ANNAPOLIS — Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Maryland General Assembly wrapped up early on Wednesday, 19 days short of the usual 90-day legislative session in Annapolis.
The state lawmakers’ biggest accomplishment during the truncated session was the approval of a $47.9 billion fiscal year 2021 budget that includes $100 million earmarked for the response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
Lawmakers also passed emergency coronavirus legislation with a focus on health insurance companies and other providers to cover the cost of testing and any other associated needs. Additionally, the legislation prohibits retailers from price-gouging any goods such as food, fuel, water and cleaning products by more than 10 percent.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, the first woman and first African-American lawmaker chosen as the presiding officer of the House of Delegates, said her colleagues worked diligently to approve legislation in a shorter amount of time.
“It was sometimes grueling, but at the same time we knew we had to get as much done as we could,” she said.
The majority Democratic General Assembly scheduled a special session on the last week of May, but leaders of both the House and Senate need to agree on what particular pieces of legislation would be discussed and approved.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan could sign or veto any legislation that comes to his desk, though the legislature could override his vetoes in the special session.
“All those are factors in terms of what a special session what look like,” Jones said.
Earlier in the day, both a humorous and somber moment happened in the Senate with two longtime senators absent: Paul Pinsky and President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
Miller, who continues to battle cancer, hasn’t attended the last several sessions and missed the last legislative day, known as “Sine Die.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson relayed a message from Miller to his Senate colleagues before they began reviewing bills.
“I’ve had a team of doctors and each and every one of them. I told them to get me the hell out of this place,” Ferguson said amid laughter in the Senate chamber. “To which I responded, ‘Do you want me to cut their budget?’ [Miller] said, ‘Just protect the Senate.’ He’s very, very sad he can’t be here today, but he’s here in spirit.”
Pinsky didn’t attend Wednesday because of the death of his wife Joan Rothgeb on Tuesday.
Pinsky served as a key member of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, or the Kirwan Commission, named after its chair, former University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan. Most of the legislation comes from commission recommendations put together for the past three years.
Pinsky pushed to help the legislature approve the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a nearly $4 billion comprehensive education plan that seeks to expand early childhood, hire additional mental health and social service providers and provide a career counseling program for middle and high school students.
The main focus will be whether Hogan signs the bill when it arrives at his desk. Although Hogan liked some of the commission recommendations, he said the plan is too expensive and has derisively referred to the group as the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.”
The multibillion-dollar investment includes $2.9 billion from the state and $864 from the 23 counties and Baltimore City through fiscal year 2030.
The legislation allocates Prince George’s County to receive the most in state aid at $724 million; Baltimore City at $613 million; and Baltimore County with the third-highest total at nearly $323 million.
Prince George’s also saw its contribution decrease from $361 million to $183.5 million, now the second-highest amount behind Montgomery County at $234 million.
According to the new projections, 10 counties wouldn’t have to pay more based on previous education funding from its local government or high rates of poverty: Allegany, Calvert, Carroll, Dorchester, Howard, St. Mary’s, Somerset, Washington and Worchester.
Other bills approved included legislation to distribute nearly $577 million to the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities. The amount to run until 2030 equals a settlement figure agreed to by the plaintiffs, Maryland HBCUs Matters Coalition, alumni and other advocates in a more than 13-year-old lawsuit.
The money would be distributed as follows: $24 million for Morgan State University, $16.7 million for Bowie State University, $9.6 million for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and $7.2 million for Coppin State University.
However, the coalition and advocates sought every school receive at least $10 million. Another amendment requested to allow each school to hire its own consultant, but the bill states for a consultant to assist the institutions “as a collective with programmatic development.”
Sharon Blake, an alumna of Morgan State University in Baltimore who organized HBCU town hall events, praised several lawmakers in getting the bill passed “because we are moving to a world-class higher education system in Maryland.”
However, the amendments not passed assured each school received its just due.
“This is really a settlement case,” Blake said. “If you have created harm to me, I don’t think you get to tell me how to spend my money. We know the harm here. It was intentional, racist practices … established in the state of Maryland.”