By Philip Van Slooten
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — General Assembly leaders in Maryland ended the 2020 session early and recently declined a special session due to pandemic and presidential election concerns. But they have yet to announce plans, particularly regarding legislative voting, as the next session draws near.
“The reason we aren’t having a special session is because we need information,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, on Sept. 16 told demonstrators staging a mock General Assembly session outdoors while wearing masks and sitting six feet apart. “We need to do the work to make sure that when we convene as a General Assembly, we solve the problems that you care about.”
Ferguson and Jones further explained in a Sept. 17 letter to legislators concerns about acting “with imperfect information that will only be clear after the November 2020 Presidential election,” and stated convening an early session “would be a misstep and a disservice to the people of Maryland.”
In the letter, the legislative leaders articulated priorities such as police reform, long-term housing stability and improvements to working conditions, but stated the need for “greater clarity of federal support for state and local governments.”
Ferguson and Jones indicated more information regarding federal funding and policy could be clearer after the election.
The Maryland General Assembly ended its previous session early, on March 18, due to pandemic concerns. Though a special session had been planned early on for May, in a joint statement released April 20, both Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, stated it was still too soon to safely reconvene. However, virtual committee meetings continued.
“After consulting with health experts, this is the best course of action at this time,” Jones stated on April 20.
Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, told Capital News Service on Thursday one option was for legislators to meet in Annapolis in person, masked and socially distanced, and to live-stream proceedings for the public, lobbyists and others.
“That’s why the hearings are so important,” he said of the virtual committee meetings being held since the session ended. “We are road-testing the technology to make sure things work and the public can still be involved.”
However, Christianne Marguerite, the digital and communications organizer for Progressive Maryland, one of the groups behind the call for a special session, told CNS the purpose of last week’s mock assembly was to show it was possible for the legislature to return to work even during the pandemic.
“According to the constitutional constraints, the General Assembly doesn’t have to meet in a statehouse but in the capital of Annapolis,” Marguerite said. “That’s why we’ve mentioned outdoor venues (as possible demonstration sites) that can hold 141 individuals safely.”
Organizers chose the football field next to Phoenix Academy in Annapolis because it was a five-minute drive from the State House and could safely hold legislative members as well as members of the public and press.
According to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 41 states have met in either a regular or special session since March, including Virgina, which began a special session on Aug. 18 to address the budget, police reform and pandemic-related issues. Maryland is one of seven states that adjourned sine die in March without reconvening. The conference reported Texas and North Dakota as “not in session” for 2020.
But Ferguson and Jones remained unconvinced, with Ferguson repeatedly telling demonstrators about the need “to get it right.”
Similarly, Republican House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, told CNS the constitution may require in-person voting on legislation, and leadership was “looking into how this can be done as safely as possible,” but there were no final plans for January as of yet.
On Aug. 14, General Assembly Counsel Sandra Benson Brantley — who works in the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh — responded to questions from legislative leadership regarding the “legality and constitutionality” of making changes to how the session is conducted during a pandemic.
She responded in a detailed memo that changes to floor votes “involving a remote or virtual component” could risk “a successful legal challenge.”
Additionally, Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Joint COVID-19 Response Legislative Workgroup on Sept. 16 his concerns about gatherings for long periods of time, particularly as more activities move inside during the upcoming winter months.
“The risk to indoor activities has not gone away,” he said, mentioning a recent CDC report finding indoor dining remained a high risk factor for contracting COVID-19.
According to the report, “Adults with positive (COVID-19) test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative (COVID-19) test results.”
Researchers noted restricted airflow was also a factor in transmission “even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance.”
During last week’s special session demonstration, Jones told the crowd she was concerned about legislators at higher risk for contracting the disease, but still signalled an intent to reconvene as scheduled Jan. 13.
However, questions remain as to how the session will be safely conducted, how votes will be counted so as to withstand legal challenges, and what precautions will be in place that were not available in either March, May or even now.
While Ferguson’s and Jones’s offices stated by email that they were not ready to comment on preparations at this time, not every legislator is convinced that an outdoor special session, while the weather is still agreeable, is not a reasonable option.
Delegates Gabriel Acevero, D-Montgomery, and Julian Ivey, D-Prince George’s, spoke during last week’s demonstration in support of convening a special session.
“For 83 days I have been highlighting victims of police brutality and calling for a special session so that we can address that issue specifically,” Ivey told CNS during the protest. “Just like our essential workers are working, I believe legislators are essential and we should be doing our job that we were constitutionally elected to do.”
Similarly, Acevero stated it was important for legislators to find a way to return to work during the crisis and address pressing issues such as police reform, health disparities and rent relief.
“I support a special session for us to address the economic and health crises that this pandemic has created,” Acevero told CNS. “And to support working families who during this time are not only vulnerable but in desperate need of relief.”
“The only way we’re going to do that,” he added. “Is if we actually show up and if we legislate.”