ANNAPOLIS — Instead of large crowds of people gathering throughout the statehouse complex in Annapolis Wednesday for the opening day of the 2021 legislative session, something else was a common sight: plexiglass dividers.
They were in both the Senate and House chambers, in front of President Bill Ferguson’s (D-Baltimore city) and House Speaker Adrienne Jones’ (D-Baltimore) rostrums. It was around each member’s desk in the Senate, as makeshift pods have been assembled to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Security checkpoints in the capitol building and throughout the House and Senate office buildings had them as well. And they were at every delegate’s desk in a secondary chamber in the Montgomery County and Baltimore County delegation rooms in the House office building—along with a makeshift pod in the center of the room to allow for delegates to call into the statehouse chamber for votes and debate.
This is how the General Assembly will operate in a pandemic: limited time in these drastically changed chambers — of which there are now three — and in a virtual, video calling world for bill hearings.
Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll), the new Minority Whip, said it was an “odd feeling” to be sitting in his pod in the Senate, operating under all the precautions. But he noted it’s the correct action to take, given all the other sacrifices Marylanders have made in their daily lives since last March.
He was worried communication with Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), the Minority Leader, might prove difficult given the pods. That isn’t as much an issue as he originally thought, but the structures might pose another challenge — floor amendments.
“I feel in the minority party, in order to get our amendments on, we have to cut through the noise, and we have to be able to give a strong, impassioned speech ... that’s going to be more difficult when people can’t see you, they’re not looking at you,” Hough said.
Other members of the Frederick County delegation pointed out other issues. Del. Barrie Ciliberti (R-Frederick and Carroll) has been in Annapolis for many opening days but missed Wednesday because of a cold.
Ciliberti is slated to be seated in the gallery of the House chamber, far above the rest of roughly half of that body’s membership. He has concerns about being heard from up there, the video connectivity between both house chambers, and making sure both supporters and opponents of bills have enough time to make their case on Zoom calls during bill hearings.
He was both cautious and optimistic about doing the people’s business this year, given all the changes.
“It’s semi-trending toward a potential nightmare, but I think we’ll come through it all right,” Ciliberti said.
He, Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) and Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick and Carroll) will sit in the main chamber in upcoming floor sessions but spaced out from the two corners of the floor to the other end of the rear gallery.
Meanwhile, Del. Ken Kerr (D-Frederick) and Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick), the delegation chair, will be seated in the back row of the second chamber in the House Office building, with Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick) near the front.
Kerr shares Ciliberti’s concerns about some logistics, including the fact that audio and video must be streamed between the two chambers. He was actually sitting in the regular chamber Wednesday as the session began, as the Speaker and leadership finalized procedures for the upcoming session.
“The thing that I’m most concerned about is how both of the locations see and hear each other,” Kerr said of the second chamber. “If we’re gong to be acting in concert, then it has to be in real time, that we hear what is going on [in the statehouse].”
Lewis Young said she and other lawmakers still have many questions on procedural aspects of session. And as delegation chair, it’s her responsibility to shepherd through local legislation to the governor’s desk.
She’s focused on getting any issues with those bills figured out quickly this session.
“If people have a lot of questions, we’re going to make an attempt to make two, three attempts to get your answer,” she said of any possible tweaks to local legislation. “But then, we’ve got to keep things moving.”
Looking back on Wednesday, Pippy, the former delegation chair, said one thing was apparent: less commotion and swaths of people. That will be commonplace for much of this session.
Another thing that he likely fears might be lost due to a split chamber during session: quality floor debate.
“I think logistically, it’s going to be more difficult; the legislative session is really an opportunity to air out any concerns they [senators and delegates] have,” Pippy said. “And when you kind of split that up, some of that robust debate and discussion is gone, to some extent.”