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Maryland lawmakers will not hold special session in May

The Maryland General Assembly will not hold a special session in May, legislative leaders announced Monday.

State lawmakers ended their regular session, normally lasting 90 days, early in March as the coronavirus pandemic became a major health issue. At the time, they suggested returning to Annapolis in May so they could complete any unfinished business and pass any further legislation needed for the state’s response to the pandemic.

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Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones issued a statement Monday saying they were nixing the special session planned for May. They have not ruled out the possibility of holding a special session later in the year.

“After consulting with health experts, this is the best course of action at this time. We will get through this together — with every branch of government working as a team until we can safely return,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, in the statement.

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Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the decision was not made lightly.

“This is a matter of balancing the safety of staff, legislators and the public,” he said.

Though the only legal requirement for Maryland lawmakers was to approve next year’s state budget, they also passed a number of priority bills during the waning days of the abbreviated session.

They approved an emergency bill that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law giving him additional authority to deal with various issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. The bill covers issues ranging from unemployment benefits to testing costs to price gouging.

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“We managed to pass a lot of legislation related to COVID-19 before the end of session," said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the House majority leader.

The General Assembly also passed bills requiring significant upgrades to public school instruction, increasing the tax on tobacco and nicotine products, creating a first-in-the-nation tax on digital advertising, making changes to certain corporate tax rules, and allowing casino money to be used to finance school construction projects. It also approved overhauls of the thoroughbred racing tracks at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and at Laurel Park.

Hogan, a Republican, has a few more weeks before a deadline to take action on the more than 600 bills lawmakers sent him. He can veto them, sign them into law or allow them to become law without his signature.

If there is no special session in 2020, Democrats won’t be able to override any vetoes until January.

But such a delay would have little effect on the Democrats’ priority ― a sweeping, $4 billion-a-year overhaul of Maryland’s public schools. That’s because lawmakers already included in next year’s budget funding for the phased-in proposals. Additionally, the legislation states the plans cannot take effect in the event of a severe recession.

The pandemic has thrown the state’s economy and budget into disarray, with a sharp drop in tax collection at the same time as an increase in state spending on the coronavirus response. One worst-case scenario estimates the state could lose $2.8 billion by the end of the fiscal year June 30, should the stay-at-home order be in place that long.

But the state’s budget can be adjusted without the approval of state lawmakers. The Board of Public Works — comprised of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — can make mid-year budget cuts if needed.

“They have a fair amount of flexibility to make cuts as necessary, as it is clear revenues are coming in much worse shape than when we left,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Guzzone said he expects that lawmakers will need to take a careful look at the budget whenever they do return to Annapolis.

“We have time to figure out some of the complicated budgetary issues,” he said.

Since the March 18 end of the regular legislative session, a bipartisan workgroup has met online weekly to receive updates from the Hogan administration and others on issues related to the health crisis. The governor spoke at one of the briefings, the first time he has ever addressed one of the legislature’s committees or work groups.

“If the new normal is the governor and the legislature are communicating regularly and working together in a constructive way, that’s fantastic,” Luedtke said.

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