Leaders in the Maryland General Assembly are considering their options if the current COVID-19 pandemic requires the legislature to meet remotely.
With more questions than answers — including would such an option even be needed — Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones are said to be looking at what other states are doing.
“We have been assessing all of the legal and technical issues to ensure the General Assembly can meet its Constitutional obligations,” the two said in a statement. “Even in the face of a global pandemic, we have a responsibility to the people of Maryland who elect us.”
The legislature adjourned in an abbreviated session in March, rushing to pass a flurry of major bills, including the Kirwan Commission recommendations and the budget, as the pandemic began to shut down much of the state’s economy. The forced closure lopped nearly three weeks off a 90-day session.
On Monday, Ferguson and Jones announced they would not hold a special session in May as they had hoped. The pair of freshmen presiding officers have yet to say if they will come back before January.
Currently, Maryland is under a state of emergency with strict social distancing guidelines in place — orders much stronger than anything in place at the time the House and Senate decided to wrap up early.
But the legislature is required to reconvene in January and must pass a budget. Lawmakers may also have to address vetoes and other required business.
Some are beginning to ask what happens in the event that the House and Senate must meet in a time of pandemic. Are there constitutional requirements or other legal issues? Will rules need to be changed?
On top of that are the technical questions: How will members of the public access the meetings? How will lawmakers who differ in their technological abilities use a remote system? How will they vote?
A number of states are already looking at these issues and venturing into virtual meetings.
Earlier this month, the legislature in Utah met remotely in special session after lawmakers in that state passed legislation a month earlier that allowed them to meet without all being in the same physical space.
In Maryland, the legislature drew fire from lobbyists and the public as the General Assembly continued to conduct business for five days while buildings were closed to the public.
There were numerous complaints about the public’s inability to watch or listen to floor sessions, where bills were debated and voted on. Committees in both chambers continued to live-stream hearings, but a number of them also took the unusual step of streaming voting sessions on bills.
The House was involved in a limited pilot project of cameras in that chamber. Cameras are being installed now in the Senate, and that chamber is expected to stream audio and video of all its daily floor sessions if lawmakers can come back in January.