Legislators Narrowing Priorities Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty

"We ought to be here and doing our job," says House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The number of people with access to the State House complex is dwindling, even as lawmakers ramp up efforts to pass key pieces of legislation amid uncertainty over COVID-19 and whether it could force an early adjournment.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) announced Friday morning that only House members, their essential staff, the media and anyone with appointments will be permitted to enter the House office building effective at the close of the day’s business, with the addendum that hallway-lingering is off the table.

“As everyone knows, this is an ever-evolving situation, and I will continue to update you with information as I get it,” Jones said on the floor. “It is important to note that we are in not closing but operating under a modified status.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said that leadership has been following Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s safety guidelines and exploring options, but lawmakers have no choice but to pass the state’s operating budget before an adjournment.

“We cannot leave the chamber until we pass a budget, or else government will stop on July 1 of this year,” he said after the morning session. “That’s not acceptable. That’s not something that will happen.”

Ferguson said that despite being in the midst of a public health crisis, lawmakers are still responsible for ensuring that the state is functioning.

“At the end of the day, this will end. We will still have a state to run. We will still have the great state of Maryland,” he said. “We will do some important and tangible work over the next few days here, and we’re going to take it day by day.”

Republican lawmakers, though, pressed against that narrative, urging the chambers to focus on a narrow band of legislation, even as regular calendars of dozens of bills moved through both houses.

“The minute somebody in this chamber or the other tests positive, we’re going to be quarantined and everything is going to shut down. We need to stop dragging our feet and dealing with all of these other bills,” Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford) said. “Yes, they’re important … but the world changed yesterday and we’re in a new environment. We need to make sure we keep everyone safe. Let’s do the emergency stuff and get out of town.”

Jennings also said his colleagues should no longer consider the signature piece of legislation championed by Democrats this legislative session: the 229-page Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform plan that would increase the state’s public school funding by about $4 billion annually within 10 years.

“We should not move Kirwan now. ….We don’t have anybody in the building, we don’t have staff. The public’s not here. The lobbyists aren’t here. We’re going to pass this $32 billion bill operating at 30% staff?” Jennings said, combining several years of total education funding throughout the state.

The Senate got a first look at committee amendments to the bill on Friday and was expected to take up debate on Saturday.

Throughout the State House complex, legislative leaders were working Friday to prioritize measures to move out of their committees.

The House Appropriations Committee on Friday afternoon zoomed through proposed budget amendments in about an hour, passing a budget with minor changes from the Senate’s proposal, setting up a quick conference committee process.

The budget is expected to reach the House floor on Sunday or Monday.

“We ought to be here and doing our job,” Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) said, while acknowledging that would all change if someone in either chamber were diagnosed with COVID-19. “…I think that most people feel that being here and doing our job is very important.”

After the Senate adjourned Friday evening, the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee headed back to the Miller Senate Office Building for a short voting session to move a bill that would increase funding to settle a lawsuit about inequities at Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The House bill passed the House of Delegates on Thursday.

Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery) said the top remaining priorities are to pass a balanced budget that funds “critical” needs, the Kirwan Commission’s reforms, school construction funding ― and “then helping with revenue” ― a reference to the various measures that have been floated to fund the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

The revenue measures and school construction bill came to the Senate floor Friday evening and could be debated during floor sessions on Saturday and Sunday.

“We’re still expecting to adjourn Sine Die,” Zucker said, referring to the scheduled conclusion of the legislative session on April 6. “We’re functioning on a normal schedule right now. We’re trying to get as much done as possible.”

House Ways and Means Chairwoman Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery) said her committee was focusing on the Blueprint bill, revenue measures, revitalizing the state’s thoroughbred horse racing tracks, and sports betting, along with other measures that would have to go on the 2020 ballot for approval by voters.

House Health and Government Operations Chairwoman Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) offered little about prioritized legislation but said that her committee is working to shuffle legislation in and out as quickly as possible.

“We were almost finished with House bills,” she said. “We’re trying to finish up with the House bills that we can, and then we’ll try to move the Senate bills for hearings as quickly as we can.”

‘It’s a little like the SAT’

Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee said his committee will be voting on measures related to the Hogan administration’s plan to rebuild the American Legion Bridge and widen Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway.

“It’s a little like the SAT: Do the questions that you know the answer to and skip over the ones that are harder and then try to come back to them,” Barve said about the process of prioritizing bills in an uncertain time. “The bills that are important for public policy and that are the easiest to pass go first. Then the bills that are important for public policy and take a little more time go second. That’s how it filters out.”

The great unknown, he and other lawmakers said, is how much longer lawmakers will remain in Annapolis.

“I don’t believe we’re going to adjourn early, but I think we have to act as though we were,” Barve said.

House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) said his panel had been working to get bills to the floor in case time becomes an issue, including a bill to expand the state’s tobacco tax, which passed the chamber on Friday.

“Many of the things that we had considered a priority, they’re either already in the Senate or they’re in the pipeline [in the House],” he said. “So we’re in good shape.”

Davis said his committee is starting its work on Senate bills — “in the unlikely event that we have to shut down early.”

“Everything is just so fluid,” he added. “We’re getting updates real-time. The same time you’re hearing it, we’re hearing it. We’re in something that’s unprecedented in my 26 years down here but we’re going to get the peoples’ work done.”

Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said his committee and other panels will place priority on passing bills that deal with programs whose funding expires soon.

“Anything that sunsets while we may be gone,” Smith said. “For instance, we have $3 million to fund programs like Safe Streets and the other community-based crime-prevention programs. Their funding will lapse [if we don’t act] and they’re counting on that money, so those are the types of things we want to get through.”

He said the bills that haven’t passed yet can potentially be taken up at a later date. “If we adjourn, then come back, we can kind of resume and pick up,” he said.

Regarding the just-below-the-radar discussion of a possible special session after the COVID-19 crisis subsides, Smith said, “It’s looming over everything we do.”

“The more you start understanding what we’re dealing with, in terms of the numbers, I’ve never seen this before,” Smith said. “All 24 jurisdictions, school closed. You look at the numbers from the CDC. It’s unreal. That’s the specter we’re operating under. It kind of puts things in perspective.”

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