The Maryland General Assembly convened for its annual 90-day session Wednesday, and it is already unlike any session the state has seen before. Rachel Baye and Nathan Sterner discuss how lawmakers have adjusted their long-held traditions for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
We knew going into this session that it would be different. We knew committees are meeting virtually and lobbyists and members of the public are not allowed in the buildings without appointments. What was the biggest difference on the first day?
The lack of people is a big difference. Normally, the first day is filled with huge crowds and a lot of ceremony. Legislators bring their families. County executives, the Baltimore mayor, members of the Maryland congressional delegation and former elected officials frequently make appearances. The governor or lieutenant governor will address each chamber.
None of that happened on Wednesday.
Senate President Bill Ferguson addressed this aspect of the session while speaking with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
“Legislatures are about convening people to solve a state's problems,” Ferguson said. “It is very difficult to do that in a remote, in a virtual, and even in a protected session. There is just the engagement that happens of those off-chance encounters that help maybe solve or raise the importance of an issue. It hit me how different this session is going to be and how hard it will be.”
It’s not just about how quiet the hallways are. There are usually receptions hosted by different lobbyists and advocacy groups, and lawmakers and staff will meet for meals or drinks at Annapolis restaurants and bars.
All of that is gone this year, which really changes the tenor of the session.
Last year the session ended early for the first time since the Civil War to prevent lawmakers and their staff from getting or spreading COVID-19. What sort of precautionary measures is the legislature taking this year to keep everyone from getting sick?
As you mentioned, committee meetings will be virtual.
Notably, the Senate and the House won’t be meeting for their floor sessions every day. For example, neither chamber is meeting today. I need to emphasize that that is highly unusual. In a typical year, they meet on the floor every weekday, even if there’s very little to vote on that day.
And when they meet this year, their floor sessions look physically different.
In the Senate, members’ desks appear to be encased in tall, plexiglass boxes. Ferguson joked Wednesday that he doesn’t know what to call these boxes. Senator Paul Pinsky, from Prince George’s County, offered a suggestion.
“Mr. President, earlier you talked about, what do we call these things? You mentioned ‘pods,’” Pinsky said. “I frequently explain that they’re like 47 telephone booths, but then I find myself having to explain what a telephone booth is.”
Meanwhile in the House, half of the members are in a sort of annex in a different building with a communication link to the main chamber.
All senators are required to get COVID tests twice a week, and their staff are required to get weekly tests. House members and their staff are also encouraged to get tested.
And there are health screenings when you enter the building, including a thermal camera that scans your body to see if you are running a fever.
Given all these precautions, why is the legislature meeting in person at all?
The state constitution specifies that the General Assembly must meet in Annapolis, and that to pass laws, a majority of members of each chamber must be present and their votes must be recorded.
The Attorney General’s Office has warned that if lawmakers meet virtually or even meet physically but not at the State House complex, someone could bring a lawsuit challenging the laws they pass as invalid.