Leaders of Maryland’s General Assembly took the extraordinary step Sunday of announcing that the legislature will end its annual session Wednesday, more than two weeks early — a recognition of concerns over spread of the coronavirus.
It’s believed to be the first time the Assembly has cut a session short since the Civil War. Lawmakers take pride in working long nights, on Saturdays and through snowstorms as they pass thousands of bills during a typical 90-day session from early January to early April.
The early adjournment throws the fate of scores of bills in doubt. Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said bills will be prioritized going into the final days.
Ferguson and Jones, both Democrats, were joined at the podium by Republican leaders in a show of unity.
They said the legislature would focus on the most important legislation, but declined to say specifically what bills would be prioritized beyond the state budget and education measures.
“We’re going to focus and prioritize, but we’re going to continue to legislate,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore senator.
Jones, who represents a Baltimore County district, said the decision to adjourn early “didn’t come lightly.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about this virus," she said. "What we do know is that public health research shows the more steps we can take right now to prevent transmission, the better off we are.”
Dozens of lawmakers crammed into an Annapolis conference room for the announcement from Jones and Ferguson, then were shooed to the back and sides of the room, out of view of news cameras.
Health experts have advised people to practice “social distancing” to limit the possibility of spreading the COVID-19 disease. Some lawmakers have joked about social distancing, which is challenging to achieve in committee rooms and State House chambers, where lawmakers are packed together at small desks in the 18th-century building.
Ferguson and Jones said they planned to hold a special legislative session at the end of May. Lawmakers could take up bills then that failed to make it through the abbreviated regular session, or consider new legislation that might be needed to help the state respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want to give enough time for the public health crisis to move past,” Ferguson said of the timing of the special session.
Legislative leaders also announced the formation of a bipartisan work group to monitor the state response to the coronavirus.
In the meantime, Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Harford County Republican who is the Senate’s minority leader, said, “We are triaging legislation.”
House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, sought to reassure Marylanders.
“When we face a common enemy, we pull together,” he said. “Don’t panic. The legislators in this General Assembly, with this governor and administration, are working tirelessly to bring resources necessary to address this crisis."
Maryland legislators were not alone in taking the dramatic step of changing their calendar. As of Saturday, the National Conference of State Legislatures said 11 legislatures (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont) had postponed their sessions.
The decision to end the session early was a marked change from just nine days ago, when Ferguson boasted from the Senate dais that the General Assembly “has not recessed early or adjourned early since the Civil War.”
The spread of the virus has created tension in Annapolis in recent days. Lawmakers worked through the weekend with reduced staff, no pages and without the normal presence of lobbyists, activists or the public. Only credentialed journalists have been allowed in the State House complex.
On Sunday evening, several senators rose to speak on the floor to explain that their coughs were merely allergies or bronchitis — not COVID-19.
Though a few lawmakers have stayed home, attendance at House and Senate floor sessions has been largely normal. Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has metastatic prostate cancer, has been absent for a few days.
Miller said in a phone interview Sunday that he’s hospitalized with back pain and a mouth infection. He said he’s “very supportive” of the decision to end the session early, even though it breaks with the Senate’s tradition of never missing a day on its calendar.
“There comes a time when you have to adjust,” Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said. “Snowstorms? We worked through it. As much as I support tradition, I’m more so supportive of government functioning and making change for the better. Maybe we’ll save the lives of more and more people.”
Lawmakers held committee meetings and floor sessions Sunday, a rare occurrence for the legislature.
The Senate’s Executive Nominations Committee gave preliminary approval to new board members for the University of Maryland Medical System, with a vote by the full Senate expected Monday. The medical system is emerging from a self-dealing scandal in which dozens of board members or their companies received millions in contracts from the hospital system.
Lawmakers gave final approval to a bill sponsored by Jones that requires the state to spend $577 million to settle a long-running lawsuit involving the state’s historically black colleges and universities. The bill now goes to the governor for his consideration.
Lawmakers also made progress on a bill that would give more authority to the governor in the event he declares a “catastrophic health emergency" in the state, which is distinct from a general state of emergency, which he has already put in place.
Under the bill, which is advancing in both chambers, the governor could require that testing and vaccination (if one is developed) be free to patients, offer job protections for people who are quarantined, mandate that insurance companies cover telemedicine and set measures to bar price-gouging.
Both chambers also have passed versions of a bill that would send an extra $5.5 million in funding to the financially struggling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over the next several years.
The House voted to approve a bill that facilitates the redevelopment of the Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course thoroughbred horse racing tracks using bonds that would be paid back with slots revenue earmarked for the racing industry.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, asked to be identified as “the delegate from Pimlico” as he summarized the measure for lawmakers. Rosenberg said that one year ago, “the odds were long” of finding a way to keep Pimlico open and the historic Preakness Stakes race in Baltimore, as the city had sued to seize the track from its owners.
“The mayor of Baltimore said this shouldn’t be resolved in the courtroom. It should be resolved in a negotiation,” he said. “The city, the [Maryland] Jockey Club and the horsemen have brought to us this compromise, which benefits the industry and benefits the communities that surround the racing facilities.”
There are differences between the House and Senate versions of the racetracks bill. Those need to be worked out by Wednesday for a plan to be sent to the governor.
The General Assembly was scheduled to run through April 6. Under the Maryland Constitution, the only legislation the Assembly must pass is the state’s operating budget. That measure has been approved by the Senate and is pending in the House.
Several key issues have yet to be resolved, including a sweeping education reform plan, tax changes designed to help pay for the education programs, and whether to let voters decide on legalizing sports betting.
As Sunday’s sessions began, just one bill had passed both chambers in identical form and could be sent to Hogan for his review: A measure banning landlords and rental companies from discriminating against prospective tenants based on how they pay their rent.
Hogan previously urged lawmakers to pass the budget, pass the emergency coronavirus-related legislation and confirm his nominee for Maryland State Police superintendent by Tuesday, in case an early adjournment was necessary.
Two emergency bills already have been signed into law, including one that allows Hogan to use up to $50 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for coronavirus response, if needed.