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Coronavirus Short Circuits General Assembly

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Joel McCord
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For the first time since the Civil War, Maryland’s General Assembly is going home early. Legislative leaders announced Sunday they are ending the session March 18 because of increasing threats of the novel coronavirus.

In an afternoon news conference Senate President Bill Ferguson said the threat of the virus has become critical.

“In conjunction with leadership of both parties we’ve been working to find a path forward that balances the health of our members and our duty to the public,” he said.

He said lawmakers would return for a special session the last week of May to take up any unfinished business.

He said they chose the end of May because “we want to give enough time for the public health crisis to move past and we think it’s the appropriate time to close out some loose ends.”

He and Adrienne Jones, Speaker of the House of Delegates, also announced a 24-member Joint Covid-19 Response Legislative Workgroup to monitor the effects of the virus in Maryland and support efforts to minimize it.

Jones said they did not make the decision lightly but based on informed research.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about this virus,” she explained. “What we do know is that public health research shows the more steps we can take right now to prevent transmission the better off we are.”

She said legislative leaders are working with committee chairs to prioritize legislation they want to get to the governor’s desk before they adjourn.

Those bills include emergency legislation to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, an overhaul of Maryland’s public education system, known colloquially as Kirwan, and a bill to settle a long-running lawsuit over disparities between the state’s four historically black colleges and universities and predominately white institutions.

The announcement came just hours after Governor Larry Hogan issued an executive order to close all Maryland casinos, racetracks, and simulcast betting facilities indefinitely. And it follows a week in which the governor declared a state of emergency because of the spread of the coronavirus, banned large gatherings, closed public schools for two weeks, activated the National Guard and closed the Port of Baltimore to cruise ships.

Legislators have also spent the week debating whether to end the session early. On Sunday, Ferguson called it an evolving situation that no one has seen before.

“From the beginning we were being advised by public health experts, public policy makers nationally who were providing advice,” he said. “And it’s clear that the faster and more united we are to stop the spread of the virus the better off we will all be.”

They were joined by House and Senate minority leaders who expressed their support for the efforts.

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said that when members of both parties face a common enemy, they all pull together to do what needs to be done.

And the common enemy, he said, is this health crisis.

“So, my message to Marylanders around the state is don’t panic. The legislators in this General Assembly with governor and the administration are working tirelessly to bring forth the resources necessary to address this crisis.”

J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader, said they would be triaging legislation between now and Wednesday to make sure the most important bills get passed.

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