ANNAPOLIS — Aside from the absence of lobbyists, nonprofit groups and others from the public visiting Maryland’s state capital seeking support for various legislation, this year’s General Assembly, scheduled to end at midnight Monday, didn’t have many hiccups.
And other than a false positive COVID-19 test in the state Senate in February, the General Assembly was largely unaffected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The global health crisis nonetheless made for one of Maryland’s most unique 90-day legislative sessions ever, though, as lawmakers reviewed, debated and approved thousands of bills while their desks were separated by plexiglass.
Additionally, the session’s pages — the gray blazer-clad high school students usually seen assisting lawmakers on the chamber floors — all worked remotely this year, so there was no traditional releasing of balloons and confetti from the balconies inside the House and Senate for “Sine Day,” a Latin phrase meaning “without day,” to mark the end of the session.
About half of the 141 House members cast their votes in a designated annex on the first floor of the House of Delegates building. The remaining members, including House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), presided over the sessions at the rostrum across the street at the chamber inside the State House.
Besides the state budget, lawmakers approved major legislation such as police reform and coronavirus relief package for low-income residents and small businesses.
“It’s been a lot,” said Del. Nick Charles (D-District 25) of Forestville, one of the dozens of delegates in the annex this session. “I’m glad we were able to put in legislation to protect us from rogue [police] officers. You’ve got good officers, [but] this protects us from the bad ones.”
One major piece of legislation passed Monday was a sports betting bill unanimously approved 47-0 in the Senate and by a 112-16 in the House. The bill now goes to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk for his signature.
If the governor doesn’t veto the bill, legalized sports betting could happen as early as the NFL season this fall.
Voters approved in the November election in support of sports betting with some money designated to pay for public education.
The bill allows for nearly 100 in-person and online venues that include betting at NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS sites. Those locations would include FedEx Field, home of the Washington Football Team in Landover; Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles; and M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens.
Sports betting is already established in other jurisdictions such as neighboring Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Also on Monday, the House rejected amendments from the Senate on the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act. Because of that, the House appointed Dels. Dereck E. Davis (D-District 25) of Mitchellville, Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery County) and C.T. Wilson (D-Charles County) to work out the differences of the legislation with the Senate.
The proposed legislation calls for hazard pay at $3 per hour, employers to provide personal protective equipment, and 14 days of paid health leave, which would be in addition to paid sick leave.
Another bill that could receive final approval deals with tenants to receive counsel for eviction proceedings during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate approved the bill Saturday, but with a title change from “Right to Counsel” to “Access to Counsel” and additional eligible cases. The House must do it before midnight Monday.
Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, who serves as speaker pro tem and presided over the annex, said the majority of the calls she fielded as a member of the Wicomico County Council dealt with tenant evictions.
“One call I got from a lady, she didn’t have running water [and was] renting this home for years,” said Sample-Hughes, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore. “She felt like she was going to be put out if she spoke up on it. She needed a voice. I was the voice for her, but not everybody’s going to do that. She needed legal advice beyond what I could help her. I believe [the state legislation] is a step in the right direction.”