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Rushed final days of Maryland General Assembly session left some concerned over lack of public input

As the Maryland General Assembly rushed this week to pass more than 650 bills before abruptly closing amid the coronavirus outbreak, the public was barred from the State House. Lobbyists and advocates were locked out, too. And those trying to observe from home found audio and visual streams of the proceedings spotty and unreliable.

“It was frustrating,” said Joanne Antoine, director of Common Cause Maryland, which pushes for ethical and open government. “It was a mess. I understand it was a crisis, and some really good bills did get passed. But it wasn’t transparent.”

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Maryland’s legislative leaders, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A Jones, found themselves facing an unprecedented public health crisis with the rapid spread of the virus. With Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordering crowd sizes limited and the Democratic-controlled legislature needing to pass the state’s $47.9 billion operating budget before adjournment, top lawmakers in Annapolis decided to limit access to the legislative chambers to lawmakers and credentialed journalists.

House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the legislature had to try to limit the spread of the virus while also making sure the state could keep functioning in the next fiscal year.

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“We provided as much transparency and access as we could under the circumstances,” Luedtke said. “If we had not stayed to pass the budget, the state of Maryland would have shut down July 1.”

While lawmakers were finishing details of the operating budget ― a complex process that involves sending a 271-page document back and forth between committees and the two chambers over a series of sessions ― they also passed a $1.1 billion capital budget, $375 million in bonds to bolster the state’s horse racing industry and a series of major education bills.

The legislature approved a $4 billion-a-year plan to improve learning in Maryland’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.

The General Assembly also approved up to $150 million in funding for Hogan to use to address the coronavirus emergency and passed legislation to address unemployment benefits, job protections, costs of testing people for the virus, and price-gouging. Hogan signed that emergency bill into law Thursday.

Legislators did all that while ending the annual session almost three weeks early because of the pandemic.

“Under the circumstances, the General Assembly did an extraordinary job,” Luedtke said. “I walked out of there really proud of both parties, both chambers. There were legislators there who were immune-compromised and refused to go home because the job is that important to them.”

Luedtke noted that some committee chairs took the new step of livestreaming voting sessions during the lockdown.

But some advocates question why the Assembly decided to push ahead with hundreds of bills in addition to the budget. The legislature should have merely passed the operating budget and adjourned days earlier, they argued. Nearly a week before adjournment, dozens of organizations ― including the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union ― sent a letter to legislative leaders, urging them to recess as soon as they passed the budget and public health bills to address the pandemic.

Democrats nevertheless pushed through new taxes on digital advertising, digital downloads and vaping and an increase to the tax on tobacco. Some of the taxes were combined into the same bill after starting in separate bills. Along with revenue from legalizing sports betting ― which the legislature also approved for voters’ consideration on the November ballot ― the taxes would raise more than $400 million a year, analysts say, and help pay for the first five years of implementing the school improvements.

“It really felt like the entire legislature was in this tunnel vision,” said Rebecca Snyder, director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which opposed the tax on digital advertising.

“They’re mandated to pass the budget,” Snyder said. “They’re not mandated to raise taxes by $450 million in secrecy by appending taxes onto other bills.”

Snyder said she was glad credentialed reporters were allowed to continue covering the State House, but found others’ lack of access to the proceedings frustrating.

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“It’s my job to monitor this legislation, and I couldn’t even get an audio stream to stay live,” Snyder said, noting that Daily Record reporter Bryan P. Sears began using Facebook Live to broadcast a session of the Senate amid technical problems in the legislature. “When we are relying on Bryan Sears to Facebook Live a Senate session, that’s a breakdown of the system.”

The legislature also moved to relax an ethics restriction prohibiting developers from donating to politicians in Prince George’s County, and ― in a move angering Republicans ― passed a bill to grant the Assembly greater budgetary powers.

Both chambers passed a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would give the 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. The amendment, if approved, would go into effect for the next governor, so it would not curtail Hogan’s powers.

Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the House minority leader, objected to the legislation, calling it unnecessary ― and saying the pressure to pass such bills was keeping lawmakers in Annapolis longer than was prudent during a health crisis.

When Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, a Prince George’s County Democrat, joined Republicans in speaking against the bill, she was quickly stripped of her leadership post.

“The House bill came in when we were under total lockdown," Valentino-Smith said Thursday. "There had not been a public hearing. I thought rushing it was something I needed to object to in terms of process and transparency. If that comes with a price, that’s what happens.”

Luedkte noted that some lawmakers complained about the rushed process only for bills they opposed.

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“There were a lot of the accusations on the floor about transparency,” he said. “It’s ironic some people were making that argument about bills they didn’t like, but were perfectly happy to see their own bills pass under the circumstances.”

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Hogan has not said whether he will veto bills passed by the legislature, but GOP strategist Doug Mayer, who helps make political ads for the governor, said the rushed session gives Hogan a stronger argument for doing so.

“Enacting major pieces of legislation, including hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes, when the public is locked out of the process is an extremely bad look,” Mayer said. “A number of these bills could be vetoed on their merits. It doesn’t help their case that they did it in the dark, with the cameras turned off half the time.”

Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Harford County Republican who is Senate minority leader, said he believes the GOP was able to stop some of the more “contentious” proposals from Democrats. But he praised Ferguson for including Republican lawmakers and their ideas on some of the most significant bills of the session.

“We’re in tough times, and we’re going to get through it,” Jennings said.

And while some were concerned about lack of public access to the State House, advocates for education, the horse racing industry and a fairer tax system cheered the legislature’s decision to push on.

“In the midst of these unsettling times, we deeply appreciate the commitment of both houses of the General Assembly to pass the [education reform legislation] and lay the groundwork for the long-term success of our students and economy," said Maryland teachers union president Cheryl Bost. "We appreciate the work and bipartisan support of legislators to address the public health crisis we’re facing together and to advance this critical bill and achieve the goal of passing a new funding formula that better supports our students, educators, and schools.”

Ferguson said he leaves the session with a few regrets, including not having enough time to pass a bill guaranteeing payment for people exonerated of criminal convictions.

“I’m really proud of what we got done,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “We set out a plan for public education for the next 10 years. We’re investing billions of dollars in school construction. We solved the issues of horse racing in Maryland. We did all of that without raising property, sales or income taxes.

"And, we set aside millions of dollars for preparing Maryland for what’s coming with the coronavirus. When we come out of the crisis, we’ll come out stronger.”

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