Business as Usual?

The lobby of the Maryland State House on Monday night. Photo by Josh Kurtz

In many ways, it was a typical General Assembly session Monday in and around the Maryland State House.

There were a smattering of bill hearings in the afternoon. The Maryland Veterans Chamber of Commerce held an event for lawmakers. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D) and Del. Benjamin T. Brooks (D) hosted a reception for their Baltimore County constituents.

On the floor of the House and Senate, lawmakers cheered the girls basketball team from Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, winners of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship. And both chambers held somber ceremonies in remembrance of Maryland’s fallen military veterans, with a soldier in the gallery playing taps.

But normal as the day appeared, it was hard not to get the feeling that something was different. The pedestals carrying oversized dispensers of hand sanitizer at the two State House entrances and in legislative buildings told the whole story.

While the nation reels from the medical, financial and psychological effects of the coronavirus, Maryland leaders, with one month left in the General Assembly session, are trying to conduct business as usual.

“At the moment, we don’t see structural changes being necessary,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) told his colleagues Monday night.

In other words, hearings and floor sessions will still be taking place. Constituents will be coming to Annapolis to rally and lobby their lawmakers. Lobbyists and advocates will still be plying their trade.

But changes are evident nevertheless.

A state capital by its very nature is a place where a hearty handshake is the coin of the realm. But now, lawmakers, lobbyists and activists are just as likely to bump elbows, tap shoes together, or give each other a little bow.

People are nervous, but they are also cognizant of the calendar, and a calculation has been made to keep the proceedings on track for just a few weeks more, hopeful that the virus doesn’t spread too dramatically. And in contrast to Congress, where at least a handful of members have decided to self-quarantine, no one in Annapolis is ready to hide just yet ― or if they are, they aren’t saying so.

On Monday night, Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who is 77, was absent ― but he was nursing a sore back related to his cancer treatment. Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) was also out, but his wife has been ill.

On the House side, Del. Lauren Arikan (R-Harford), who is pregnant with her fourth child, said she plans to continue coming to work.

Arikan said she was comforted by a study of nine pregnant women in the Wuhan region of China which showed that their pregnancies during the coronavirus outbreak went well.

“I’m not due until the end of June, so I’m just going to keep rolling until I get sick or something,” Arikan said. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

On Sunday night, the House Republican Caucus put out a statement saying that a dozen of its members had attended the Conservative Political Action Committee conference at National Harbor a week earlier. But the GOP caucus notes that they were there to hear President Trump speak, and that the individual who attended the conference who had contracted the coronavirus had apparently left a day earlier.

“At this time, it is improbable that any member of the Maryland House Republican Caucus came within direct contact of the infected individual,” the statement said. “However, our Caucus members will defer to guidance provided by the Maryland Department of Health.

“Our understanding is that the infected person is doing well, and we will continue to pray for their full recovery. The health and safety of the general public is our top concern.”

On the Senate floor on Monday night, Ferguson encouraged his colleagues to proceed with normal activities as much as possible — including holding the district nights that draw constituents to Annapolis.

“Of course, there are going to be folks who are going to be uncomfortable and may choose not to come this year,” he said.

Ferguson pointed out that as leaders in their communities, legislators are obligated to lead by example, showing prudence in their daily lives and providing critical information as needed.

Earlier in the day, in response to a question at a news conference about whether the General Assembly should follow its normal legislative calendar until Sine Die on April 6, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) replied, “We’ll certainly consult with the presiding officers on what their feelings are. But at this point I don’t think we need to take any action with respect to that.”

In an interview, Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), a public health physician, agreed.

“At this point, it would be premature to try to shut things down,” he said.

It’s not as if leaders don’t have contingency plans. But those could be difficult to execute.

The state budget by statute must be enacted by the 83rd day of the legislative session ― in this case, it’s March 30. Legislative rules also do not allow for proxy votes. Legislative floor sessions and hearings are carried online, but committee voting sessions aren’t.

Unlike their congressional counterparts, who travel great distances to Capitol Hill every week, state lawmakers are not commuting to Annapolis by plane. So their potential exposure to the coronavirus may be less than members of Congress.

Of the six reported coronavirus cases in Maryland, five were contracted by people who had traveled overseas. The origin of the sixth known case, announced Monday night in Prince George’s County, was not immediately disclosed.

By all accounts, Hogan and the legislature’s presiding officers, who are not usually in regular contact during the General Assembly and retreat to their partisan corners all too often, have been conferring daily for the past week about the health crisis and State House protocols.

“I think at this point we’re going to take [things] day-by-day,” Hogan said.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.
Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.