The opening gavel has yet to fall on the 2021 Maryland General Assembly session and one thing is clear: The 90-day session — assuming lawmakers meet the full 90 days — will be unlike any session the state has ever seen as Maryland and the rest of the world continue to figure out how to operate during the coronavirus pandemic.
Everything will look and feel different. Members of the House will be split into two rooms while senators will sit at desks not only separated from each other but surrounded on three sides by plexiglass partitions. Nearly everything will be streamed lived in ways it has never been before.
“Zoom gets old,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “It has a role but I find it very one-dimensional. On one hand, I want to be safe but I look forward to seeing people.”
People, other than lawmakers, will likely be very scarce for much, if not all of the coming session.
A year ago, the 188 members of the General Assembly and most of Maryland were as yet unaffected by a looming pandemic that would result in more than 5,500 deaths before the end of 2020, the closure of most businesses and the earliest adjournment of a legislative session perhaps in state history.
This year, lawmakers return to the State House with the promise of a coronavirus vaccination for members still likely months away.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson hope to avoid a repeat of last year when they were forced to end 19 days early. Plans for both chambers including required testing for lawmakers as well as the daily use of an app that requires delegates and senators to answer health questions.
Both chambers will also change the traditional rules to allow them each to operate at times, streamlining the introduction of bills or moving legislation back and forth between chambers.
While the Senate expects to meet a few days a week starting in January, the House may rarely, if at all, be on the floor in January.
And when the House is in session lawmakers will be split up.
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.
An NBA-style draft was held in December to determine who would sit in the annex chamber.
In the Senate, where there is room to space out 47 senators, desks will be moved to allow for social distancing and partially enclosed with plexiglass.
“Look, it’s going to be weird sitting on the floor of the Senate in a telephone booth,” said Pinsky, “That’s a little bit bizarre, but that’s what we need to do.”
Both the House and Senate will use air purifiers and limit meetings to two hours with cleaning between floor sessions.
Public health officials, including those with the Maryland Department of Health, warn the coming months could be some of the most difficult in terms of virus transmission, which is made easier in small, enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces.
Gov. Larry Hogan, during a December news conference, said Ferguson and Jones ran the legislative plans past several experts, including some at the health department, and said he believes the legislative plan is as good as it can be given the unknowns.
“Look, none of us know, including the legislature, we don’t know how bad it’s going to get or what steps we’ll have to take next year during January or February of the legislative session, but right now I think they have a plan with a lot of flexibility,” said Hogan when asked if he was concerned the legislative session could become a super spreader event. “It’s very likely that they may not be able to continue it the way they are planning currently just like the last session when they had to shut down altogether.”
But Hogan will ultimately have no say on when or if the legislature ends proceedings.
The session will look different for the public, lobbyists and reporters.
The public and lobbyists will be barred from attending floor sessions. When House and Senate office buildings are open to the public, people will not be allowed to simply wander the halls. Instead, visitors will need appointments and will have to be escorted to and from those appointments.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said her organization and a coalition of others have concerns about limits on public testimony and access to lawmakers during the session.
“For people in favor of a bill, it seems as if we’re creating greater access but limiting public access,” said Antoine, adding that the inability to be inside the buildings raises its own concerns when it comes to challenging bills.
“You’re not going to get through on the phone,” she said.
“A lot of lobbying takes place in the hallways,” said Antoine.
Committee hearings will be streamed online, including voting sessions, which previously were open to the public but not broadcast. State House galleries will be closed to all but a limited number of reporters who will be socially distanced but not allowed floor access as in a non-pandemic year.
And some hearings may be more streamlined. Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard and chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said his first hearings, scheduled for the day after the session opens, will feature more than a half dozen bills that passed the Senate last year but died in the House because of the early ending.
Livestreaming of floor sessions and committee meetings will come under scrutiny once again. Last year, there was intense criticism from Republican members angered that the legislature continued to conduct business even as the General Assembly website failed to provide public access.
“None of us are confident that we’re actually going to have access, that the streams will be up and running and there will be no issues,” said Antoine, adding that unlike last session, legislative work should stop immediately if the public is unable to access audio or video feeds.
An opinion from legal counsel to the legislature said lawmakers will not run afoul of the Open Meetings Act provided that the public can attend virtually. To that end, the presiding officers have said preparations for 2021 have included beefing up the website to allow for better public access.
“From my perspective, we’ll stop (work) until we can” get a livestream working, said Guzzone.