In Frenzied Final Days, Every Bill Has Its Own Journey

Maryland Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The decision to end the 2020 General Assembly session early means Maryland lawmakers are suddenly up against the clock, and Monday brought the realization that many bills — probably hundreds — will fail between now and Wednesday night.

Despite what it means for their legislative priorities, state lawmakers appear to support the move to adjourn midweek wholeheartedly.

Staying in town, when almost every other aspect of life is being shut down, would be unhealthy and send a dangerous mixed message to the citizens of Maryland.

Still, the decision to adjourn early catapults the session forward in a big way. Instead of three weeks remaining, there are mere hours.

While the pace of legislative activity has quickened, the system can only handle so much through-put.

Much of the time the legislature has remaining will be spent on the budget and the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the bill that adopts the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission on education.

Measures dealing with the state’s COVID-19 response, Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities, the renovation of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, firearms safety and a few other high-profile bills are all but guaranteed to pass.

“The bills that are at the greatest risk of dying are bills that don’t have one or more advantages,” said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

“Having a cross-file is one advantage. Being pretty far along in the process, even without a cross-file. Having strong support from the leadership or the committee chair. Having obvious important value to the continuing operation of government. There are multiple reasons why [some] bills have more traction than others,” he added.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) announced at a news conference Sunday that lawmakers will return to Annapolis in late May for a one-week special session, provided that the COVID-19 threat has been appropriately contained.

Because the legislature will adjourn Sine Die this week, legislators who wish to resurrect dead bills will have to start the process from the beginning — but Rosapepe stressed that that doesn’t mean they’d be losing all momentum.

“The new fiscal year doesn’t start until July 1. Most of our bills go into effect in October. So I’m not sure that bills that are important are hurt that much by not being passed by Wednesday,” he said.

Rosapepe’s advice to despondent lawmakers and activists? Take a chill pill.

“People are not worried enough about people dying and too worried about bills dying.”

‘We are going to fight like dogs’

Up until the last 10 days of a traditional session, lawmakers have the right to delay a bill for 24 hours by invoking the layover rule.

Because the legislature is more than 10 days removed from April 6, the original date of adjournment, lawmakers still retain the right to move for a layover. The presiding officers signaled on Monday that they are prepared to use legislative days they have “saved” to thwart such tactics.

Ferguson and Jones stressed on Sunday that they included Republican leaders in their deliberations — and top GOP lawmakers voiced support for the decision to adjourn early at Sunday’s news conference.

Afterward, Republican leaders said they will continue to fight bills they disapprove of, but they recognize that Democrats have the numbers to block over-the-top stalling tactics.

“We are going to fight like dogs on every bill that we don’t like,” said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford). “Nothing’s going to make it across that we don’t like or without our fight.”

Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, acknowledged the role Republicans will play in the session’s final hours, but warned them against unnecessary obstruction.

“I think that the Republicans are going to object to bills that they don’t like, and they have every right to do that,” he said. “They have the right to express their opinion. But since a lot of bills are not passing, I would hope that they would express their opinion, fully air their opinion, but then allow us to vote on bills and see what happens.”

Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Middle Shore) said GOP lawmakers are realistic about how far they can obstruct, given the Democrats’ lopsided advantage in each chamber.

“All of the strategies of our party are still in place, but at the same time, they have ways to move forward things that they want to as well,” said Hershey. “But this is not going to be a lay-down and just let them do what they want. We’re going to fight against some of what we consider the bad bills and they’re going to do their jobs to pass them.”

Hershey praised Ferguson for delivering on promises he made in October, when he was the surprise choice to succeed long-serving Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

“When President Ferguson was selected…in October, Senator Jennings and I met with him and all we asked simply is be inclusive of our party. And the Senate president has lived up to every commitment that he has made to us,” the minority whip said.

“I’m sure he never expected this type of first session, but he’s shown tremendous leadership in the way that he has taken control of the Senate.”

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