General Assembly 2021: a surprisingly big year in Maryland | COMMENTARY

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

The Maryland Senate meets on the last day of the state's 90-day legislative session on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Annapolis. Senators have been working inside enclosures around their desks as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Three months ago, the Maryland General Assembly session had all the makings of a disaster. The COVID-19 pandemic was still in full flower, and lawmakers found themselves in plastic cubicles to prevent spread of the virus. Gov. Larry Hogan had vetoed the previous session’s most important legislation, the $4 billion Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform. And given his interest in a possible presidential run, the chances of a cooperative, productive relationship with the Democratic majority seemed low. Even Republican legislators appeared itching for a fight, ultimately electing new, more obstreperous leaders of their own. And then there was the sheer difficulty (and political complexity) of some of the issues the legislature would face, from police reform to addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities laid bare by the pandemic.

Yet, lo and behold, lawmakers wrapped up their 90-day session Monday night with results that speak for themselves. From overturning Governor Hogan’s blueprint veto and putting the state on a path to higher performing public schools, to dispensing billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief and moving forward with police reform at a particularly opportune moment in this nation’s history, the General Assembly outperformed expectations for even a non-pandemic year. It was no less than Mr. Hogan, himself, who this week declared the session the most productive of his seven-year career as governor. That is absolutely true. It might even prove the most bipartisan even as so many of the most important measures suffered the governor’s scorn — and veto pen — before their eventual enactment. Is that weird? Yes, actually. But in 2021, vetoes that seem halfhearted and drama-free overrides were the norm.


What worked? First, one might give credit to the COVID prevention measures that, as bizarre as it was to see lawmakers behind plastic walls, did their job; positive tests and quarantines were kept to a handful. Despite the State House semi-lockdown, teleconferencing provided substantial public access to hearings, voting sessions and floor debate. Such transparency ought to be maintained going forward, technical hiccups aside. But the most impressive legislative action was likely the relief package negotiated by Mr. Hogan and top legislators. Their give-and-take (as uncommon as it’s been in the Hogan era) was on point. From providing help to small businesses facing major unemployment insurance taxes to a $300 million boost to high-speed broadband access statewide, the measure will not only help Maryland rebound post-COVID, it’s likely to yield economic dividends well into the future.

The police reform bills proved as controversial as expected, and whether they go far enough will not be clear for some time. But they are enough to put Maryland at the vanguard of the movement to restore trust in policing and reform criminal justice policies that have disproportionately hurt people of color, such as sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Various government reform measures also hold promise including improving the sort of voter access that helped turnout in the 2020 election and provides a welcome counterpoint to what’s been happening in Red States like Georgia and Texas. And, while Governor Hogan may well veto once more, we also welcome legislation to protect immigrants, including the Dignity Not Detention Act limiting ICE detention centers.


There were misses, of course. The biggest may be the refusal of House and Senate negotiators to reach a compromise over climate change legislation that is especially vital to this coastal state’s future. It was a reminder that at times the House versus Senate tension can often be the equal of any partisan rift between lawmakers and the governor. Legislation to require counties to elect their councils and commissioners by their legislative districts and not countywide (which is historically a way to minimize minority representation) deserved approval. As did long-standing proposals to close tax loopholes that benefit out-of-state corporations, particularly given how lawmakers have yet to settle on a way to pay for the billions now destined to upgrade schools. Chalk that one up to politics. If it was too touchy in 2021, it will surely be set aside in an election year when tax increases are strictly verboten.

Still, after last year’s abbreviated session, it was reassuring to see Maryland’s two fledgling leaders, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson assert themselves. No longer can they be seen as mere successors to longtime leaders, Michael Busch and Thomas V. Mike Miller, but as champions of a new, more progressive visions of their own. Not all problems were solved. Not all lawmakers left town pleased with the results. But overall it was one of the more productive sessions held in recent years, and far better than expected after a yearlong pandemic that can’t end too soon.

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.