Anxiety and tempers flared in Annapolis on Friday afternoon as the governor and leadership in the General Assembly sparred briefly over what preventative measures to take in the face of the COVID-19 public health crisis.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) said Friday that members of the Maryland legislature need to refocus their priorities in the event that they must prematurely adjourn.
“It is impossible at this time to know how long this public health emergency will continue, and it is critical for legislators to take these actions immediately in the event that this rapidly evolving situation requires them to immediately adjourn,” he said in a statement.
The governor outlined three key measures that he stated need to be taken up “no later than Tuesday,” including approving the state’s operating budget, confirming the new Maryland State Police superintendent and passing emergency legislation aimed at softening the blow of COVID-19 in the state.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) responded to the governor’s call via Twitter, expressing frustration with his message and mode of delivery.
“Gov., we’ve been working with you for weeks,” she wrote. “You’re well aware that we’re working to complete the budget & other important legislation.”
Jones asked Hogan to not “degrade” their collaborative work to “Twitter bombs in this time of uncertainty.”
“Let’s continue to work together for all MDers,” Jones said.
During a floor session held late Friday afternoon, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) acquiesced to one of Hogan’s requests.
In an extraordinary move Friday evening, Hogan’s nominee for superintendent of state police, Woodrow W. “Jerry” Jones III, was confirmed with what was likely record-setting speed [see related story].
Leaders in the General Assembly have implemented a number of measures to reduce instances of virus spread, including limiting remaining bill hearings to sponsor-only testimony and closing the legislative campus to the public.
Advocacy organizations in the state have cited these preventative measures as an infringement on the democratic process, echoing the governor’s requests for the legislature to pass the budget and emergency measures, and additionally calling for lawmakers to recess until the crisis has lifted.
Over 20 groups, including the ACLU of Maryland, Common Cause Maryland and CASA, have urged the legislature to delay the remainder of the session because “the legislative process is taking place without the full voice and input of the people of Maryland.”
“The public, and advocates play a vital role in the legislative process,” they wrote. “But perhaps more importantly, in times of crisis, the public needs to have trust and faith in government.”
“We must be extra vigilant to ensure we are acting in the public interest and in a way that is fully transparent and democratic.”
As of now, General Assembly leaders have made no indication that they will be adjourning or recessing before Sine Die, but both chambers will be working through the weekend — including a rare Sunday session — to expedite priority bills.
“It is important to note that we are in not closing but operating under a modified status,” Jones said on the House floor Friday morning.
During a Friday afternoon floor session, Ferguson justified the decision to remain in session, distributing a correspondence between himself and Dr. Tom Inglesby to Senate members.
Inglesby is the director of Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He currently serves on Hogan’s Coronavirus task force.
Ferguson asked Inglesby for advice on how to move forward in light of the thickening situation, citing three options:
- Option One: Reducing “but not eliminat[ing]” interaction with the public;
- Option Two: Scaling back functions by ordering telework for non-essential employees, limiting public access to facilities and mandating that remaining bill hearings be designated “Sponsor Only” testimony;
- Option Three: Adjourning the session until the state of emergency has been lifted.
Inglesby responded that option two is “a prudent policy to put into place,” further saying that it would “achieve close to the same societal benefit” as adjourning.
“Of course none of these options are guarantees that any of us might contract COVID-19 in the weeks or months ahead,” he wrote. “But they would certainly substantially reduce the risk of contacting this virus through work interactions.”
Reporter Danielle Gaines contributed to this story.