Josh Kurtz: The Pros and Cons of a Special Session

The General Assembly meeting in a rare joint session following the death of the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch in 2019. Do not expect to see the State House busy with legislative work this fall. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The pressure on General Assembly leaders to schedule a special legislative session is mounting.

The public calls for a special session come fast and furious, almost daily. No less than 80 advocacy groups have publicly demanded that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) schedule one.

At first glance, there appear to be compelling reasons to do so.

The Maryland economy has been wrecked by COVID-19 ― though in truth we are doing better than many states. Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders are facing financial ruin because of the pandemic. Education has been disrupted. The social safety net is badly frayed. And six months into the public health crisis, no one is safe from the virus.

There is also a compelling need, after a season of documented police abuses against Black men and women across the country, to address racial equity ― to reform policing and the criminal justice system, to provide greater economic opportunities for communities of color, and to begin to reverse centuries’ worth of injustice.

So with all the turmoil in the land, with federal policymakers hopelessly gridlocked on another relief package, and with Hogan trying to walk the line between managing the pandemic and giving the occasional nod to Republican anti-government orthodoxy, why wouldn’t Maryland legislative leaders want to meet in special session? They’d have an opportunity to get in front of the multiple crises, address myriad crying needs, do good ―  and quite, possibly, do well politically.

Well, it’s complicated.

Special sessions always are.

During special sessions, rules and norms are often thrown out the window. And legislative leaders do not like finding themselves in a situation they cannot control.

For starters, while conversations are ongoing, no one has figured out yet how to make the legislative campus safe from COVID-19.

A special session would involve bringing hundreds of people to Annapolis for an unknown period of time. What would the daytime accommodations be for lawmakers, staffers, advocates, lobbyists, and journalists?

The attorney general’s recent guidance on how the legislature can meet outside regular circumstances was confusing and inclusive. It appears as if virtual hearings would be OK, but final voting sessions on legislation would still have to be held on the House and Senate floors. To change those rules would require in-person floor sessions. So it appears to be in legislative leaders’ interests to let the solutions to these challenges marinate for as long as possible.

If a special session takes place, that will become the one opportunity for lawmakers to consider overriding Hogan’s vetoes. Within the far-flung elements of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, there seems to be widespread agreement on overriding Hogan vetoes on the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, funding for historically Black colleges and universities, and perhaps others.

But the legislature needs a concerted strategy, and will need to block out a substantial amount of time, to address all three dozen of Hogan’s vetoes.

The last reason not to hold a special session this fall is purely pecuniary.

Plain and simple, no one knows yet just how bad state government’s finances are. The Maryland economy may be a little more resilient than other states’, but revenues are still way down and the budgetary shockwaves at the state and local levels could trigger even more recession-like conditions in a matter of months.

All of the new programs and extra protections being proposed to aid the most vulnerable in our society cost a lot of money. However worthy the proposals are, is Maryland in any position to pay for them? There is no deficit spending allowed here, unlike the federal government. And there aren’t obvious targets, like runaway military spending, to pare back when talking about other sources of income for the government.

On the other hand, the Hogan administration is sitting on about $100 million in federal CARES Act funding, attempting to build a cushion if there’s another spike in the virus and corresponding economic troubles.

Some taxes could be raised and there’s a faint whisper among lawmakers and advocates of taking another look at hiking tobacco and alcohol taxes in the state, to raise generate revenue. But what are the chances of those getting Hogan’s sign-off? What are the chances that even a supermajority of Democratic legislators, during tough economic times for their constituents, are going to want to go along?

Legislative committees have been meeting remotely throughout the pandemic, working slowly to study policing practices in the state, providing some oversight to the Hogan administration’s policy and spending priorities since the COVID-19 outbreak, and more. Maybe the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan once said, but there doesn’t always seem to be a sense of urgency in these proceedings.

Is there potential political peril for Democratic lawmakers for not responding quickly to the multiple crises? Undoubtedly. There’s a big element now ― within the party and among affiliated activist organizations ― that feel Maryland government is too cautious, too staid, too wedded to the old ways, and not nearly bold enough to meet the challenges of a world that has been turned upside down in recent months.

Those criticisms certainly have some validity ― and some Democrats could find themselves vulnerable to primary challenges from the left in 2022 if they don’t act quickly and aggressively enough.

But uncertain times also dictate planning and prudence ― and for that reason alone, like it or not, a special session probably isn’t in the cards.

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.