Maryland lawmakers on Saturday pushed forward with three sweeping education bills as they considered ending the 441st legislative session early due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Democrats who control the state legislature said they were moving ahead quickly 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.
But Republicans called on them to halt those plans and merely pass the state budget before the virus’ effects were widespread. As of Saturday, Maryland had more than two dozen known cases of COVID-19 ― a fast-spreading illness that has a death rate much higher than the flu.
Health experts have encouraged the public to avoid large gatherings to slow the disease’s spread. Maryland has a 188-member legislature, a number that doesn’t count legislative staff.
“I’m not sure we should be moving forward with the economic uncertainty,” said state Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, argued the legislation was badly needed to improve public education. By doing that, Pinsky said, it would help Maryland’s finances by providing a skilled workforce ready to fill jobs in a changing economy.
“The charge was to make our schools world-class,” Pinsky said. “The goal here to help the state’s economy and provide employees ... to fill those positions. I don’t believe there is any county that is meeting that world-class standard.”
Legislative leadership called in lawmakers to work all weekend to expedite the session, should it need to end before the scheduled last day of April 6.
Among the notable absences was Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has been battling cancer. Health experts say older people and those with underlying health conditions should avoid crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the legislature would consider whether to stay in session once the budget passes. The Senate has already passed a $47.9 billion spending plan, which is awaiting action in the House of Delegates.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has urged lawmakers to give the budget final approval by Tuesday, in the event the General Assembly needs to adjourn early.
“Once the budget passes, we’re going to evaluate where things stand," Ferguson said.
Passing the budget is the only action that lawmakers are required to complete during the session under the Maryland Constitution.
Ferguson also said he believes appointing Hogan’s nominees to various posts in state government is a “must do” before the legislature adjourns.
Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones have taken a number of steps to try to limit the number of people at the State House, including banning the public, lobbyists and advocates from the complex unless they have an appointment.
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, a Harford County Republican, said he was concerned the legislature was violating the Open Meetings Act by locking the public out of committee sessions.
“There’s a lack of transparency when we’re voting,” Jennings said.
House members did not discuss the access restrictions or the potential of an early adjournment during their session. But Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat who is the majority whip, reminded delegates to “remain safe and germ free.”
“Be respectful of everyone’s space and make sure you’re careful how you touch others,” he said.
Both chambers meet for several hours Saturday afternoon, considering hundreds of bills.
The Senate gave preliminary approval to the recommendations of the so-called Kirwan Commission, which proposed the $4 billion-per-year overhaul of Maryland’s public schools ― boosting teacher pay, expanding vocational training, and funding additional services for children in the poorest communities.
The legislation, backed by Democrats who control the legislature, has already passed the House with a party-line vote of 96-41.
In a significant move, the Senate unanimously adopted an amendment from Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat, that would limit the Kirwan reforms in the event of a substantial economic downturn. In introducing the amendment, King cited concerns over the coronavirus’ impact on the economy.
Under the amendment, if state revenues drop by 7.5% in a given year, the Kirwan plans would be put on hold and increases to education spending would be limited to the rate of inflation. That bill now needs one more vote to pass the Senate.
The House, which previously approved the Kirwan bill, had rejected a similar amendment. So, the Senate’s move set up a potential conflict between the chambers. Both chambers must pass the same versions of the bill in order for the legislation to be successful.
The Senate gave preliminary approval the Built to Learn Act, a plan to boost funding of school construction projects across the state by $2.2 billion.
That bill, which the House has already passed, has bipartisan support. The $2.2 billion would be distributed to counties over five years from bonds issued by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The bonds would be paid back over 30 years using $125 million a year in casino revenues set aside in a so-called “education lockbox.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
The Senate also quickly gave preliminary approval to a third education funding bill: A plan from Jones to require the governor to spend $580 million over the next 10 years at the state’s four historically black colleges and universities on initiatives including creating academic programs, expanding scholarships and marketing the schools to potential students. That bill passed the House by a 129-2 vote.
The House, meanwhile, gave its approval to measures that would give survivors of child sexual abuse more time to sue, remove the governor from parole decisions for inmates serving life sentences, and add ethnic hairstyles and natural hair texture to the definition of “race” in Maryland’s anti-discrimination law. The Senate previously approved a version of the hairstyle bill, which has been dubbed the “Crown Act.”
Both chambers also pushed forward with emergency legislation to reduce barriers to healthcare access amid the spread of coronavirus. The bill would cut costs of screening tests, improve access to telehealth services, prohibit price gouging and ensure those under quarantine cannot lose their jobs.
Lawmakers voted Saturday to add an amendment that make it easier to get temporary unemployment benefits for those laid off or have to leave their jobs during the crisis.
Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the legislation shows why the Assembly needs to stay in session for as long as possible.
“We are essential personnel and we need to be here,” Feldman said.
Both chambers also took up tax bills to try to raise more money to pay for the Kirwan Commission recommendations. The House approved a bill that would apply the state’s sales tax to lobbying, public relations and telemarketing services; and the Senate gave initial approval to taxes on digital advertising, digital downloads and tobacco. The bills are part of a package to raise around $700 million to help pay for the reforms to public schools.