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Maryland lawmakers may meet again in May, but for now they say there’s work to do at home

After adjourning the General Assembly session early due to the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland lawmakers are discussing whether to hold a special session in the event they need to pass further legislation to address the outbreak.
After adjourning the General Assembly session early due to the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland lawmakers are discussing whether to hold a special session in the event they need to pass further legislation to address the outbreak. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Maryland state lawmakers adjourned their annual session almost three weeks early Wednesday due to the coronavirus pandemic, with hopes of coming back to Annapolis in May for a special session.

But it remains unclear whether lawmakers will actually return or what they might do.

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“We have to look at what a special session would look like,” said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. “Sometimes, you have to take a little pause and say, ‘Let me assess things.’”

Democratic leaders passed most of their priority bills during the abbreviated session — including sweeping education reform, funding for historically black colleges and targeted tax increases — leaving little left undone.

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But they could return to address more issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic or to override vetoes by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

For lawmakers, the focus now is helping their families and their constituents in their districts. Many were holed up in Annapolis for nearly two weeks as they pushed through hundreds of pieces of legislation before the early adjournment.

“We’re going to be jumping right into work,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “We’re going be focused on our districts and making sure members have their tools to help their districts.”

Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican who is the House minority leader, said in looking toward a potential special session, lawmakers’ focus should be on the immediate public health crisis, not politics.

“These are really strange times,” he said. “My priority right now is focused on my family, my community, making sure the state has the resources that it needs. We have people coming to us. They’re hoping to get masks and resources. That’s where our focus is.”

In the meantime, lawmakers have set up a bipartisan work group to consider issues arising from the pandemic and decide whether any legislative help is needed.

As the level of concern about the coronavirus grew in the final weeks of the session, lawmakers attempted to address a number of issues. They passed a bill authorizing the governor to use up to $50 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to help pay for the coronavirus response. Days later, they put an authorization in the state budget for another $100 million to be available from the fund.

They also spent the final days repeatedly tweaking an emergency bill that will allow the governor to take a number of actions related to the coronavirus, including expanding unemployment benefits, setting job protections, requiring that testing and any future vaccines be covered by insurance, and setting limits on price hikes for essential medications or supplies.

Lawmakers left open the possibility that more legislative actions that they can’t envision now could be needed. It will be up to the coronavirus work group to figure that out.

Ferguson said the 24-member, bipartisan work group will hold its meetings via teleconference, and he said he would work to make the meetings accessible to the public online.

The Maryland Board of Public Works may have set a precedent for virtual meetings this week, with Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot and Democratic Treasurer Nancy Kopp meeting via videoconference. The meeting was also streamed live and posted online, as usual.

If lawmakers do return to the State House in May — or at some other point in the year — it would not be unusual. The General Assembly has held several special sessions over the past two decades to address a variety of issues that emerged outside of the regular 90-day, January-to-April session.

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In 2019, they held a one-day special session solely to elect a new House speaker following the death of longtime Speaker Michael E. Busch. Jones was selected, and no legislation was considered.

When the 2012 regular General Assembly session ended amid a budget stalemate, lawmakers came back a few weeks later to pass a proper budget. Then a few months after that, they held another special session during which they passed legislation that led to the expansion of the state’s casinos from slots-only facilities to those with table games. Special legislative sessions also were held in 2011, 2007, 2006 and 2004.

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