Maryland lawmakers gathered Wednesday for the first day of a legislative session transformed by precautions against the coronavirus and a commitment by leadership to focus on helping the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislative leaders moved quickly to formally change rules to accommodate safety measures. Both House and Senate leaders informed each other that their chambers could adjourn for more than three days at a time to help prevent the virus' spread.
“First and foremost, the good news here is that I think there’s universal agreement that we have a fundamental problem, and that is vulnerable Marylanders need more support than they’re getting today," Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, told reporters. "That is the most important point of all of this. The other point of agreement is that we have to act urgently to get that support to Marylanders as quickly as possible so that they can hang on.”
Gov. Larry Hogan announced a $1 billion relief measure on Monday aimed at helping struggling residents and businesses. The Republican governor's proposal would steer relief to about 400,000 residents with payments up to $450 for individuals and $750 for families. It also would repeal state and local taxes on unemployment and provides sales tax credits of up to $3,000 a month four four months for small businesses.
Ferguson said the Senate would move quickly to approve Hogan's proposal, but with changes from senators he said have been working for the last 10 months to help constituents address problems they are facing. The Senate president stressed the need to improve the state's unemployment system.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the House has its own relief package that includes help for housing assistance, broadband reform, virtual learning and measures to incentivize telework.
“We have a relief package and we’re going to prioritize that and see what the governor has in his bill," Jones said during a morning on The Daily Record's “Eye on Annapolis Summit.”
Hogan, who also appeared on the program, said approving a balanced state budget and his relief proposal were clearly top priorities.
“If the legislature passed the budget, passed some relief, I’d call it a huge success and call it a day," said the governor, who will be releasing the annual budget proposal next week.
The General Assembly is scheduled to meet for 90 days. Last March, lawmakers adjourned 19 days early due to the virus, which is far more prevalent now than it was then.
Lawmakers also will be taking up a package of police reform measures. A House workgroup worked for months to develop reforms after protests in cities around the country last year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. The Senate also has been working on a package of reforms.
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 House also has recommended a repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights — protections for officers that critics say make it difficult to hold police accountable.
The pandemic has transformed how the 442nd session Maryland General Assembly will be conducted.
The floor of the Senate is a warren of pods with transparent panels to shield senators. The House of Delegates has a substantial number of lawmakers meeting in a building across the street from the Capitol to enable a quorum of delegates to social distance in the chamber.
The Capitol is closed to the public. Proceedings in both chambers will be viewable online. Legislative hearings also will be done virtually, with members of the public able to testify on legislation online.
Hogan noted the sense of strangeness on the session's first day during his appearance with The Daily Record.
“It is going to be kind of a surreal moment here as we start the legislative session, and it looks like a ghost town here in Annapolis,” Hogan said.