmental justice, easing health disparities, and bridging wealth and economic gaps.
Senate President Pro Tem Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), who is the first Black woman to serve in that position, chaired a work group that developed the proposals, which include extending Medicaid coverage for pregnant women until 12 months postpartum; requiring minority representation for any company seeking a sports betting license; and actions that would increase the number of minority doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives.
For Jones, the creation of a Black agenda is the latest example of her trying to exert her power on issues dealing with race. Since assuming her role in 2019, Jones has pushed to settle a lawsuit between the state and its historically Black colleges and universities over inequitable funding and publicly called for the repeal of Maryland’s powerful Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which offers protections to police accused of wrongdoing and, critics say, has hindered public scrutiny of police investigations.
“Let’s put it this way, the 106 speakers before me, they would not put [this] as a priority,” Jones said. “Historically, there has been a White agenda.”
Jones’s Black agenda includes legislation sponsored by various members of the House Democratic caucus. It has five areas of focus: creating an equal path to homeownership for more Black Marylanders; addressing underlying health conditions that stem from systemic medical and social inequities; encouraging entrepreneurship through access to capital and assets; emphasizing diversity on corporate boards and increasing minority business participation in public contracts.
Jones said the ongoing national conversation about systemic racial inequality — sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and the police shootings of Breonna Taylor and others — should not be just about how to fix policing but also about how to create better economic and health access and opportunities for Black and Brown residents.
For example, Jones wants more Black residents, who have not been given the same opportunities because of redlining and mortgage rates, to become homeowners. Her plan would take steps toward reevaluating the home appraisal system, increasing access to credit and studying how to help people who earn under $50,000 annually with estate planning.
“If we strengthen the Black and Brown community, it makes a stronger economy for everyone — everyone benefits,” Jones said.
She is backing bills sponsored by Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) that would declare racism a public health crisis and require doctors and nurses to receive health equity and bias training, an effort to help lower the Black maternal mortality rate; and a bill sponsored by Del. Pamela E. Queen (D-Montgomery) that would prevent mortgage and credit companies from denying applicants if they can prove their credit worthiness through a history of rent payments, utility payments, school attendance, work attendance and other nontraditional means.
To address a repeated complaint Jones has heard about Black-owned homes being undervalued by appraisers, she wants the state to conduct a disparity study on the amount insurers are charging per square foot of homes by county. And to promote diversity in corporate leadership, she wants to make minority representation in the top ranks a requirement for companies to qualify for state tax credits, grant programs or funding for capital projects above $1 million.
“These issues are not a 2020 thing,” said Wes Moore, a Baltimore-based author and head of the anti-poverty Robin Hood foundation, and one of several people Jones and her staff consulted to help create the agenda.
“These issues oftentimes are generational, and we have to use the momentum that we have seen in other areas to be able to drive real, thorough and systemic change,” Moore said. “The only way we’re going to address the systemic failure is with a systemic buildup.”
It remains unclear how the proposals will fare this session.
Jones’s agenda is likely to get strong support in the chamber she leads, where Democrats hold 99 of the 141 seats. But its prospects in the Senate, which is similarly dominated by Democrats but whose members in the past have been more centrist, is less certain.
Jones’s decision to put forward a package of bills is a slight departure from how things have been done in the past, where the House speaker would back a package of bills that have been put together by the Democratic caucus.
In the Senate, the work group’s recommendations are not all bills that will be introduced this session. And it also remains unclear which will get approved.
Griffith worked with a few of her colleagues over the past several months to create a 47-page report with the recommendations, which was presented to Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) before the start of the annual legislative session.
“We have already known for not just years, but for decades that there are disparities in the state of Maryland and across the country,” she said.
The circumstances of the past year, including highly publicized police violence and the coronavirus, “exacerbated the need for us to have a conversation around equity and inclusion,” she said. “And making sure we’re doing everything that we can as a state to move the needle and try to address systemic issues around racism, equity and inclusion.”
In many regards, the work is not new. As part of their effort, Griffith and her colleagues reviewed legislation and recommendations made by past task forces. She said much of the data is well-known — for example, that the maternal mortality rate among Black women is 3.7 times higher than it is for White women, and that Black people make up about 30 percent of the state population but 41 percent of coronavirus deaths.
“We know we have a lot of work to do,” Griffith said. “Work has been going on for decades . . . We’ve dealt with the symptoms; we did not necessarily focus on the root causes.”
Griffith said some might view her group’s recommendations as incremental, or say they will take a long time to make a difference, but she disagrees.
“The results may not be fast, but they will be measurable, impactful and sustainable,” she said.