Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones would probably be happy for a less historic sophomore year. An ongoing pandemic may make that difficult to come by.
The pair of presiding officers in their 2020 rookie year stepped into the top leadership positions in their respective chambers that were once held by two legislative titans — Del. Michael Busch and Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Both Busch and Miller were the longest-serving presiding officers in the history of their chambers.
Additionally, Ferguson and Jones presided over a regular 90-day session shortened 19 days by a pandemic that continues to rage. The shortened session was the first in recent member and perhaps the first ever outside of a special session during the Civil War that ended when so many lawmakers were arrested that there were not enough members for a quorum.
The coronavirus will likely dominate the 2021 session, even as lawmakers work on priorities including the budget — the one task they are required to complete — as well as overriding vetoes from Gov. Larry Hogan, police reform, equity issues and updating the recently passed education bill sometimes referred to as Kirwan.
“I think you’ll see an issue-based agenda and less a bill-number-based agenda. Our core objectives are dealing with the COVID crisis and its myriad, dynamic impact,” said Ferguson. “Making significant effort on police reform to really ensure we can restore trust, accountability and transparency between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and enhancing opportunities for equity and inclusion particularly around health disparities, environmental justice and generational wealth. That will be our legislative agenda. The bill count I don’t think will be the determining factor. It will be whether we are moving ahead on all these core functions.”
Jones, who is both the first woman and first African American to lead either the House or Senate, agreed with many of the issues outlined by Ferguson but said she has a set or priorities for the 2021 session.
“During the summer, I’ve worked on what I have pegged as a Black agenda in which I met with people in various industries, including housing, health care, economic justice — it will be both a racial and economic justice agenda,” said Jones.
The speaker said she planned on rolling out details related to her priorities in the coming weeks but will include racial and economic justice issues, police reform, housing, corporate management and banking.
“It’s long overdue,” Jones said.
The 2021 session will be different from any other in state history.
The House and Senate plan to have their respective committees work almost entirely virtually. Everything will be streamed from bill hearings to voting sessions – something that wasn’t done before the last weeks of the 2020 session.
And while both chambers will meet in person to pass rules that will allow them to operate in a pandemic emergency, those meetings will be rare.
The Senate plans on meeting as often as twice a week for much of the first month. The meetings are scheduled to coincide on days when members are required to undergo mandatory rapid testing.
The House will likely not return for floor sessions before February, Jones said.
In the chambers, social distancing and masks will be required. Reporters will be moved off the floor temporarily into the balconies above the House and Senate.
In the House, half of the 141 member will work in the State House with most on the floor, socially distanced. Others, who have identified concerns about their immune systems, will be seated in one gallery. The balance, selected in livestreamed lottery, will be seated in an annex chamber in the House Office building, where they will be able to vote and participate in floor debates via a video link.
Senators will sit at their desks, distanced and wrapped on three sides by plexiglass, a setup referred to by Ferguson as “pods.”
Still neither Ferguson nor Jones are willing to predict the legislature will finish a full 90 days.
“I’ve learned my lesson that this is an unpredictable scenario,” said Ferguson. “I do believe we will get through 90 days. Whether that includes some pause of action in the middle of it, that’s something I wouldn’t say is likely but it is certainly a possibility. Should we see a spreading event on campus, we won’t hesitate to shut things down for a period of time.”
Top of mind for both leaders is a pandemic relief package that Jones said would likely include some reforms to the Department of Labor and the unemployment insurance program. The House leader said lawmakers continue to receive complaints about navigating the state’s system and receiving benefits.
Also included in the plan are efforts to provide rental and utility assistance and aid to some businesses.
Ferguson said much of the costs for such efforts, which he said would be one-time costs, could come from shifting priorities within the budget.
“We have a $46 billion budget,” said Ferguson. “We have a lot of priorities. We have a lot of things absent a pandemic emergency that would be very high on the priority list but given the scope of the emergency there are people in dire need and so there are a lot of different areas in the budget that planned to get increases in spending or projects that can be delayed a year. ”
Another source of funds could be federal aid already approved and some funds that might come after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in and the U.S. Senate comes under Democratic control.
“I think Maryland is getting $402 million from feds, we need to look at what we can do with that on our end,” said Jones.
The legislative effort is likely to compete with a proposal announced Monday by Gov. Larry Hogan. The second-term Republican said he had discussed the need for additional pandemic aid but stopped short of saying Ferguson and Jones supported his $1 billion package.
“Everybody, I think, generally agrees with most of the things we’re talking about,” said Hogan. “There might be additional things or things they’d rather do, this or that. We’re looking forward to those discussions but we can’t waste a lot of time. This is not something that should be debated until the end of the legislative session in April.”
Both chambers will also tackle police reform. Jones created a legislative panel to develop recommendations on issues including use of force, banning chokeholds and paring down or eliminating the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.
Similarly, the Senate, under Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, held hearings in the fall on a package of bills in draft form. Those meetings will serve as the formal hearings and Smith said his committee plans on introducing bills in a more complete form early in the session and moving them to the House by the end of January.
The House and Senate will also have to deal with a number of overrides of vetoes issued by Hogan on bills including the Kirwan education reform plan as well as a number of tax bills, including one that creates a digital advertising tax and another that places a sales tax on digital download and streaming services
Ferguson and Jones guaranteed an override on Kirwan plus an effort to revamp what was passed to reflect the pandemic’s impact on the education system, particularly in the area of virtual learning.
“We knew there were huge gaps in our education system before the pandemic. Those gaps have turned into canyons. What we cannot afford to do is let kids fall further and further behind by no fault of their own,” said Ferguson. “We’re going to make changes. You’ll probably see a companion emergency bill that alters the implementation and addresses the learning loss that has happened.”
Some of those changes could include increasing physical and economic access to broadband.
“It became really apparent during this pandemic when we first shut down the schools that there were those without access, and it puts them further behind,” said Jones. “We need to look at where we’re falling behind there.”