The Maryland General Assembly will adjourn early for the first time in memory as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson made the announcement at a joint news conference before a rare Sunday legislative session. The presiding officers made the announcement, citing the need to model good behavior at the same time that dozens of lawmakers crowded into the room and were later shooed away from being in view of cameras.
Ferguson said the plan is to end the session Wednesday and return in May to complete unfinished work.
“This was not an easy decision to make,” said Ferguson.
The decision to end the session earlier than the 90th day is something that has not happened in recent memory. The legislature at times has closed down for a day at a time because of weather events including, snowstorms.
Sunday’s announcement lops off nearly three full weeks of the 90-day session.
“We will essentially be condensing the last month of the session into three days with a third of the staff,” said Ferguson. “This is going to require us to focus on the most important work and prioritize policies.”
Since Thursday, Ferguson and Jones have stressed their desire to push through the session and try to reach the April 6 deadline.
Meanwhile, dozens of advocacy groups have been calling on an end to the session because of a lack of public access to proceedings. Neither Ferguson nor Jones explained what had changed since Saturday night to bring about the abrupt end.
Lawmakers point to a Civil War-era session as the last time the General Assembly ended early.
That session, in 1861, was a special session that met and recessed over a period of five months. The session ended when the legislature reconvened but could not muster enough lawmakers to meet a quorum because the majority had been arrested by the federal government.
Jones called the historic moment a “critical time” in the state.
“As state leadership, we want to set an example for our local governments and neighboring states and do our part to help mitigate the spread of this virus,” said Jones
In the wake of the abbreviation of the session, Ferguson said he and Jones will create a Joint Committee on COVID-19 to monitor the state’s response and :advise the General Assembly “in our role as a co-equal partner in oversight and lawmaking roles.”
The House and Senate held Sunday sessions just three days after Gov. Larry Hogan announced statewide school closures and stronger efforts meant to help control the spread of COVID-19 in Maryland. Whether to end early was a the topic of intense private discussions among legislators.
Hogan has called on lawmakers to move forward with important work including passing the fiscal 2021 budget — which they are required to by law to do — and be prepared to adjourn if the situation with the virus worsens.
Focusing on priority legislation
Ferguson and Jones said both sides will be prioritizing legislation to complete before ending on Wednesday.
Still, it is unclear what bills will make it through both chambers before the session wraps.
The state constitution requires the General Assembly to pass a budget by the 83rd day. In a normal year, both chambers would be on track, with the House poised to approve its version and head to a conference committee to hammer out differences with the Senate.
Ferguson said Saturday night that the two chambers were having discussions in advance of formal conference committees in an attempt to streamline some of the work.
Ferguson and Jones would also like to complete work on the $4 billion annual Kirwan Commission education recommendations and potentially a package of tax bills that would put $600-$700 million toward offsetting the costs.
Additionally, there are dozens of local bills that are priorities for individual lawmakers and counties.
“Over the next three days we will make sure that these get done,” said Ferguson.
There had already been signs in the last day or so of a slowdown.
But there had been signs that legislative business is slowing in some committees.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee continued to hold voting sessions over the weekend but canceled bill hearings — which are now sponsor-only — until further notice. Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard and chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said no hearings would be held on Sunday, and it was not clear when new hearings would be scheduled.
Ferguson and Jones said the legislature would try to return in late May to address bills that were important that didn’t pass before Wednesday.
“We believe and we hope that it will be sufficient time to make sure we are monitoring the appropriate recovery,” said Ferguson.
Wednesday’s expected end is not the brick-wall hard stop of a normal Sine Die. In a typical year, the clock governs as Democrats sometimes look to move bills quickly and Republicans seek to extend debate to prevent others from passing before midnight strikes and all unfinished legislation dies.
Wednesday is an early end not by law but by agreement, which leaves the potential for debate to continue into Thursday morning.
“I don’t know, I really don’t,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
Similarly, Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Mongtomery and House majority leader, downplayed what he acknowledged was a theoretically possible scenario.
“I don’t expect that to happen,” said Luedtke.
‘That’s your box’
Despite a stated desire to model best behaviors the legislature has found itself sometimes sending mixed messages.
The General Assembly finds itself the last branch of government to close after both Hogan and the state Judiciary announced closures in the last week. Lawmakers focused on hand washing and sanitizers. Calls for observing social distancing have sometimes been forgotten.
“In here we’ve taken a lot of efforts,” said Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties and the Senate’s top Republican. “I can tell you, I’ve seen people very conscious, using hand sanitizer, washing hands.”
But some are not so aware. In one case, Jennings said, someone in a group setting erred while sharing a box of cookies.
“They reached in and got (one),” said Jennings who then told the person: “That’s your box, you take ’em.”
In another scene Saturday night, lawmakers could be seen in one corner of the Senate sharing snacks during a floor session that stretched past the dinner hour.
“Some aren’t smart,” Jennings.
And Sunday, delegates and senators stood shoulder to shoulder behind the podium as part of the backdrop for the Ferguson and Jones announcement. A staffer later moved them away. The lawmakers then congregated down the sides and back of the room.
A vow to improve public access
The House and Senate continue to meet though the public and lobbyists are barred from attending meetings. Public access to streaming of floor sessions has been spotty since Friday.
“We know the situation isn’t ideal for any of us but we are doing our best to ensure open government in this time of a public health crisis,” said Ferguson.
To that end, Ferguson said, there would be efforts to video-stream Senate floor sessions, something that has not been done this year. The House is piloting a video stream this year but has only broadcast video of about half the floor sessions so far. Some committees have been live-streaming voting sessions, something that is only rarely done.
“We know the situation is not ideal for any of us, but we are doing our best to ensure open government in this time of a public health crisis,” said Ferguson.
Since Thursday, Jones and Ferguson have called on committee chairs to prioritize legislation in the event of an early adjournment. But neither committed publicly to a specific timeline for ending, saying they’d like to make it to the last day on April 6, if possible.
Come back next year
And members of the General Assembly earlier this weekend were at odds over whether or they should remain.
“It’s very important that we stay here and work and do our job and be deliberate,” said Sen. Malcolm Augustine, D-Prince George’s.
Augustine said lawmakers were trying to figure out how to best help their districts respond to the virus, including homelessness issues and providing more meals to students who depend on such services at school but are now out of class for the next two weeks.
The Senate pulled back legislation granting Hogan emergency powers to respond to the crisis in order to amend the bill — at Hogan’s request — to give state psychiatric facilities more flexibility in staffing and the ability to move to three 12-hour shifts instead of more traditional workweek schedules.
Augustine said the ability to react and alter the bill in real time “really to me emphasized the importance of us being here. This is really important for us to be here because we, as a legislative body, have a role in being able to respond with the situation that is happening outside these walls.”
Not all lawmakers agreed on the need to stay.
“The notion that we’re somehow first responders or super important is not correct,” said Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll. “We are state legislators, We have an important job we do. It’s important. We take it seriously but I also think we could dispense with some things. There’s a lot of bills that could come back next year.”