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Coronavirus restrictions force culture change for Maryland lawmakers, lobbyists, activists as session nears

Reporters Pamela Wood and Bryn Stole preview the upcoming 2021 Maryland General Assembly session, which begins Wednesday January 13.

The resurging coronavirus pandemic is forcing a culture shift in the state capital of Annapolis, where in past years the business of lawmaking happened in impromptu hallway meetings and during dinner receptions almost as often as in hearing rooms.

The 442nd session of the Maryland General Assembly that begins Wednesday has been stripped down to a mostly online operation, focused on the basics of approving a state budget and passing laws. Missing will be many of the extras that are hallmarks of the 90-day legislative meeting.

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Gone are evening receptions hosted by lobbyists and interest groups. News conferences and rallies are strongly discouraged. There will be no advocates in matching T-shirts watching their lawmakers from the galleries above the legislative chambers.

Championship-winning high school sports teams won’t be marched in front of lawmakers to receive citations and pose for photos. Student pages won’t don their signature gray blazers to fetch coffee and printouts of vote tallies; they’ll watch from home like almost everyone else.

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Some lawmakers are worried the session won’t even last until its final scheduled day of April 12. Even with precautions — including regular testing, required masks and far fewer in-person sessions — there’s a risk that the coronavirus could run through the 188-member legislature.

“I really am a worrier right now,” said Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat. “I’m even concerned about whether we can keep a quorum in the General Assembly to get through the session.”

It’s not an unwarranted concern: The Associated Press has tracked at least 250 coronavirus infections and seven deaths among state lawmakers in the United States since last spring.

“I am just hoping, really hoping, that we do not get another surge. Because another surge could really throw off everything,” said House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat.

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Jones and her counterpart in the Senate, President Bill Ferguson, have been spent months working out the logistics of how Maryland’s 188 lawmakers — 47 senators and 141 delegates — can work safely.

“There is something so powerful, unlike D.C., about the act of Marylanders from across the state convening, the 47 of us being in a place together to work through some of the state’s hardest challenges,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “In the middle of a pandemic, that’s certainly not highly advised.”

Initially, full sessions in the State House’s legislative chambers will be rare and short. When the Senate meets, it will work from desks surrounded by plexiglass and will be subject to a two-hour time limit.

The larger and more crowded House of Delegates will split between the main chamber in the State House and an “auxiliary chamber” down the street in an office building. The auxiliary chamber has been outfitted with desks and members will be connected by video to the main chamber.

The public won’t be allowed in to observe legislative sessions, the number of in-person staffers will be cut down and journalists will be limited to a handful of seats in the balconies.

And all of it will be fully streamed online for the public for the first time.

Lobbyists and activists who are used to testifying in person, prowling the halls and trying to pin down lawmakers after hearings, are having to turn to new tactics to get their messages to lawmakers. Access to the State House buildings is limited to appointments.

Moms Demand Action has in the past used its strength in numbers to make a case for stronger gun control laws. Last year, 427 members in matching red T-shirts crammed together on multiple floors underneath the stained-glass dome of the Miller Senate Office Building to pose for a giant group photo.

This year, the “mothers and others” are turning to social media and Zoom calls with lawmakers. Danielle Veith, chapter president for Maryland, said she has a goal of setting up video meetings between lawmakers and constituents in each district.

It helps, she said, that the Moms Demand Action movement was born online.

“We’re comfortable in the online medium,” Veith said. “I think social media will be critical in getting out our message. That’s something that our moms love to do.”

The state’s teachers union has gone online for lobbying, too, with Zoom receptions for lawmakers. Teachers have had plenty of experience shifting from in-person to online already with virtual teaching, said Cheryl Bost, a Baltimore County teacher who is president of the Maryland State Education Association.

And sometimes, Bost said, “the good old phone call” may be what works best.

Having lawmakers’ cellphone numbers may prove to be a crucial advantage for lobbyists and activists.

Some may have been cautious about texting lawmakers before, but “it’s going to become a regular way of communicating now,” predicted Ann Ciekot, a lobbyist and partner with Public Policy Partners in Annapolis.

As president of the Maryland Government Relations Association, Ciekot shared the concerns of the lobbying corps with General Assembly leaders.

While Ciekot looks forward to one day being able to walk the halls again, stopping in offices to remind lawmakers of her clients’ bills, she thinks some of the changes may have lasting benefits. It’s a positive development that written testimony can be uploaded from home, instead of having to go to a terminal in a committee hearing room, she said. And live videos of voting sessions will be a plus, too.

But everything, she said, is going to be an adjustment.

“We’re all in this together and we’re all figuring it out,” Ciekot said. “None of us is 100% happy with the way things are, but we’ll have to deal with it. We’re going to have to be patient and we’re going to have to be flexible.”

The pace of the session also could be quicker than usual. In a typical year, it takes a few weeks for lawmakers to get in a groove, as they spend their days drafting bills and receiving briefings before delving into bill hearings and policy debates.

This year, they’ll jump right into hearings. Though none are scheduled Wednesday, there are more than 60 hearings planned for Thursday.

Lawmakers are still adjusting to the new procedures. Though there have been committee meetings online since the end of the 2020 session last March, there hasn’t been the day-after-day crush of hearings.

The House of Delegates Environment and Transportation Committee did a dry run last week, gathering on Zoom and broadcasting the meeting on the General Assembly’s website.

Del. Kumar Barve, the committee chairman, proposed a fake bill on “the prohibition on profit-making in Montgomery County” to work the kinks out of online roll call and voice votes. Lawmakers chuckled their way through the roll call, with the livestream showing them in their offices and living rooms as their names were called.

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Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, cautioned his committee members that procedures may need to be tweaked once the session starts and real votes are taken.

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“This is new to us, and for the first week, we’re going to be feeling our way,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

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