Maryland’s state lawmakers returned Wednesday to Annapolis for their annual legislative session, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to weigh on their minds and alter their procedures.
Over the course of 90 days, they’ll wrestle with issues ranging from legalizing marijuana and addressing violent crime to spending a rare multibillion dollar budget surplus and setting the state on a path to combat climate change.
They’ll also adopt new district maps for their own elections this year and consider whether to adopt any of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposals, including tax cuts for retirees and others proposed Tuesday, in his final year in office.
The pandemic will play a role, too, both in policy decisions — such as whether to give financial aid to families and businesses still struggling — and in how legislators conduct the people’s business in the state capital. Lawmakers will meet via video for most of their work for at least the first few weeks with committee hearings scheduled to remain almost completely online.
“I didn’t expect us to be back in this surge-level moment,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, ahead of the session. “I think it caught me and a lot of people by surprise. But we’re hoping it’s quick.”
Buildings in the State House complex will be open to the public, a change from last year, but seating is limited in the House of Delegates and Senate chambers. Those who show up in person will have little to see, at least at first: While the state Senate will attempt to hold regular floor sessions of all 47 members, the larger and more crowded House of Delegates doesn’t expect to have full sessions for at least several weeks.
Masks remain mandatory inside the State House, although another fixture of pandemic politics — dozens of anti-mask and anti-vaccine activists — protested just outside the building Wednesday afternoon to greet politicians as they left.
A few small, halting steps toward a more normal State House could be spotted Wednesday: Gone was the warren of phone booth-like plexiglass dividers on the Senate floor. Gone, too, was the conference room down the street used last year as an overflow House chamber. And a veteran shoeshine, David Taylor, was back at his station buffing the shoes of lawmakers and lobbyists for the first time since the pandemic struck.
But the normally packed schedule of receptions, dinners and open bars around Annapolis that usually accompanies the legislature remains virtually empty and the final flurry of pre-session restaurant fundraisers — usually stacked just before a ban on politicians soliciting donations during the session kicks in — were largely canceled.
Lawmakers have had their work disrupted by the coronavirus since March 2020, when their session was called to an abrupt early end as the pandemic swept into Maryland. Some had hoped that by now, a more typical routine of in-person legislating and debating would have resumed.
Del. C.T. Wilson of Charles County is in a new position chairing a committee that reviews bills regulating businesses, including a high-profile measure that would create a program for businesses and workers to pay into a program for paid family leave for employees.
But the Democrat faces the challenge of fostering an “esprit de corps” among delegates who will be Zooming into committee meetings from around the state. He called the COVID-19 restrictions “disappointing but necessary.”
“I’m up to the challenge,” Wilson said. “I was a soldier for years and I know how to build a team. We’ll continue to do that and soldier on.”
Del. Jason Buckel of Allegany County, the Republican minority leader in the House, said he hopes the current pandemic wave passes soon. He said it’s difficult to debate issues and reach consensus over video meetings.
“I think COVID is again going to be difficult to keep everyone’s focus and attention on the matters at hand, because we all live lives affected by COVID now, by omicron … Hopefully it fades in the next few weeks,” he said.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said that her priority is to keep everyone in Annapolis as safe as possible.
“I’m not going to jeopardize our members or the public just to have what we had before when things were normal,” Jones said. “Things are not normal.”
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Republican leader in the state Senate, said lawmakers are going to have to adapt as needed to do their work as Maryland endures another surging wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were in for 90 days last session and we were able to handle it. We just have to be flexible,” he said, adding: “We’re going to do the best we can.”
Two lawmakers, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Frederick County Republican Sen. Mike Hough, announced they’d have to miss out on the opening day ceremonies, forced to stay home to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19.
But some of the opening-day rituals did return. With the State House reopened to the public, lobbyists camped out in the marble halls, pinning down lawmakers as they arrived for their noontime sessions.
Hogan held court with reporters in the State House just before the House and Senate gaveled to order, reiterating his priorities of bills to send more funding to police and require stricter sentences for certain criminals who use guns, as well as a slate of generous tax breaks for retirees and the working poor.
Activists, meanwhile, rallied on Lawyers Mall outside the State House, including members of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who set up 100 chairs to symbolize that 100 people die around the world every six hours due to the effects of climate change, such as severe storms and droughts.
Also camped outside the State House were members of a coalition hoping to convince lawmakers to create a program to offer paid family leave for workers holding up a purple banner reading: “Marylanders need paid family & medical leave.” Members of the immigrant-rights group CASA passed out fliers detailing their priorities.
The House and Senate conducted largely ceremonial duties, electing their leaders and introducing the first batch of bills to be considered.
Jones, who was given a standing ovation after being reelected as speaker on a voice vote, tried to pump up members, saying they’d work to help Marylanders over the next 90 days.
“I’m ready and committed to working with each of you as we look to the future and drive this state forward,” she asked. “Are you there with me?”
Delegates responded with applause and a few calling out “yes!”