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With coronavirus cases on the rise, Maryland General Assembly to limit public access again in 2021

Only state troopers occupied the upper galleries as the Maryland House of Delegates worked March 15, 2020, in the final days of a pandemic-shortened General Assembly session in Annapolis.
Only state troopers occupied the upper galleries as the Maryland House of Delegates worked March 15, 2020, in the final days of a pandemic-shortened General Assembly session in Annapolis. (Kenneth K. Lam)

When Maryland’s 188 lawmakers return to Annapolis in January, they’ll see plastic booths around desks in the Senate chamber, half the state delegates shipped off to a second location and no lobbyists or activists prowling the halls.

With the coronavirus pandemic continuing unabated — but with the legal requirements to meet in the state capital and approve a state budget — leaders of the General Assembly are planning a legislative session like none other in 2021.

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“There’s been a lot of thought of contingencies and possibilities," said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. He said the legislature faces an “extraordinary moment.”

House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones wrote in a memo to delegates on Thursday that she hopes to strike a balance between public health and public policy.

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“The main goal of this plan is to allow all of us to execute our constitutional responsibilities to the fullest extent possible, in the safest way possible, for the full 90 days of the regular session,” wrote Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat.

For months, legislative leaders have met with members and stakeholders, including lobbyists and members of the press corps, as they crafted a plan for what they hope will be a safe — yet still productive — legislative session.

In addition to their basic legal obligation of approving a state budget, leaders hope to tackle issues relating to education, public health and policing reform.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, right, walks by a group of lobbyists on her way into a House of Delegates session in the State House on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Lobbyists will again not be allowed inside the State House when the session begins in January.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, right, walks by a group of lobbyists on her way into a House of Delegates session in the State House on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Lobbyists will again not be allowed inside the State House when the session begins in January. (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun)

The guidelines for the General Assembly session mean that members of the public will be kept out of the State House, hearing rooms and offices. The lack of in-person access also applies to activists and registered lobbyists.

The balconies in the House of Delegates and Senate chambers, where normally anyone can observe floor sessions, will be closed to the public. Lawmakers will use some seats in the balcony, and a few seats there will be reserved for journalists, who are being moved from their typical zones on the floor of the chambers.

Anyone else who wants to watch the legislative sessions, where bills are introduced and final debates and votes are held, will have to tune into a video stream on the General Assembly’s website.

The legislature’s technology staff has been working the last several months to upgrade the stream, which had a rocky debut during the pandemic-shortened 2020 session.

At first, the livestream ran periodically in the House of Delegates only. But as the public was shut out in March due to the coronavirus, the House began streaming daily. However, bandwidth issues meant that the feed faltered for many who were following at home.

For 2021, legislative leaders believe they’ve solved the technical issues, and the House and Senate both will stream every time they hold full sessions, as well as all committee hearings and voting sessions.

Members of the state Senate's Executive Nomination committee met March 15, 2020, in a hearing room in Annapolis, the audience consisting only of four reporters.
Members of the state Senate's Executive Nomination committee met March 15, 2020, in a hearing room in Annapolis, the audience consisting only of four reporters. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The sessions of the full House and Senate will look different. Both chambers are setting a two-hour limit on floor sessions and aren’t planning the typical daily sessions for at least the first weeks.

Half the members in the 141-member House of Delegates will be sent to the House Office Building where a “chamber annex” is being set up with desks, a video feed and the ability to offer amendments, debate and cast votes simultaneously with the members in the House chamber.

The House is also changing its rules so that some routine work, such as introducing bills and assigning them to committees, can be done with less than a majority of members present.

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In the Senate chamber, plexiglass screens are being set up around desks, which are being pushed farther apart. With just 47 members, the Senate has enough room to seat all senators about 4½ feet apart.

Committee hearings — where much of the legislative work is done — and committee voting sessions will be held via video meetings and streamed online.

The Senate plans to limit live video testimony on bills to just a handful of proponents and opponents who largely would be designated by lawmakers. The House will allow people to sign up for speaking slots the day before hearings.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the new minority leader of the Senate, said he thinks Ferguson thoughtfully weighed access and health concerns, although he has some reservations.

“Any time you lock out the people from coming in the state capital, I have concerns,” said Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican. He said he hopes that the use of technology will result in lawmakers still getting meaningful input on the bills they are considering, and he encourages Marylanders to write their lawmakers.

The limits on who can testify might disadvantage those without expensive lobbyists or long-standing relationships with lawmakers, said Larry Stafford Jr. of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland.

“It’s going to be hard for a regular person or a small-business owner trying to get their case heard in Annapolis to talk to lawmakers and have some influence,” Stafford said.

Stafford said his group will try creative strategies to get its messages heard, since Progressive Maryland supporters won’t be able to hold rallies or walk the halls.

“One thing I am looking forward to is taking new approaches to making sure people’s voices are heard,” he said.

Those allowed in the State House complex — lawmakers, limited staff, journalists — must wear masks. Lawmakers will have an screening app to answer questions about their health. Delegates are encouraged to take coronavirus tests, while senators must be tested every Monday and Thursday.

The General Assembly session opens Jan. 13.

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