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Coronavirus Sends General Assembly Home Early

Rachel Baye/WYPR

 The Maryland General Assembly adjourned its annual 90-day legislative session on Wednesday, 19 days early as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the first time since the Civil War that the legislature cut its time in Annapolis short.


“This has been something that I don’t think any of us could have imagined or foreseen,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said at the beginning of Monday’s floor session. 


The virus and the resulting economic turbulence cast a pall over everything lawmakers did in the final days of the session.


Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan restricted access to state government buildings, including the State House complex. That meant no more members of the public or lobbyists testifying at hearings or watching voting sessions. 


Meanwhile, legislators sped up the pace of their work. They held multiple floor sessions each day and met through the weekend. In a matter of days, they passed hundreds of bills.

A couple of the bills deal directly with the public health crisis. On Wednesday, the legislature finalized the state operating budget, which includes $100 million the governor can spend on efforts related to the novel coronavirus.


“It could mean setting up additional hospital beds or space,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, chair of that chamber’s Budget and Taxation Committee. “But it also could mean dealing with problems associated with small businesses — that they may need assistance. They may need loan programs.”


Lawmakers also passed protections to ensure all Marylanders can get testing, treatment, and a vaccine when one exists without paying out of pocket, regardless of whether they have insurance. The same bill enables people temporarily out of work as a result of the pandemic to get unemployment benefits and prevents retailers from price gouging on products such as food, fuel, cleaning supplies and medical supplies. 


But lawmakers also managed to pass more than 600 other bills, including a gun control bill, new taxes, a sweeping school system overhaul, and two potential amendments to the state constitution that will be on the ballot in November.


Republicans accused Democrats of rushing through bills while the public wasn’t allowed in the building to watch.


"Right now our citizens are focused on the health and well-being of their families. Many are not working and others are trying to figure out how to survive,” House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said Wednesday. “And we’re in this chamber, stuck here. Who knows who has coronavirus? Could be any of us. And we could be out of here already.”


Kipke made the comments during debate on a measure that would, if approved by voters, amend the state constitution to give the legislature more power in the budgeting process.


On Wednesday, lawmakers also voted to expand the state sales tax to cover digital downloads and streaming services. 


Del. Mark Fisher, a Republican from Calvert County, criticized Democrats for pushing through the bill at a time when Maryland residents are worrying about the economy.


“Shame on you for raising taxes during a coronavirus epidemic — a pandemic,” he shouted on the floor. “Shame on you.”


But Democrats pointed out that the roughly $100 million the bill is expected to raise would, in the near term, fund efforts related to the pandemic. The same is also true of an increase in the tobacco tax that lawmakers approved on Wednesday.


In the future, the revenues from these and a new tax on digital advertising are slated to fund the sweeping, expensive school system overhaul lawmakers approved late Tuesday night. The long-awaited reforms are based on recommendations by what’s known as the Kirwan Commission.


Ferguson said lawmakers are looking beyond just the current crisis.


“Some of the legislation that’s really getting through here at the last minute is stuff that’s recognizing that it’s going to be tough. This is going to be really hard,” he said. “But when we get through it, we’re going to have the opportunity to redefine ourselves. These are the moments that really matter for humanity.”


Legislators plan to return for a special session at the end of May, but it’s not clear what issues will be on the agenda if they do.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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