An ongoing pandemic will again affect Maryland’s upcoming General Assembly session.
The state finds itself in a new, more intense surge of COVID-19 because of the more transmissible omicron strain. A coalition of good government and other groups said plans for the 2022 session don’t go far enough and in some cases are confusing.
“While last year’s session also faced challenges, it brought out the positive impact that virtual engagement gives the residents of Maryland in the ability to testify,” said Nikki Tyree, Executive Director of League of Women Voters Maryland.
Topping the group’s list of concerns are Senate rules that will allow for remote public testimony on bills for the first 30 days of the session.
Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones announced last week that committees would meet virtually, though in the Senate this is initially limited to the first third of the session.
“The Senate introducing these new restrictive and tone-deaf rules raises the question if they are looking to keep that transparency,” Tyree said.
The weeklong special session in December was hoped by some to be a major step toward that return. The Plexiglas booths around desks in the Senate were removed.
All 141 members of the House returned to one chamber, though partially out of necessity. An auxiliary chamber in the House office building, derogatorily referred to by some as “the children’s table” or the “Isle of Misfit Toys” is gone in an effort to find space for bill analysts and other staffers whose building will be torn down and rebuilt.
Jones, the leader in the House, said the majority of the delegates have been vaccinated and received booster shots.
“Even with that, we’re still going to proceed in an abundance of caution,” she said. “Right now, we are slated for everyone to go on the floor for the first day.”
After that, she’ll likely make use of a form of session created last year in which she and the Democrat and Republican leaders meet publicly. Those three members will only introduce bills and receive communication from the Senate.
The meetings typically lasted less than three minutes each.
Jones said she would likely revisit the rules sometime in February, but said she did not want to commit to a specific date.
The Senate now plans to hold virtual hearings with remote testimony through Feb. 11. There will be no limit on the number of people who can testify on a bill, though each committee can limit the time a person has to speak. Hearings are scheduled to return to an in-person format on Feb. 14.
The Senate will also initially impose a limit of four visitors to senators’ offices.
In the House, all committee hearings for the session will be held remotely.
Both Ferguson and Jones said they plan on allowing members of the public and the press to have access to the galleries above the floor. The Senate will have limited floor space for reporters. The House, for now, will have no reporters on the floor.
The presiding officers had both hoped that the pandemic, which will now dominate three of the four years of the term, would ease and allow for a more traditional looking session.
“I sort of saw the special session as a hybrid transition,” Ferguson said in a pre-Christmas interview in which he discussed how the Senate might operate in the coming session.
Ferguson did not respond to a request for an interview after the new rules were made public.
“My intent, as of Dec. 17, 2021, is that we will go back to a more in-person format, at least on the Senate side,” said Ferguson, adding “we will have in-person hearings with live testimony. That is the intent.”