By American Joe Miedusiewski
While all Maryland legislative sessions become part of the historical record, the 2020 session, which was the 441st, will have an asterisk next to it.
Session began on Wednesday, January 8th. It started well. Delegate Adrienne Jones, the new Speaker of the House since May 1st, 2019, maintained a steady stride. Senator Bill Ferguson was elected the new President of the Senate and was eager to lead as both houses stepped off to a good start.
Departmental briefings were underway, committee hearings were being scheduled, constituents and lobbyists were meeting with legislators. It was business as usual as the familiar upbeat tempo of the legislative session hummed along. Activity in Annapolis was proceeding smoothly as usual without missing a beat.
Then, towards the end of January, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the US was reported. By early February, the customary handshakes morphed into fist bumps, which soon evolved into elbow taps. Day by day the legislative leadership guided the process cautiously while the work proceeded.
As talk of the “virus” escalated the threat of shutting down the session hovered ominously over the State capital. While everyone’s safety was a primary concern, the next objective was passing the budget to enable the State to function. Faced with the possibility of an early adjournment the leadership would then have the unenviable task of triaging myriad issues in need of passage. As the session moved along and the threat of Covid-19 increased the leaders ordered the complex to “lock down”.
Personal indoor contact was restricted. Only lobbyists and constituents who had large inventories of legislators’ cellphone numbers were able to have some level of access. Most others were relegated to waiting along the streets of Annapolis between the capital building and the House and Senate office buildings for an opportunity to plead their causes. As it turned out the Maryland General Assembly adjourned 21 days early as hundreds of bills essentially vaporized.
Preparation for the 2021 session has been underway for many months. The Senate and House leadership have prepared as well as possible to conduct the State’s business. Posting of all information will be digital and has already begun.
Vigilance will be required to be certain one’s voice is heard. Operational Plans differ somewhat for the Senate and House. Bills hearings will be virtual and may be scheduled with as little as a 48-hour notice. Virtual witnesses will be limited in number and by time constraints. Digital submission of testimony is welcomed and encouraged. Digital testimony is not limited and available for public review. Legislative action will be accessible via the Maryland General Assembly website.