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General Assembly 2020: Session ends under a cloud of coronavirus uncertainty | COMMENTARY

Maryland House of Delegates members take a short break in the debate over final bills before adjourning the session Wednesday evening for the shortest regular legislative session since the Civil War.
Maryland House of Delegates members take a short break in the debate over final bills before adjourning the session Wednesday evening for the shortest regular legislative session since the Civil War. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

State lawmakers returned to Annapolis last January facing a serious challenge: With untested leadership, could they face off against a popular governor and approve sweeping, yet costly, education reforms along with the tax revenue to finance them? In just 71 days, nearly three weeks less than they would normally have had, they accomplished that mission, while also keeping the Preakness in Baltimore (assuming there’s a race to be run this year) and mandating background screening for private purchases of rifles and shotguns.

On the same day that Maryland recorded its first coronavirus death Wednesday, the Maryland General Assembly wrapped up its 2020 legislative session — a solemn mid-term dismissal, rather than the customary sine die celebration. Legislators exited Annapolis with much achieved, much left undone, but above all, having been upstaged. They departed under a cloud of uncertainty as the health, welfare and economy of Maryland continues down an unknown and potentially perilous road.

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Still, the passage of the Kirwan Commission findings, the so-called Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, will surely prove the most consequential of the legislature’s actions, given its likely lasting impact on public education, to teacher training, compensation and retention, to preparing the next generation for the 21st century jobs market and, most especially, the hope this brings to Baltimore. Whatever medicine a city beset with violent crime might need, a prescription that does not include higher-performing schools was doomed to failure. We would urge Gov. Larry Hogan to consider this when it comes time to decide whether to veto the bill or not. The governor would be well-served to take a similar approach to public education and a potential second renaissance of Baltimore as he has to the public health threat we now face; when it comes to coronavirus, he’s been a nonpartisan, pragmatic leader. As for the tax package that accompanies the educations legislation, providing adequate Kirwan funding through 2026, most measures are sensible, such as the higher tobacco tax. At least one, the first-in-the-nation tax on digital ads, is not (full disclosure: The Sun sells online advertisements).

Realistically, such a veto might prove an empty gesture anyway. The General Assembly’s new leaders, Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County and Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, proved themselves as adept at managing their majorities as their longtime predecessors, the late Mike Busch in the House and Thomas V. Mike Miller who stepped down from his post in the midst of his cancer battle and related health concerns. In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, they not only condensed the calendar, they gave themselves an out — the expectation of a special session in May, timed not only to revisit the budget given the likelihood of diminishing tax revenue but to potentially override gubernatorial vetoes. Aside from the Kirwan legislation, there is at least one other high-profile target, arguably Speaker Jones’s most impressive personal accomplishment to date: the $580 million settlement of the HBCU lawsuit; Governor Hogan has said he is only willing to spend $200 million to address longtime inequities in funding historic black colleges and universities.

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The session will likely also be remembered for its breakneck pace at the end and the deliberate distancing of spectators and lobbyists alike, a move justified by medical necessity perhaps, but not always a good look for a legislative body where democracy is meant to be practiced with a small "d" and not just the large one. There’s a reason why lawmaking is often compared to sausage making: It’s not always pretty to witness the grinder in action. But it’s especially unattractive when it’s hardly seen at all, when public participation is diminished, testimony is limited, timetables are accelerated to ludicrous speeds. In the process, some good proposals got a short shrift from climate change to medical malpractice reform. And others that deserved close scrutiny, such as a fundamental change in the legislature’s budget authority, were approved without adequate public debate.

Grading a General Assembly sessions is a fraught endeavor in the best of times given how even the most favorable actions often are tempered and the worst so easily revisited at a later date, but this year’s cries out for an "I" — Incomplete. While Kirwan’s passage offers hope, there are too many pitfalls ahead to see the work as done. As the doctors say, we now enter a time of home-bound watchful waiting: COVID-19 has made certain there is more work to be done in the weeks ahead.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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