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With coronavirus, Md. legislature plans a 2021 session like none ever seen

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's County, standing left, speaks in the Maryland Senate chamber in Annapolis, Md., Monday, April 8, 2019, the final day of the state's 2019 legislative session. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

Scenes like this one on the final day of the 2019 legislative session will not occur in the 2021 session, as leaders have planned physical alterations to the chamber as well as protocols that greatly limit the number of full floor sessions. (AP File Photo/Steve Ruark)

The coronavirus pandemic will continue to alter how Maryland legislators do their work — at least in the short term.

A plan released to lawmakers Thursday outlines a series of stages of operations, some more and some less restrictive. All of them are very different from how previous sessions have looked and operated. From committee hearings and public and lobbyist access to the daily flow of work, nothing will look exactly as it has been.

“To be perfectly honest, we’re kind of rebuilding the process and doing things from scratch,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, in an interview Thursday night.

“We are not creating a bubble and I think it’s really important to make that very clear to members and staff,” said Ferguson. “We’ve tried to make it clear that we’re not trying to create a situation where people can let their guards down and everything is as low risk as humanly possible. All of us who are on campus are going to have to exercise diligent personal responsibility.”

A version provided to delegates from Speaker Adrienne Jones is remarkably similar to the Senate plan, though it does not contain a plan for operating in various stages.  For example, while the House does not plan on initially banning meetings with the public, it is discouraging the practice. Delegates will be required to escort guests in and out of the building, and meetings will be by appointment only to prevent crowding in hallways.

The House plan calls for dividing the 141-member chamber into two, with one group assigned socially distant seating inside the State House. The other half would vote and debate bills from the “Chamber Annex” — a large room inside the House office building across the street.

Ferguson and the Senate began looking at options for the 2021 session in June. Three months earlier, the General Assembly ended 19 days early because of a pandemic that was rapidly spreading in Maryland and other states.

In addition to consulting with members of the Senate as well as the Department of Legislative Services and public health experts, Senate leaders also hired Dr. Lucy Wilson, a physician and professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who specializes in infectious disease transmission.

The result was a set of recommendations meant to guide the Senate through the 2021 session. The House of Delegates will likely have its own guidelines. Those were not yet available but are expected to resemble those in the Senate plan.

Under the Senate plan, the chamber will operate throughout the 90-day session in one of three phases that impose various levels of restrictions and changes to how members conduct their work.

On the Senate floor, preparations are already underway to space the desks of 46 senators nearly 5 feet apart. Those desks will then be surrounded on three sides by plexiglass barriers, creating a booth that effectively separates senators from their colleagues.

Both the House and Senate will also make use of mobile air filters. Floor sessions and debates will be limited to about two hours, though some could be longer. When necessary, short breaks will allow for disinfecting of the chambers and for the air filters to cleanse the chamber.

In phase one, the most restrictive, there would be no daily meetings of the Senate. All hearings would be virtual and in-person voting sessions would be held only as necessary.

In a second phase, Senate debate and voting sessions would be conducted from committee rooms. Bill hearings would be done virtually with members joining from computers in their Senate offices. The

Annapolis complex would be limited to legislators, a smaller number of staff members and the media. There would be no in-person meetings in offices, and the public and lobbyists would not have access to those buildings.

The third phase, the most open, would more closely resemble traditional operations with floor sessions, though senators with health concerns or worries about being in large groups could participate from committee rooms.

Participating from a committee room would allow senators to vote, but they could not participate in debates. Regular access to buildings would still be restricted to lawmakers, staff and the press, but the public and lobbyists could meet with lawmakers by appointment only.

Lawyers Mall, a traditional gathering place for rallies and protests, will be reopened by January and Public gatherings will be allowed if socially distanced and in compliance with guidelines from the City of Annapolis, according to Jones’ letter to delegates

All hearings in the House and Senate will be conducted virtually. Delegates will be allowed to participate in hearings either from their offices or from home.

Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones at a news conference in March 2020. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones at a news conference in March 2020. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

“Those who advocate on different issues will have to adapt to these new protocols,” said Ferguson. “They won’t be permitted in the facility unless we are in stage three, they have a scheduled meeting and they are escorted into and out of the building by that senator’s staff. The sort of informal run-ins are probably going to be a lot less frequent.”

The traditional legislative receptions that fill the Monday night calendars during session — a chance for groups to rub elbows with lawmakers and bend their ears on issues — are gone for this year. Ferguson said none will be approved in an effort to limit gatherings that could become spreader events.

The stages will also require a change in rules, some arcane and some more obvious.

For instance, legislative rules now prevent the House and the Senate from skipping floor meetings for more than two consecutive days without the permission of the other chamber. Ferguson said he expects a temporary rule change for the 2021 session that would eliminate that requirement.

“We will not be going to the floor every day and we will not necessarily be convening every day,” said Ferguson. “We’ll have to be a lot more strategic in our calendaring of, the timing of bills. So, when we do have to convene with all members coming to the floor, to the chamber, it’s because we have a full calendar of work to do.”

Both Ferguson and Jones, in her letter, said it is likely that there will be few floor sessions in the first third of the 90-day session.

Both chambers will move to more electronic documents rather than the traditional paper records to mitigate other ways the virus could spread.

Lawmakers will also be asked to limit the number of bills. The House is moving to “sponsor only” legislation in the coming year to limit the passing of documents back and forth between lawmakers.

“It is likely we won’t see as many bills moving as we have in prior years just because of the sheer nature of timing,” said Ferguson.

In September, Ferguson sent a memo to lawmakers imposing a 25-bill limit for the coming session with an additional five-bill allowance if senators prefiled their legislation. The memo warns of potential lower limits in the coming session because of the pandemic.

The Senate president declined to say if he has already imposed a lower limit.

“I certainly said to them that we should make sure that we’ve done the work that needs to get done first, prioritizing the pieces of legislation that are must pass pieces of legislation,” said Ferguson. “But of course in the General Assembly with 47 duly elected senators, what is important to one may seem unimportant to another. So, it is always a judgment call. There are certain things that have deadlines that have to get done in a certain time frame but the vast majority of the work is flexible. It’s why we’re back every year so there is going to be a level of discretion exercised to make sure we’re spending time on the issues that need it most.”

What exactly triggers a move up or down in the stages is less clear.

Ferguson said transmission of the virus in the state could be a factor, but leaders also will monitor infections among members and staff.

“But we will be laser-focused on what is happening on the campus among legislators and staff in the facilities, said Ferguson. “The House and Senate will be in alignment with where we are and what stage and we’ll certainly be in close communication and I think those will be jointly made decisions. Unfortunately, I think it will be pretty obvious which stage we’re in based on the circumstances.”

On Thursday, Maryland reported an additional 1,198 coronavirus infections in the last 24 hours, the most since July 25 and the first time there have been consecutive days of 1,000 or more cases since the end of July.

As of Thursday, Maryland’s rolling seven-day average daily case count was nearly 940 per day, a nearly 22% increase over the same period last week and a 48% increase compared to two weeks ago.

Total hospitalizations, while lower than the spring, have also been steadily climbing.

“I’d say even right now this would be a stage three situation,” said Ferguson. “If the trend continues, we’ll have to see. I hope we can kind of put a lid or bend the curve yet again but I would say this would be a stage three scenario unless we have evidence that some of the members or staff was exposed or in quarantine or is in fact positive and needs isolation.”

No firm rule on how many infections would likely trigger a change in stages or even a pause in the session has been established, said Ferguson.

A spread of the virus among key members of the staff could also cause a temporary stoppage.

“It will be a bit more about whether we can function based on the level of disease spread,” said Ferguson.

Lawmakers and staff returning to Annapolis will be required to adhere to new requirements, including twice-a- week testing conducted by the state Department of Health. Contact tracers hired by the legislature will work to identify potential spread of the disease when there are positive tests.

There is also a smart phone app where lawmakers and staff will have to check in daily and answer questions about their health and any potential exposures to the virus.

Those check-ins will be monitored by the legislature’s human resources department. Those who decline to answer the questions daily would be reported to Ferguson.

“My hope is that individual conversations will help to rectify problems,” said Ferguson. “Certainly if there is kind of an ongoing unwillingness to participate in the precautions that we’ve all agreed to, the chambers, we are a self-disciplining body. In the very rare case, if that is necessary, then we will pursue that option of discipline of members or staff if needed.”

Reporters will have less access to the floor and lawmakers than in previous years. Instead of crowding together on either side of the rostrum, a small number of reporters will be allowed access to the galleries above the Senate and the House. There will likely also be an emphasis on sharing video — primarily from high-definition cameras in the House and Senate chambers operated by Maryland Public Television.

Lawmakers will also be required to abide by rules requiring social distancing and the use of masks.

Mask wearing has become somewhat of a political issue. Those who refuse would likely be required to participate in floor sessions remotely.

“We do have plans if someone cannot be in the chamber, they refuse to wear a face covering or refuse to participate, there are mechanisms for them to vote from a different location,” Ferguson said. “They would not be able to participate in debates but they can vote from a different location on campus.”

Ferguson has also established a bipartisan advisory group of lawmakers — leaders from the Democratic and Republican parties – to help advise on situations that come up that are not contemplated in the Senate’s current plan.

“What is very, very important is, if this ends up being perceived in any way as a partisan effort or used to facilitate the passage of certain legislation, I think that will be to the legislature’s detriment,” said Ferguson. “This is about the operation of the legislature of Maryland. We know that things are going to come up that we have just not been able to conceive of and so there will be a sounding board in place to navigate questions that arise that we just didn’t foresee.”

 


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