Advocates Apply Pressure on Jones and Ferguson to Reconvene

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) in Annapolis earlier this year. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Advocates from across the state penned a letter to Maryland House and Senate leaders Monday, imploring them to convene a special session to address a slew of problems Marylanders are facing as 2020 wears on.

Among their concerns: safeguards for homeowners and tenants at risk of homelessness, protection for workers in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, ballot access and police reform.

“We remain deeply concerned for the most vulnerable, especially under the failed leadership of Governor [Lawrence J.] Hogan [Jr. (R)],” they wrote. “Black, brown, and other marginalized communities confront a tsunami of negative COVID-19 health outcomes, economic freefall including mass evictions, and the relentless denial of their humanity by the police and other pillars of the criminal justice system.”

Over 70 advocacy organizations, including 1199 SEIU, CASA and the ACLU of Maryland, sent a letter to Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) raising concerns about compounding issues — many of which have been brought on by the public health emergency.

Since the pandemic reached the state in early March, almost 85,000 cases of COVID-19 and 3,315 deaths have been confirmed, and more than 1 million Marylanders have applied for unemployment insurance.

With this unprecedented spike in unemployment and the shutdown of businesses in jurisdictions across the state, advocates fear for what may happen to homeowners and renters as landlords and property owners become eligible to submit eviction filings, which were prohibited until the federal moratorium was lifted this past Saturday.

In March, Hogan signed an executive order preventing certain evictions if tenants can prove that their income has been disrupted because of the pandemic. Earlier this month, lawmakers penned a letter asking for a moratorium of these evictions through January 2021.

Advocates say that Hogan’s executive order doesn’t cover all renters and that the $30 million in rent relief he allocated is not enough, noting that some evictions have already begun.

To prevent “mass homelessness,” the coalition is calling for lawmakers to convene a special session to allocate an additional $175 million in state and federal funds for rent relief and eviction protection; an expansion of Hogan’s eviction moratorium through the end of the state of emergency which includes “all types of eviction cases”; and that they embargo late fees and debt collection until at least a year after the state of emergency has been lifted.

Their letter also says that the federal limited sick leave law and Maryland’s Healthy Working Families Act don’t go far enough to protect workers during the pandemic.

“Many of the most vulnerable workers are least protected physically and economically, and as businesses begin to reopen, are having to make unconscionable choices between providing for their families or risking their lives,” it reads.

In this vein, advocates are asking state lawmakers to amend Maryland’s Healthy Working Families Act to address public health crises; prohibit employers from disciplining workers who use their sick time and create penalties that support whistleblowing; confirm that the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division implements “COVID-related standards”; and that they put into effect protections for workers who don’t receive coverage under federal and state sick leave laws.

The pandemic has also impacted the state’s electoral process, as many advocates claim in-person voting to be detrimental to public safety while others assert mail-in ballots return disingenuous results.

Despite calls from lawmakers and recommendations from the Maryland Association of Elections Officials to hold a primarily mail-in election, Hogan has opted to send voter registration applications in lieu of ballots for this fall’s general election, in addition to opening each of the state’s in-person polling places.

In their letter, the advocates “strongly oppose” Hogan’s decision to “to operate the election during a pandemic as if this were a normal time.”

The coalition is asking the General Assembly to convene in order to ensure that each registered voter is mailed a multi-lingual ballot with paid postage return labels, and that drop boxes are made available as soon as they’re mailed out; that the registration deadline and the state’s early voting period are extended; that new poll workers are trained; and that communities that may struggle with the mail-in election process are given assistance.

“We are embarking on the most significant election of our lifetimes, facing the highest stakes in determining the future of our state, our country, and our values,” they wrote. “We must ensure that all voters are able to safely participate in our democratic process, yet as of now, Governor Hogan has used his sole authority to decide how Marylanders will vote.”

Calls for special session not new

House and Senate leaders danced around the idea of reconvening in late May — a possibility they announced at the end of the truncated 2020 legislative session but which never came to fruition.

The calls for a special session resumed amid not just the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, but successive, nationally highlighted instances of police brutality against Black people since the lockdown began.

Del. Julian Ivey (D-Prince George’s) has led the legislative charge to convene a special session after petitioning the governor’s office last month, each day highlighting a victim of police brutality on his Twitter.

“Every day, for as long as it takes, I will highlight the name of a victim of police brutality,” he writes.

Monday, day 32, featured Anthony Lamar Smith.

Constitutionally, Hogan would be required to convene a special session if petitioned by a majority of lawmakers in both chambers.

In their letter, the advocates also address a need to reform statewide policy surrounding policing following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May. 

They are calling on state lawmakers to amend the Maryland Public Information Act to allow police misconduct records to be disclosed to the public; limit the use of force; repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights; establish local control of the Baltimore City Police Department; and remove student resource officers from schools and shift the available funding to behavioral support and intervention strategies.

All five of these demands are addressed in a letter sent to lawmakers in June. Twenty-nine House lawmakers and four state senators are purported to support these reforms.

Despite Ivey’s and the advocates’ calls, House and Senate leadership appear hesitant to reconvene, citing the constitutional requirement to address veto overrides at the legislature’s next meeting and an inability to socially distance in either chamber.

Ivey shares concerns over quashing the virus’ spread, and told Maryland Matters in an interview last week that the General Assembly has reached out to Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) to determine if the legislative chambers can meet in a hybrid or virtual arena.

“We have a lot of elders in our bodies here, and that’s not something to write off — it’s very serious — but we see other jurisdictions, other states, legislating through this pandemic,” he said in a phone interview last week.

The governor also has the authority under the state constitution to change the General Assembly’s meeting locationwhenever from the presence of an enemy, or from any other cause.”

Legislative bodies in other states have met since the onset of the pandemic.

At a briefing of the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland earlier this month, Amber Widgery, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told lawmakers that an excess of 300 pieces of policing reform legislation has been introduced in 27 states and Washington, D.C., since the death of George Floyd on May 25. 

Widgery said that only 17 of these jurisdictions would have been in session at that time, indicating that several convened for special sessions. 

In their letter, the advocates note that at least 13 states are planning to or have already reconvened in special sessions to legislate public health, policing and election policies in the following ways:

  • Requiring lawmakers to be screened, wear masks and maintain physical barriers between their desks
  • Having some legislators sit in galleries typically reserved for guests and visitors
  • Convening in convention centers and athletic arenas
  • Assembling virtually

“Speaker Jones and President Ferguson, your leadership is desperately needed to address this pandemic,” the groups implored. “The people of Maryland cannot wait until January for a response to these statewide emergencies.”

Here is the full list of signatories:

1199 SEIU
ACLU of Maryland
Advocates for Children and Youth
B’More Clubhouse
Baltimore Computer Game Wizards, Inc.
Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition
Baltimore Women United
Bend the Arc Jewish Action Prince George’s County
Beyond the Boundaries
Blessings Abound, LLC
Cardijn Associates
CASA
CASH Campaign of Maryland
Center for Progressive Reform
Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility
City Council of Mount Rainier
City of Hyattsville
St. Vincent de Paul Church Social Action Committee
Communities United
Community Development Network of MD
Community Justice
Congregation Action Network, Montgomery County Cluster
Doctors for Camp Closure
Equity Matters
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Food & Water Action
Forest Heights Oxon Hill Community Development Corporation
HBCU Advocates
Health Care for the Homeless
Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc.
Howard County Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Hyattsville Mennonite Church
Immigration Outreach Service Center, Inc.
IMPACT Silver Spring
Jews United For Justice
Justice For All
Liberty Village Project
LiUNA Local 11
Maryland Center on Economic Policy
Maryland District 14 Democratic Club
Maryland Legislative Coalition
Maryland Nonprofits
Maryland United for Peace and Justice
Maryland Violence Prevention Coalition
Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence
Million Gun Victims March Inc.
Montgomery County Democratic Socialists of America
Montgomery County Young Democrats
Montgomery Housing Partnership
Mothers on a Move
No Boundaries Coalition
Northeast Catholic Community Peace/Justice Committee
Organizing Black
Our Revolution Maryland
Pax Christi Baltimore
Prince George’s County Peace and Justice Coalition
Private Citizen
Public Justice Center
QED Inc. & The QED Foundation, Inc.
Repair Now
Resources for Immigrant Support and Empowerment (RISE) Coalition of Western Maryland
Sex Workers Outreach Project, Baltimore
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Showing Up For Racial Justice Baltimore
Silver Spring Justice Coalition
Sisterhood of Salam Shalom Silver Spring
St. Francis of Assisi R.C. Church
Sunrise Movement Baltimore
Takoma Park Mobilization Equal Justice Committee
Town of Brentwood
Turner Memorial AME Church
Ujima People’s Progress Party
UNITE Here Local 25
Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Rituals (WATER)

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.