Maryland lawmakers consider ending legislative session early, advance emergency bill to fight coronavirus

Maryland lawmakers said Friday they are considering ending the legislative session early if the spread of coronavirus forces that decision.

“We could leave on Sine Die. We could recess," said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. Ferguson said he is monitoring the situation “day by day.”


Ferguson and Republican Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader, said that if lawmakers have to end the session early, a special session might be necessary later to pass additional legislation.

“Let’s get the budget passed,” Jennings told fellow senators Friday.


Democrats are pushing forward with the session in hopes of passing a plethora of legislation, including three major school funding proposals: A $4 billion annual plan to overhaul the state’s public schools; a $2.2 billion school construction funding boost; and a $580 million increase to historically black colleges and universities.

Gov. Larry Hogan urged lawmakers Friday night to expedite certain actions by Tuesday, in the event that the legislature has to adjourn early. He called on them to pass the state budget, approve a bill that addresses the impact of the virus and confirm Col. Woodrow J. Jones, whom he nominated to be superintendent of the Maryland State Police.

“It is impossible at this time to know how long this public health emergency will continue, and it is critical for legislators to take these actions immediately,” Hogan, a Republican, tweeted.

The Senate acceded to one of the governor’s wishes and quickly held a confirmation hearing and unanimous vote Friday night for the state police superintendent. Such high-ranking appointees usually are required to appear in person, but Ferguson said this was an extenuating circumstance because Jones is leading his troopers during the public health crisis.

“It is important that the nominee be confirmed so the individual can act in an official capacity,” he said.

Ferguson also said he was disappointed with the governor’s tweet, but allowed that “tempers can be high” in moments like this.

“Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to work together," the Senate president said.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones responded to the governor with a tweet saying the legislature has been working with Hogan and is prioritizing the budget and other key bills.


“Please don’t degrade our collaborative work to Twitter bombs in this time of uncertainty,” the Baltimore County Democrat wrote. “Let’s continue to work together for all MDers.”

Jones and Ferguson said that for the remainder of the session, lobbyists and advocates will not be permitted in the State House complex unless they have an appointment.

Jones told her members that “no one will be permitted to linger in the buildings.” She said delegates should only attend required meetings and emphasized that committee meetings are livestreamed on the General Assembly’s website.

“This is an ever-evolving situation and I will continue to update you with information as I get it,” Jones told members at the close of the House’s first floor session of the day. “It is important to note that we are not closing, but operating under a modified status.”

Meanwhile, dozens of organizations sent a letter Friday to legislative leaders, urging them to recess as soon as they pass the budget and public health bills. The groups, including government watchdog group Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote that the restricted access to the State House complex means lawmakers’ work isn’t being done in an open and transparent fashion.

“The General Assembly is operating with limited public input from the public and advocates, and the legislative process is taking place without the full voice and input of the people of Maryland,” the groups wrote.


Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

The State House complex was eerily quiet Friday. The House office building is typically bustling on Friday mornings with lobbyists and activists angling to get a word with lawmakers and many local delegations holding public meetings. Those meetings were largely canceled.

By afternoon, the office buildings were nearly deserted. Some committee voting sessions were conducted in nearly empty rooms. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee locked its doors to keep out everyone except credentialed journalists.

Both the House and Senate moved ahead with floor sessions attended by almost all the legislators.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to emergency legislation to reduce barriers to healthcare access amid the spread of the new coronavirus, if the governor declares a “catastrophic health emergency," which is separate from the state of emergency that’s already in effect.

The House also, without debate, gave preliminary approval to its version of the bill.

The bill would cut costs of screening tests, improve access to telehealth services, prohibit price gouging and ensure that people under quarantine cannot lose their jobs.


“Every single segment of society will be touched by this pandemic,” said Howard County Democratic Sen. Clarence Lam, a doctor, and one of the bill sponsors.