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'Rome Is Burning': Baltimore Crime Gets Lawmakers' Attention

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Baltimore's high violent crime rate received early attention in the state's legislative session on Thursday, as Maryland's former Senate president urged lawmakers to act "while Rome is burning."

Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, who entered his second day as a regular senator after 33 years in the leadership role, rose from his seat toward the back of the chamber to highlight the problem in Maryland's largest city.

The Calvert County Democrat said he was moved to speak after reading about former deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's reflections on fighting crime in the city when he was Maryland's U.S. attorney.

"My point is this, we're sitting here while Rome is burning," Miller said during the Senate's second day of the General Assembly's 90-day session, adding: "We really need to address it and, honestly and truly, it's crying out for help."

Baltimore had 348 homicides last year, the fifth straight year there have been more than 300 murders in the city. It was Baltimore's most violent year ever on a per-capita basis.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has proposed a package of legislation to fight crime in the city, including funding for 25 new prosecutors and support staff for the attorney general to prosecute violent crimes. He also wants stronger penalties for repeat gun-violence offenders and for witness intimidation.

Miller said it was a challenging time in the city, not only due to crime. He also noted that former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is awaiting sentencing in federal court on conspiracy and tax evasion charges after a scandal involving her self-published children's books. He also noted an upcoming special election to fill the seat held by the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and an upcoming mayor's race.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who took over as the chamber's leader this week, said the city is facing complex challenges that aren't unique to Baltimore.

"These are statewide issues that we're facing, and so I look forward to the ongoing partnership that we will have to make sure that every community that we have in the state is successful," Ferguson said.

Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican who represents a district in Baltimore County east of the city, agreed that other parts of the state are experiencing similar problems as Baltimore.

"We do have major problems, and we need to work together, because we see the problems in Baltimore County that we're having there now," he said.

Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat, said the city has six senators, and he urged his colleagues to work with them.

"We recognize that we have some challenges in the city," Hayes said. "We encourage each and every one of you to reach out to the members of the Baltimore City Senate Delegation, if you are interested in helping our city."

Miller's comments provided an early sign that the 77-year-old isn't receding quietly to the back of the chamber, after stepping down from his record-long tenure as Senate president due to Stage 4 prostate cancer.

As he spoke, senators looked around the chamber at each other — some smiling, others expressionless — as Miller urged them to introduce legislation early in the session. He even gave a history lesson on the Senate's past, as he has so often over three decades.

(© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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