Opinion: Md. Dems’ Criticism, Inaction Come at People’s Expense

Criticism
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Democratic legislators would have us believe Gov. Larry Hogan is the only elected official with an obligation to govern during the current pandemic crisis.

Apparently, they feel that their own best response to the coronavirus outbreak is to second-guess his every decision, to amplify perceived flaws in every hastily designed protocol, and to make him personally liable for each shortcoming and bureaucratic activity that has suffered the same disruptions to daily life that we all have.

Some of concerns are valid, and the problems are real.

When the state’s unemployment system was overwhelmed by the sheer number of new claims, Democratic legislators were right to question what was happening, to ask how the administration was addressing it, and to press for a faster payment of benefits.

They were also right to challenge Hogan’s plans for a phased “reopening” as he reversed parts of his earlier executive orders mandating social distancing measures. They were right to oppose possible reductions in the state’s payroll, and those legislators who urged Hogan’s administration to do more on housing relief — whether rent or mortgage payments — were right to do so.

Even the recent pushback on whether voters should receive mail-in ballots for the November election (instead of applications for absentee ballots) was the right thing to do.

But members of the Maryland General Assembly are more than mere observers. They have power that other critics lack, and their words should be matched by action.

Article III, Section 14 of the Maryland Constitution requires the governor to call a special session of the General Assembly if a simple majority of each chamber – 24 senators and 71 delegates – petitions him to do so. Democrats could call for a special session and then, with their supermajorities, pass whatever legislation they consider appropriate and necessary to mitigate the worst economic and social effects of the pandemic.

A special session represents an immediate opportunity for Democrats to convene and translate their concerns into legislation that will address the failures of the Hogan administration’s pandemic response. And if they can’t accomplish the task in in the 30 days constitutionally designated, they can call for another session and work until the work is done.

On many occasions in the past, Democrats controlling the General Assembly have demonstrated both the capacity and willingness to maneuver in ways designed to counter Hogan. In this instance, they’re deliberately choosing to do otherwise.

In spite of record unemployment (nearly 1 million Marylanders and counting), in spite of a looming wave of evictions that could affect just as many, and in spite of uncertainty regarding the ability of schools to open in six weeks, a majority of the General Assembly has collectively opted to let Hogan alone make all the choices for us in this unprecedented moment.

It’s not impossible for them to meet. Legislators are right now doing so in the capitals of 11 other states, including neighboring Pennsylvania. In Minnesota, the legislature is in its second special session of the year. Nevada is meeting in its 31st special session.

We don’t know why the General Assembly isn’t using its authority and power to call for a special session. Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne Jones remain silent on the issue. But absent any effort to make it happen, we can safely assume they don’t want it to happen. If they did, they wouldn’t wait for an ad hoc coalescence of the minimum required petitioners. If they wanted a special session, they’d circulate the petition themselves.

Because Maryland’s rank-and-file legislators are only speaking out to criticize the governor, we’re left to speculate about their motivations for neglecting to pursue the good they could accomplish in a special session.

Perhaps they’re anxious about the health and safety of legislators and staff. That’s laudable, especially in light of the outbreak in the Mississippi statehouse. But such worries are no different from those of grocery store clerks, first responders and hospital employees who every day show up for their jobs.

If the General Assembly were to meet, it could easily follow the example of countless essential businesses and organizations in Maryland who’ve made critical adjustments to their operations in order to remain available. It’s sad that our state’s legislature has at its disposal a vast capitol complex, nearly limitless financial resources, and no imagination for how to safely use them under the circumstances.

Perhaps the internal politics of gaping budget shortfalls and an uncertain ability to maintain the Kirwan vote makes leadership hesitant to return. To call a session would require them to consider overrides of Hogan’s vetoes and maybe the votes just aren’t there. Maybe business-friendly Democrats have no appetite to eliminate tax credits in order to balance the budget. Maybe leadership already knows they won’t be able to pass meaningful relief efforts and they don’t want to share any of the blame for people’s suffering during the pandemic crisis.

Whatever it is preventing the General Assembly’s membership from choosing to meet now, it will nonetheless have to meet soon. In six months, any impediments to conducting a socially distanced session will still exist, and on the second Wednesday in January all the same politics will show up in Annapolis.

But it then will be too late for the people of Maryland.

We will have suffered for the wait. Some of us will have become homeless without new statutes to guide the courts on how to handle evictions. Many will have gone hungry for want of new laws to address our eligibility for unemployment benefits. Others will have risked their health at the voting booth without legislation mandating the distribution of ballots by mail. For all of us, the damage of these six months will be irreparable.

By avoiding a special session, the membership and leadership of the General Assembly are together making the lives of Marylanders worse for the sake of their own convenience and self-regard.

As such, their tweets and op-eds criticizing Hogan serve one purpose alone — to scapegoat him and deflect criticism for their own choice to forego any role in the pandemic response.

Hogan’s an easy foil. Democrats despise him for the original sin of being a Republican. Since 2016, they’ve worked to link him to Trump, and they insist Hogan’s COVID failures are Trump’s COVID failures. Our Democratic legislators are encouraging us to blame “all Republicans everywhere” for every horrible thing that’s happened because of the coronavirus.

We cannot allow them to do this. We cannot tolerate them simply posting public notices and trading opinions on social media after they’ve identified critical failures in the administration of state government at the height of a global calamity. Democrats are shirking their responsibility while in possession of all the power they need to act.

Voters are indeed going to hold someone accountable for what happens to their lives between now and 2022. The Maryland Democratic Party desperately needs Gov. Hogan, and no one else, to be that person.

We should all make the governor answer for what he’s done since March. But it’s unreasonable to excuse members of the General Assembly for their choice to do nothing. They are neither helpless nor blameless in this present crisis because their inaction is intentional and deliberate in the same way Gov. Hogan’s actions have been.

Legislators don’t want us to see it as such. They want to be praised for their insight but spared the burden of doing anything about it.

We know who’s really in charge in Maryland. If Democrats in the legislature care as much as they say, then they’ll call for a special session and do the essential work we’ve elected them to do.

— BRIAN GAITHER

The writer is a registered Democrat and LGBTQ activist living in Washington County.

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