The Maryland General Assembly’s annual legislative session will open on Monday, but it is likely to be one of the strangest since — well, since last year.
The coronavirus pandemic caused the 2020 session to abruptly end three weeks early. With the pandemic roaring back, and the prospect of even more cases, hospitalizations and deaths growing as a result of the Christmas holiday travel and gatherings, it is hard to see how the session will work this year.
January now looks to be a lost month in the whole country, as we will be transfixed by the continuing crisis in Washington. Even after the inauguration of President-elect Biden on Jan. 20, the likelihood of a fast return to normal is extremely low. The Jan. 6 insurrection and storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob will still be reverberating long into the new year.
Between death, disease and political unrest, the usual menu of hundreds of bills in Annapolis covering everything from the vital to the inane is most unlikely.
How will committees meet? How will they hold hearings on bills? How will lawmakers gather in the chambers of the Senate and the House to debate and vote?
In November, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones announced new rules for the session designed to limit interactions to protect the health of the members. Contact will be limited. Hearings will be curtailed, and legislative sessions will be short.
Maryland Matters, the news website that covers Annapolis, said: “Their plans … represent a dramatic departure from how the chambers normally conduct their business.”
Anyone who has ever spent any time in Annapolis during the session can tell you that it is a face-to-face, person-to-person business. Beyond the formal settings of the committee rooms and legislative floors, lawmaking involves petitioners talking to legislators and legislators talking to each other.
Not this year, however.
Del. Karen Lewis Young, the new chair of Frederick County’s legislative delegation, said the House of Delegates will meet in offices in the House office building for floor proceedings.
Sen. Michael Hough, vice chairman of the delegation, will be sitting in a phone-booth like setup at his desk in the Senate chamber.
Both said they expect less legislation to pass. Leadership in the House and Senate have advised delegates and senators to prioritize legislation. Bill hearings will be virtual, and debate on the floor will be limited to shorter periods.
And these rules were instituted even before the second wave of infections hit in the fall, and a third wave is now threatening to hit just as the General Assembly begins its real work.
If infections start to spread in the State House and legislative offices, all bets will be off. And so will almost all chance of trying to pass the pet bills of lawmakers, all of whom have ideas that they would like to see enshrined into law.
Lewis Young told News-Post reporter Steve Bohnel that she has pre-filed multiple bills, including one that passed the House last year but ran out of time to make it through the Senate. It would allow pharmacists to dispense more types of prescription drugs. Maybe a good idea — but maybe next year.
Hough hopes to get a bill passed that he has been pushing for several years, successfully in the Senate but never in the House. It would allow medical marijuana users in the state to purchase, carry or possess firearms, or to be issued a handgun permit. Maybe next year.
The only thing lawmakers absolutely have to do is pass a budget for the state for the next fiscal year. Gov. Larry Hogan will soon introduce a spending plan. Then the legislators should review it, and then promptly move to adopt a budget so that if the worst happens and the session must shut down, at least that will be out of the way.
Leaders have told lawmaker to prioritize, and the new budget should be first. Anything else that can be accomplished this year will be gravy.