Ferguson Convenes Senate Workgroup to Address Inequities

Maryland Senate Pres. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Since the onset of the pandemic in early March, Maryland has seen its share of unravelings: The health repercussions of the COVID-19 virus have been most aggressive in Black and Brown communities; hundreds of thousands of Marylanders have lost their jobs, and many now face the possibility of homelessness; and unending calls for police reform and abolition have echoed across the state following several high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of police earlier this year.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) on Friday announced the creation of a workgroup aimed at addressing the inequities that have made their way to the forefront of Maryland politics in the wake of the unprecedented, unending blows 2020 has delivered.

“COVID-19, coupled with continued and at times painfully graphic injustices in law enforcement and criminal justice, have highlighted the systemic nature of racial disparities in our State and across the country,” Ferguson wrote in a letter to his colleagues in the Senate Monday. “Although the Maryland General Assembly has taken steps to address these inequities, it is clear that there is more work to do.”

The Senate President’s Advisory Workgroup on Equity and Inclusion will be chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) and will review former task forces and bills that were aimed at addressing inclusion and equity for Black and Brown state residents. Focus areas include health care disparities, economic opportunities and environmental justice.

The other members of the workgroup will be Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County), Sen. Adelaide C. Eckardt (R-Middle Shore), Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Sen. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s).

Ferguson has also requested that the workgroup “consider diversity and inclusion within the Department of Legislative Services” and the General Assembly, noting that it’s important that the body “lead by example.”

“Developing thoughtful solutions to racial disparity and diversity issues requires time, expertise, empathy, and understanding through the collaboration of a diverse group of individuals,” he wrote.

This is one in a series of workgroups that have popped up to discuss ways to move forward in the face of blatant inequities since the General Assembly adjourned early in mid-March. These include the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland, created by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County)  following the death of George Floyd in late May, and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee’s Courts & Criminal Justice Workgroup, which published a 63-page report last week detailing a series of recommendations for prisons and courts grappling with ways to safely operate during the pandemic.

While lawmakers may be meeting online in these workgroups, they are limited in their ability to legislate, causing advocates and — in some cases — members of the General Assembly to push leadership towards convening a special session. 

There were tentative plans to reconvene in a special session in late May before the bodies adjourned Sine Die on March 18, but they never came to fruition. 

Last week, Sandra Benson Brantley, the General Assembly’s counsel and a member of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh’s legal team, released an opinion stating that the body could convene committee hearings virtually, but would risk violating the state’s constitution if they were to take final votes on bills or override any gubernatorial vetoes outside of Annapolis. 

Jones and Ferguson have given little indication as that they plan to reconvene between now and January, when the regular 2021 legislative session is scheduled to kick off. 

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