For the first time since the Civil War, Maryland lawmakers cut short their annual session Wednesday after passing sweeping reforms to education, a plan to rebuild the Pimlico Race Course and emergency legislation to address the spread of the coronavirus.
The education reform bill would pump billions more into public schools, raising teacher pay, expanding pre-kindergarten and boosting vocational training programs. The racecourse legislation would authorize $375 million in bonds to renovate Maryland horse-racing tracks and keep the storied Preakness in Baltimore. And the legislature expanded temporary unemployment benefits to help those who lose their jobs or can’t work because of the virus.
The pandemic that has infected dozens of Marylanders prompted an intense rush to get things done after Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones announced Sunday that the session, which typically runs 90 days, would end almost three weeks early.
At that point, lawmakers had passed just three bills through both chambers. As the General Assembly closed Wednesday, more than 660 bills had passed, including emergency legislation to help the state confront the public health crisis and a plan for a statewide referendum on sports betting.
“We came here to do a job,” Ferguson said. “It’s been difficult and hard, but there are Marylanders out there right now who are trying to figure out how they will make it through the next month.”
It was Ferguson’s and Jones’ first time leading the legislature after the long tenures of two political legends: former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who stepped down from his leadership post as he fights cancer, and the late House Speaker Michael Busch.
Jones said it was “sort of a relief” to adjourn the session Wednesday.
“It was sometimes grueling, but at the same time we knew we had to get as much done as we could in the circumstances we had,” Jones said.
Facing the health crisis, lawmakers worked through the weekend and late into the evening Monday and Tuesday to condense the final three weeks of session into three days.
Ferguson said the lawmakers planned to reconvene in late May to finish any “critical” business left unfinished by the session’s premature end.
In just 71 days, Democratic lawmakers passed most of their priorities. Ferguson and Jones had proclaimed education their top priority and pushed through a $4 billion-a-year plan to improve learning in the state’s public schools, a $2.2 billion boost to school construction projects, and $580 million to aid the state’s four historically black colleges and universities.
“This is a really challenging moment, but it will be temporary," Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said of the health crisis.
Two senators were absent for the final day. Miller — who resigned as the chamber’s president after 33 years but continues to represent his district — was hospitalized with back pain and a mouth infection.
Ferguson said he spoke with Miller by phone Wednesday and the Calvert County Democrat lived up to his reputation for feistiness. Miller relayed that he’s been telling his doctors to “get me the hell out of here," Ferguson said.
Also absent was Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who led the Kirwan Commission education legislation through the Senate. After shepherding the bill, Pinsky rushed home to be with his wife, Joan Rothgeb, a longtime education advocate who died of cancer Tuesday.
Senators adjourned their Tuesday session in her honor.
The legislature, controlled by Democrats, moved three bills to address the coronavirus pandemic, including authorizing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to draw up to $100 million from the state’s “rainy day” fund and extending temporary unemployment benefits to those who lose or leave their jobs because of the public health crisis.
The legislation allows the state to extend temporary unemployment benefits to workers who have to be quarantined or whose employers temporarily close. The legislation also makes people eligible for benefits when they have to leave their jobs due to risk of exposure or to care for an infected relative.
The bill takes other steps to address the pandemic’s impact in Maryland. It will cut costs for screening tests, improve access to telehealth services, prohibit price gouging and make it illegal for an employer to fire a worker because he or she is quarantined. The governor is expected to sign the measure, which will then take effect immediately.
The legislation was one of three priorities Hogan asked the legislature to complete before adjourning. The others ― also completed by lawmakers ― were confirming Woodrow J. Jones as superintendent of the Maryland State Police and passing the state’s $47.9 billion operating budget.
Many new laws flew through the legislature in the final days, with whole batches of bills receiving unanimous votes in succession without controversy or discussion.
But the sweeping education reform bill, designed to restore the state’s public schools to among the best in the nation, proved among the most controversial of the session.
The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future includes a variety of programs designed to significantly improve public schools, ranging from expanding prekindergarten for children from poor families to paying teachers more to improving supports at schools with high concentrations of students from low-income households.
The programs were recommended by the Kirwan Commission, which studied ways to improve academic performance in the state’s schools. The programs carry an eventual cost of nearly $4 billion per year at full implementation in 2030, which would be paid by the state and local governments.
While six GOP senators voted for the legislation, House Republicans fought the proposals bitterly, arguing they would cost taxpayers $32 billion over 10 years without a clear way to pay for them.
Democrats agreed to amend the bill to halt the reforms in a bad economy or if they’re not working.
Democrats also pushed through new taxes on digital advertising, digital downloads, vaping and an increase to the tax on tobacco. Together, the taxes would raise more than $400 million a year, analysts say, and pay for the first five years of implementing the school improvements.
Hogan has opposed the legislation and the taxes needed to pay for it, but has not said if he will veto the measures.
Lawmakers also put the finishing touches on a bill that would facilitate the redevelopment of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and the Laurel Park track.
The Maryland Stadium Authority would issue up to $375 million in bonds, which would be paid back through casino proceeds already earmarked to subsidize the racing industry and through the Maryland Lottery.
Belinda Stronach, president of The Stronach Group that owns the two tracks, praised lawmakers for their work, which she said will lead to an “enhanced Preakness in Baltimore.”
“Their tireless efforts, particularly as they work to prioritize the health and well-being of Maryland’s citizens during these difficult times, is highly commendable,” Stronach said in a statement.
Hogan has said he supports keeping the Preakness race in Baltimore, but — as with many bills — has declined to say whether he supports the legislation. The governor can choose to sign or veto bills or allow them to become law without his signature.
The Assembly passed several bills aimed at improving health care in Maryland: protecting provisions of the Affordable Care Act and mandating that colleges and universities create plans to address the outbreak of infectious diseases. The latter was prompted by the death of University of Maryland freshman Olivia Paregol from an adenovirus.
On the final day of the session, lawmakers also passed a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would give the General Assembly power to move money around within the state budget. Currently, legislators can cut the budget, but can’t reallocate that money to other areas.
Republicans complained the proposed amendment was rammed through the legislature in the final hours of the shortened session, when the public was banned from the State House campus for health reasons and there were problems with online video and audio feeds of the proceedings.
Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the House minority leader, questioned the wisdom of considering the amendment during “the worst health crisis in all of our lifetime.”
“We’re in this chamber, stuck here. Who knows who has coronavirus? It could be any of us. We could be out of here already … Instead, we are passing unnecessary things like this,” he said.
Supporters of the amendment said it would give Maryland lawmakers the same budgetary authority their counterparts in the other 49 states have. The amendment, if approved, would go into effect for the next governor, so it would not curtail Hogan’s powers.
The coronavirus emerged as a crisis near the end of the session. Before that, Hogan had urged the legislature to pass bills to address another crisis: the persistent violence in Baltimore.
While the Senate passed a version of Hogan’s “Violent Firearms Offenders Act” ― which called for longer sentences for repeat gun offenders ― that bill failed in the House.
But the Assembly passed legislation to send more resources to the city to fight crime, backing a bill to provide about $12 million more in law enforcement resources to Baltimore by creating 10 high-crime “microzones," mandate increased oversight of offenders on parole or probation, and authorize state police traffic patrols in Baltimore to free up city officers to investigate crimes. Another bill would mandate spending on violence interruption programs, such as Safe Streets or Roca.
While Hogan counted some legislative victories, much of the Republican governor’s agenda met with defeat, including a proposed tax break for retirees, redistricting reform and mandating school to start after Labor Day.
Many bills backed by Democrats failed, as well, including proposals to ban plastic bags in the state and allow victims of child abuse more time to sue their alleged abusers.