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Md. business groups express access concerns for 2021 assembly session

General Assembly leaders have yet to decide how to structure the 2021 legislative session (The Daily Record/File Photo)

General Assembly leaders have yet to decide how to structure the 2021 legislative session (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A coalition of business groups is concerned about the potential for rule changes that could limit public participation in the 2021 General Assembly Session.

Legislative leaders have yet to say what a second pandemic session would look like, but a 10-page letter from an attorney for the General Assembly laid out the potential for one in which there could be limited bill hearings or limits on public testimony or the ability to observe legislative proceedings.

And while no such rule changes have been proposed, 16 business groups — including AAA Mid-Atlantic, the Maryland Retailers Association, Restaurant Association of Maryland and National Federation of Independent Business — said the legal advice, similar to that given during the pandemic-shortened 2020 session, raises concerns.

“Our main concern stems from potential rule changes by either chamber which could severely curtail the transparency of the legislative process and drastically limit the input and participation from the public and advocacy organizations like ours,” the groups wrote in their Sept. 23 letter to House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson.

The group calls on Jones and Ferguson to convene a work group to address a number of issues raised in the legislative counsel’s advisory letter.

“Through this process, our joint concerns regarding transparency and public participation could be addressed more effectively,” the groups wrote to Jones and Ferguson.

Jake Weissmann, chief of staff to Ferguson, said he has already had initial talks with a number of business groups that sent the letter.

“We discussed some of the concerns of the signatories of the letter and plan to have follow up conversations to hear their additional concerns,” said Weissmann.

Sen. J.B Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford and Senate minority leader, said current trends in how the state is handling the virus are good enough that completely barring public access to hearings or eliminating bill hearings should be unnecessary but added that some changes might be needed to continue to mitigate the chance of infections.

“In my honest belief, I think Annapolis can operate in committees safely and allow people in,” said Jennings.

Still, some changes might be in order. Jennings said committees should continue livestreaming efforts including voting sessions. Additionally, he said members of the public who want to testify on bills might have to adjust to being allowed in a committee room a few at a time to testify and leave. Large crowds with spillover audiences in the hall or milling about waiting for their bills to be called might have to go into hiatus for the 2021 session, he said.

“And if we can’t do it safely, let’s just go to Annapolis, gavel in and pass the state budget,” said Jennings. “Let that committee do it’s work and get out of town and come back next year. A lot of this stuff we can deal with next year.”

The missive from business advocates makes reference to a 10-page advisory letter written to the presiding officers on August 14 by Sandra Benson Brantley, the General Assembly’s legislative counsel.

Much of what is in the letter is similar to one written earlier this year as Jones and Ferguson were suddenly faced with the challenges of a pandemic with three weeks remaining in the 90-day session. The majority of the letter lays out potential concerns, including legal challenges to a 2021 session related to questions about meeting and voting remotely.

The August letter, as did the earlier incarnation, notes that the legislature has wide latitude in how it conducts its business, including the necessity for bill hearings and public participation and limiting press access.

To be clear, neither presiding officer has established a committee process for the coming year nor said the legislature would abolish hearings or public comment. The recently completed abbreviated session and some actions taken currently by the legislature do give some indication that changes are being considered and even tested.

The Maryland Constitution does not require bill hearings. In fact, the current system in which bills are guaranteed a committee hearing if they are filed in a timely manner dates back less than 40 years. Those rules of the House and Senate can be suspended with a two-thirds vote of the bodies.

Suspension of the rules would allow the House or the Senate to limit or eliminate bill hearings and public comment on bills. Public comment on bills in person or in writing is not required by law.

The legislature and its committees is subject to the state Open Meetings Act whenever there is a quorum of the House or Senate or major committees. That law guarantees only the public’s right to observe a public proceeding. It does not require a public body to allow the public to speak.

Livestreaming video or audio of sessions would likely satisfy requirements for public observation of legislative proceedings and would also act as an official record of those meetings.

During the last week of the 2020 session, bill hearings were severely curtailed as lawmakers pushed to finish as much as possible while also lopping off an unprecedented 19 days of the session.

The House and Senate office buildings and committee rooms were closed to the public and to lobbyists, as was the State House and the galleries above the House and Senate chambers .

Committees resorted to more livestreaming, including voting sessions that were traditionally open to the public to attend in person but never broadcast online in the same way bill hearings are done.

But there were complaints about the public’s ability to observe House and Senate proceedings as audio and video streaming from the General Assembly website buckled under the demand of users in Annapolis and around the state. In some cases, the public was limited to video livestreamed on social media by reporters.

New cameras have been installed in the Senate chamber to live-stream floor sessions. The broadcast quality cameras are identical to those tested last session in the House of Delegates. The General Assembly is also beefing up its website to handle the additional traffic after last session.

Bill hearings are also not required to occur during a 90-day session.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Thursday completed three days of hearings on 15 police reform proposals. The proposals were drafted in bill form but are not officially bills because they have not been formally introduced in the legislature.

The committee meetings on the bills included limited testimony from proponents and opponents who had just two minutes total to speak on sometimes as many five bills. Aside from being conducted on Zoom, the were nearly identical to a traditional bill hearing.

Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said his goal is to use the meetings and the following three months to craft final versions of the bills that will be introduced in January.

He said that he does not intend to hold a more traditional set of hearings in the coming session and hopes to move the bills quickly — perhaps as fast as two weeks — from introduction to a full Senate vote to sending them to the House for consideration.

There is also the possibility of other pre-session hearings on key legislation.

Jones and Ferguson, in a Sept. 17 letter to delegates and senators, rejected calls for a special session.

“In January, we are committing to have real solutions to: Police accountability and reform; Decoupling from the federal tax provisions and clawing back any unjust funding to corporations; Permanent fixes to vote by mail laws; Improvements to working conditions for workers; and Long-term housing stability,” the letter stated.

The process all feels too fast, said Jennings, the senate’s top Republican.

“To quote the movie Spaceballs, we’re moving at ludicrous speed,” said Jennings. “It’s not fair. Its not fair to the public.”

Brantley’s letter also lays out state law on press access to the General Assembly. Reporters who cover the General Assembly and state government are routinely afforded access to the floor of the House and Senate, thus having access to lawmakers.

Brantley wrote Jones and Ferguson that while the state Open Meeting Compliance Board notes that the press “may not be discriminated against in the application of access rules, the Act does not entitle (reporters) to special access rights.”

The advice is similar to the letter Brantley wrote earlier this year in which she noted that the press could be moved off the chamber floor or even required to observe proceedings remotely.

“Nonetheless, recognizing the value to the public that media reports provide, the General Assembly may grant the press access even if the public is not allowed,” said Brantley, later quoting the Open Meetings Compliance Board opinion that “the press plays a vital role in ensuring a public awareness of government activities.”

In the end, the presiding officers imposed no restrictions on reporters during the final days of the abbreviated 2020 session other than to ask that they socially distance as much as possible.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland Delaware DC Press Association said the pandemic-shortened session of 2020 serves as a reminder of why reporters should not be restricted at the State House.

“In the final days, reporters were in many cases the only way people could see inside the legislative process,” Snyder said.

 


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