Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland’s 2021 legislative session will have a different look and feel in both the Senate and House. To get through the typical 90-day session, each chamber has imposed two distinct reopening approaches to the session because of their respective sizes. As we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, everything is subject to change. For now, here’s what we can expect:
The Maryland Senate
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D – Baltimore City) has established rules and guidelines for how his chamber will approach the 2021 legislative session in the shadow of COVID-19. The Senate President’s plan represents a dramatic departure from the Senate chamber’s normal operations. Some of the plan elements resemble restrictions put in place during the closing days of the 2020 session as Maryland’s coronavirus infection rate exponentially increased.
The Senate will operate in one of three stages, depending on the extent of coronavirus infection among lawmakers and staff.
Stage 3 is the most “normal” of the three stages. The Senate will be in Stage 3 when there is little or no disease activity in the State House complex.
The chart below captures each stage and its impact on Senate Operations, Committee Operations, and general activities in and around the Miller Senate Office Building.
Senate President Ferguson has indicated that the legislative priorities of the Senate will fall into four “buckets”. The Senate President promises a “robust package” on the following:
- Coronavirus Response. This will focus on economics, education, and housing stability. Obviously, the State will be looking to the Federal Government for financial assistance to help address these complex issues;
- Law Enforcement Reform;
- Racial Equity & Inclusion. This will include environmental justice, generational wealth creation, and the eradication of health care disparities; and
- The Budget. This will serve as the umbrella and catch-all for the above.
While there are no new committee assignments to note in the Senate as of yet, ABC members should note the changes to the Senate minority leadership. After six years, Senator J.B. Jennings (R – Harford and Baltimore Counties) and Senator Stephen Hershey (R – Kent, Queen Anne’s, Cecil, & Caroline Counties) have stepped down as minority leader and minority whip, respectively.
The Senate Republican Caucus, in turn, elected Senator Bryan Simonaire (R – Anne Arundel County) as a minority leader and Senator Michael Hough (R – Frederick & Carroll Counties) as a minority whip. The new minority leadership expects to take a more aggressive stand on the Senate floor in debating and attempting to amend bills.
The Maryland House of Delegates
The House is the largest legislative body that operates in the State of Maryland. Because of Covid-19, the House instituted both policy changes and rule changes in the hopes of protecting its members, their staff, and constituents. Some of the changes include:
- The House will still meet as one body, but simultaneously in two locations on campus. Seventy House members will sit in Rooms 170 to 180 in the House Office Building as the “Chamber Annex,” where the proceedings will be live-streamed, in real-time into the annex. Members sitting in the Chamber Annex will be able to vote, offer amendments, and debate legislation in real-time as well.
- The full body will not meet for more than two hours without a break to allow the Chamber and the Chamber Annex to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized and give members a reprieve.
- All House proceedings will be live-streamed.
- Only members and essential staff are permitted in the Chamber and Chamber Annex.
- To be able to manage the House’s workflow better:
- The Bill Request Guarantee deadline has been moved up to January 19th. A bill introduced by this date is guaranteed a committee hearing in the chamber of origin.
- The Hopper deadline will also be moved up to the close of business on February 5th. This refers to a House member filing a bill with the Chief Clerk of the House for introduction.
- The House will more than likely not be on the floor daily for the first third of session nor Monday nights until March.
- House Committees will operate completely virtually with bill hearings to start in earnest on January 14th, which is the second day of the session.
- All committees will provide at least 48-hour member and public notice as to which bills will be heard during which time slot on which day via the MGA website.
- The public will upload written testimony and submit it online. Members of the relevant committee will be able to access the written testimony for each bill through their floor system. The testimony file for each bill will be posted on the MGA website after a bill is voted out of the relevant standing committee. Any bill file not up on the website by Sine Die will be publicly released after the session.
- Online testimony sign-up will also be through the MGA website. Each Committee Chair will provide time slots per bill for members of the public to sign up the day before the bill is scheduled to be heard.
- Subcommittees do not fall under the Open Meetings Act; however, all subcommittee meetings will be live-streamed through the MGA website as well as committee voting sessions.
- The State House will be closed to the public for the legislative session to prevent large crowds from congregating inside. Outdoor rallies will still be permitted if socially distanced and masked, based on City of Annapolis guidelines.
- The House Office Building will be open for limited meetings by appointment only to avoid unnecessary crowding in hallways. Any meeting guests will have to be escorted to and from the main entrance to the House Office Building and the delegate’s office.
Looking at the Economic Matters Committee, where most of ABC’s bills are heard, Delegate Warren Miller (R – Howard & Carroll Counties) retired from the general assembly, leaving a vacant seat for now.
While the session will be noticeably different, this new format may provide ABC members additional opportunities to participate in the legislative process. No longer will members have to drive to Annapolis, hunt for parking, and then sit for hours on end waiting for their bill to be called. Instead, ABC members can fire up their laptops or tablets and testify virtually from the comfort of their own homes or offices.
Infrastructure, job creation, and shifts in tax policy will be heavily debated this session. Consider joining the ABC Joint Legislative Committee or at least volunteering to testify on legislation that impacts your business. Do not be socially distance from the legislative process this session, because we cannot all be in this together if we’re not all present and helping.