The Maryland General Assembly returns to Annapolis Wednesday for its annual 90-day legislative session, and it will be unlike any session the state has seen before. The COVID-19 pandemic will shape not just how the laws are made, but is expected to be a focal point of the policies written.
In the last 10 months, more than 295,000 Marylanders have been diagnosed with COVID-19. More than 6,000 have died, and more than 1,800 are currently hospitalized.
Meanwhile, nearly 67,000 Maryland residents filed new unemployment claims last month, joining hundreds of thousands of others who have lost jobs in the last year. Experts warn of growing housing and hunger crises.
“We are in the middle of a once-in-100-year emergency,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said during a recent interview.
Ferguson said dealing with the current emergency will be legislators’ most important job this session.
“We are seeing more pain and challenge than I think any of us ever could have imagined, and it is very disparate,” Ferguson said. “It is not an equal pain across the board. This pandemic has had a very, very inequitable impact — on people, on businesses, on education, on health care, on seniors.”
Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, both said their COVID-19 relief package this session will attempt to correct some of the inequality the pandemic has laid bare.
“Our top 30% of businesses in the state of Maryland had a better year in 2020, than they did in 2019. The bottom 30% of businesses in Maryland, we are seeing 60%-70% levels of unemployment,” Ferguson said.
Both Democratic leaders highlighted the state’s unemployment insurance program as an area likely to see some changes and possibly increased funding.
They said their COVID-19 relief package will include support for small businesses that are struggling, as well as resources and protections for essential workers.
“It'll get relief for renters, homeowners, access to broadband, telework policies, support for the restaurants, small [businesses], improving working conditions for essential employees, both state and private sector, those who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic,” Jones said.
Education will also be a major focus, especially given the challenges schools have faced in the last year as they adjust to remote learning.
Ferguson estimated that about 100,000 of the state’s nearly 900,000 students have lacked a “regular educational experience” since last March.
“We as a society don't know what it means to have kids out of school for what could be an entire year,” Ferguson said. “We have got to have a very purposeful strategy to help kids catch back up.”
That starts with overriding Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of last year’s massive school reform effort, the bill that came out of the Kirwan Commission’s three-year study and was named the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.”
That override vote is likely to face Republican opposition, though Jones and Ferguson are both confident it will pass.
The Democratic leaders said they expect to override some of the other 36 vetoes Hogan issued in the spring, though they would not say which ones.
However, one of those vetoes, which would have settled a long-running lawsuit with the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities over inequitable funding, will not get an override vote. Instead, Democrats plan to re-introduce it in a slightly different form as House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 — a designation signifying that it is a priority for legislative leaders.
The governor “wasn’t budging” on the old version of the bill, Jones said, “so I thought that working with a different bill that simply didn’t do the same thing, that would be the better way to go.”
The new bill allocates an additional $577 million to four Maryland HBCUs over a 10-year period that begins in July 2022.
This session will also feature other bills aimed at what Ferguson described as “equity and inclusion.” At the top of that list are changes to policing. Lawmakers in both chambers have proposed reforms such as strict limits on when police can use lethal force and changes to police discipline procedures.
Though similar efforts have been unsuccessful in the past, Jones said this year is different.
“I'm very confident that these measures will pass,” she said of the police reform efforts. “There may be some tweaking some of them, but for the most part, I think that, you know, based on also what the feedback we've gotten from the public, you know, I'm not worried.”