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Del. Arikan: Legislative tyranny in the time of the coronavirus [Commentary]

The 2020 legislative session started off as they often do: legislators on both sides of the aisle scurrying about to draft their bills, garner support — often bi-partisan, and file their bills before the hopper closed.

But as word of a potentially dangerous pandemic hit the airwaves, legislators began to feel nervous, just as every other citizen did. A feeling of concern filled the halls. Staff began wiping down offices with great frequency. I sent my own pregnant chief of staff home after an out-of-state lobbyist came into our office saying she wasn’t feeling well and that she had just gotten off a flight from the COVID-19 hot spot of Washington state.

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On March 5, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a State of Emergency. Two days later, I found out that I had potentially been exposed to the virus when I had attended the Conservative Political Action Conference to receive an award. The next day, I was told I thankfully did not attend the same day as the positive patient. I began to share my concerns with my colleagues that the leadership was taking unnecessary risks both with legislators and the public. Why wouldn’t they pass the budget immediately and adjourn?

I was further dismayed when on March 12, instead of suspending session, all of our staff was sent home, press and lobbyists were barred from entry, and citizens were also forbidden from entering the State House buildings. According to Attorney General Brian Frosh’s website, “Maryland’s Open Meetings Act is a statute that requires many State and local public bodies to hold their meetings in public, to give public adequate notice of meetings, and to allow the public to inspect meetings minutes… the Act’s goals are to increase the public’s faith in government.”

The decisions of our House and Senate leadership to continue session without any public participation was a disgrace for democracy everywhere and destroyed public faith.

On March 13, Gov. Hogan called on Senate and House leadership to immediately pass the budget and adjourn. What ensued after that day was nothing short of absolute tyranny. While Maryland continued under a state of emergency, an executive order was issued first limiting the congregating of more than 250 people, then later 50 people, under penalty of fines and arrest.

In Annapolis, high in an ivory tower, almost 200 legislators and dozens of state employees were still meeting, shuttered away from the public and in clear defiance of the governor’s order. For days, the majority party pushed hyper-partisan bills through both chambers, without regard for citizen participation. Citizens were desperately reaching out while our legislative phone lines went unanswered with no staff present.

The live streaming on the House side was totally ineffective, the feed failed constantly, further preventing citizens from knowing what was occurring. Even the audio feed that has been in operation for many years was apparently unable to handle the increase in volume and failed to work on numerous occasions. During committee votes on the House side, no substantive effort to give access to the public occurred causing some legislators to refuse to participate, despite each committee room already being equipped to live stream hearings.

In the end, session was finally called early, but far too late. A staffer for the House Environment and Transportation committee tested positive for COVID-19 and had been working in the State House until March 16. I pray that they heal quickly and that no other members of the House or Senate, staff or employees will come down with this illness and spread it to the larger community. This outcome was totally avoidable.

What did we the people get for sacrificing access to our representative democracy, for accepting this legislative tyranny? We got an increased tax on tobacco, taxes on online streaming services for Maryland families and a Constitutional Amendment that will appear on the ballot which will give the very same legislators who continued session through the COVID-19 pandemic and a state of emergency even more power to control the budget in the state of Maryland.

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Maryland’s General Assembly Session 2020 will go down as one of the most egregious attacks on democracy our state has ever seen.

Lauren Arikan is a Republican member of the House of Delegates representing District 7.

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