For the first time since the Civil War in the 1860s, the Maryland General Assembly session ended prematurely this year, adjourning nearly three weeks early due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
The most important piece of legislation passed last week by both the House and Senate chambers was a nearly $48 billion fiscal 2021 budget that includes $100 million for responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
The emergency coronavirus legislation called for health insurance companies and other providers to cover the cost of testing and any other associated needs. In addition, the bill prohibits retailers from price-gouging on any coronavirus-related goods such as food, fuel, water and cleaning products by more than 10 percent.
With the decision to end early, lawmakers passed more than 500 bills in three days to complete its last legislative day by March 18. The 90-day session scheduled to end April 6.
“It’ll take a while to process this whole experience,” said Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore City). “The strangest and most difficult moment for me was that limbo when we were waiting to hear whether or not we would work through the end, or adjourn early. Will we stay healthy? Will we be able to support our communities in our districts back home? That was really surreal to me.”
The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, forced Gov. Larry Hogan and the presiding officers to restrict access inside state buildings, which meant the public couldn’t hear, view or testify about any pieces of legislation.
Lobbyists, advocates and political junkies were banned from the gallery, and high school students working pages did not hand-deliver any documents to lawmakers.
The usual ceremonial bill signings to celebrate passage of legislation also aren’t happening.
The final three days marked a furious pace for lawmakers to review and approve monumental bills such as $577 million in funding through 2030 for the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities. The amount came from a settlement agreed to in a more than 13-year-old lawsuit.
The funding for each university — Bowie State, Coppin State, Morgan State and Maryland Eastern Shore — would provide scholarships and financial aid, help recruit faculty and implement new academic programs.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, the first woman and first Black chosen who served her first session as a presiding officer, led the effort to get legislation approved.
“This is something that puts the HBCUs at the same level as our traditionally white institutions,” said Del. Darry Barnes (D-District 25) of Upper Marlboro, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. “This is much-needed income for programming and so many other things.”
The other approved bill slated to help Black and Latino students is the comprehensive education plan called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The majority of the policies are based on recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.
The 25-member group, nicknamed the Kirwan Commission after its chair, former University of Maryland system chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, approved an annual $3.8 billion public school plan to expand early childhood, incorporate competency training for teachers and provide additional services for special education students.
“The resources these kids need are in this bill,” said Del. Alonzo Washington (D-District 22) of Greenbelt, who served on the commission. “These are the best practices we have spent three years … coming up with these policies. These are about our kids.”
The plan easily passed through both majority-Democrat chambers, though some Republicans still voted it, saying it’s too expensive for school districts to pay through 2030.
Besides the education plan, House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said stronger crime bills and other legislation might not have passed if more public participation. Some of the final days showcased spotty feeds from the General Assembly website of committee hearings, floor debates and casting of votes.
“We tried to make the best of what was a bizarre situation. The worst health crisis that any of us have ever experienced in our lives,” said Kipke, one of 12 delegates serving on a COVID-19 legislative work group. “The process wasn’t perfect.”
Hogan, a Republican, can veto the education plan and any other legislation, but lawmakers can override any veto during a special session scheduled for the last week of May.
Some high-profile bills were rejected before making it to the governor’s desk, such as one calling for a statewide ban of plastic bags, which will have to be reintroduced next year.
“When I was driving back home and I saw those plastic bags all the way from Annapolis to my front door, it just reminded me of how important the legislation is all over the place,” said Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-District 47) of Cheverly, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “I look forward to working hard to get it done in our next session.”