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Maryland legislature moves to speed up passage of ‘critical’ bills as coronavirus spreads

Maryland lawmakers said Thursday they will work through the weekend and prioritize the most “critical” bills for passage in case they need to end the 441st Legislative Session early due to the spread of the coronavirus.

In a joint statement, House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson said they asked their leadership teams to “finish critical bills in an expedited fashion.”

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“We will work through the weekend in session ― including floor sessions for the House and the Senate on Sunday, March 15, 2020,” Jones and Ferguson wrote. “Amendment requests will be taken by email only.”

Public access to the legislature’s sessions would be limited to “only allow those persons with a state-issued badge into the building,” they wrote. Tours are canceled, as are rallies and receptions.

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The legislative leaders also limited public participation in bill hearings. Beginning next week, all bill hearings will feature in-person testimony only from the bill’s sponsor. Members of the public are encouraged to submit written testimony, instead of coming in person.

During remarks from the House dais Thursday, Jones cautioned lawmakers to take steps to keep themselves healthy as the virus spreads.

"I am asking and encouraging all of you to limit your attendance at gatherings like community meetings, receptions, etc., when you are back at home for the remainder of the legislative session out of an abundance of caution,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat.

“This is a time of great angst and anxiety,” Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, told his members. “These changes are intended to be precautionary measures.”

In light of the Governor’s declaration of a public health emergency, and the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus, we have decided to end all public gatherings which are not related to the direct work of the functioning of the Legislature’s Committee and floor work. In addition, beginning next week, all bill hearings until Sine Die will be sponsor only. Members are encouraged to take electronic testimony from the public and upload into the system for citizens that do not want to travel to Annapolis.

This was not an easy decision to make. This decision is made for public health reasons – to do everything we can to increase social distancing and do everything within our power to ensure that we can limit the risk of the spread of this virus

In these times of uncertainty, we want to emphasize that it is critical that elected officials and members of the public do not panic, and rely on official health sources such as the Centers for Disease Control, and the Maryland Department of Health. We are asking and encouraging all of you to limit your attendance at gatherings like community meetings, receptions etc. when you are back at home for the remainder of the legislative session out of an abundance of caution.

While the General Assembly continues to conduct the business of the people, we will continue to monitor the situation and take every step to make certain that the State House Complex remains a safe environment, and that we are taking necessary steps for the public health. As things change and evolve, we will have further updates for all of you and the staff, and we encourage you to frequently wash your hands and, although counterintuitive to the nature of our business, practice social distancing.

Ferguson also asked senators to limit their engagement in large events.

“We have to be the leaders of the community that model the best behavior,” he said.

Major work of the legislature remains unfinished with less than a month to go until the scheduled end of the session on April 6.

Only the Senate has passed Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s $47.9 billion budget, which includes $10 million to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

And only the House has passed the two major pieces of legislation addressing public schools. The House overwhelmingly approved legislation to boost funding of school construction projects across the state by $2.2 billion. It also passed a $4 billion annual school improvement plan from the so-called Kirwan Commission that would expand prekindergarten to more students; increase teacher salaries and prove more vocational training programs in high schools.

Both chambers must pass a bill for it to advance to Hogan’s desk for his consideration.

Other unfinished business in the legislature includes a $389 million plan to overhaul the Pimlico and Laurel Park thoroughbred horse racing tracks, a measure to legalize and tax sports betting, and a package of tax bills aimed at raising revenue to implement the Kirwan recommendations.

As the coronavirus spreads in the state, lawmakers, lobbyists and visitors in the state capital have largely stopped shaking hands — as difficult as that can be for people in the world of politics — preferring instead to do fist bumps. Hand sanitizer stations have been installed throughout the State House complex, and people are regularly encouraged to wash their hands well.

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Anne Arundel County’s House delegation canceled the remainder of its Friday morning meetings as a precaution, and Baltimore County’s House delegation canceled a meeting it planned for Friday.

Jones and Ferguson sought to assure the public that restrictions on access to the State House and legislature would be temporary.

“The good news is that this is not permanent,” they wrote. “The more proactive measures we take now, the better Maryland will fare over the weeks to come.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Olivia Sanchez contributed to this article.

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