Leaders Unveil General Assembly Operations Plan Ahead of 2021 Session

Here's what a member's desk on the state Senate floor will look like. Maryland Senate photo.

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) released rules and guidelines on Friday for how the General Assembly will tackle the first full legislative session of the COVID-19 era.

Their plans — crafted separately but similar in nature —  represent a dramatic departure from how the chambers normally conduct their business. They resemble in some ways the restrictions that were rushed into place in March, as the state’s infection rate ticked upward during what turned out to be the closing days of the 2020 session.

Lawmakers adjourned about three weeks early.

The General Assembly’s 2021 session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 13 and run the traditional 90 days.

Under Ferguson’s plan for the Senate:

  • Floor sessions will be limited to two hours, “with flexibility for debate.”
  • Members of the public who wish to testify on a bill in committee will do so via Zoom, and the number of witnesses will be capped — four in favor, two “favorable with amendments,” and four opposed. (For more complex or contentious issues, the numbers can be doubled.)
  • Access to Senate office buildings will be restricted, depending on the level of virus outbreak among legislators and staff.
  • When the Senate meets for floor sessions, members will sit at desks that are have been retrofitted with tall plexiglass panels on three sides.
  • Floor staff will be limited, the galleries will be closed to the public (and to lobbyists), and a limited number of reporters will be allowed to cover the session from the gallery.
  • Every floor session and every committee hearing will be live-streamed from start to finish, Ferguson’s office said. This will mark the first time the Senate has provided formal video coverage of floor sessions (Cell phone video was cobbled together in March to stream the final floor sessions of 2020 after the public was barred from the State House complex.)
  • Everyone will be required to wear masks at all times, and everyone entering the State House complex will undergo a health screening every day they’re on site.
  • Members and “select staff” will undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing twice a week, with “other staff” tested on a weekly basis. Rapid tests will be available daily, on-demand, for anyone who wants one. A tent will be erected outside the State House to administer tests.
  • Engineers will boost air flow in the Senate chamber and in committee rooms.
  • Staff who can do telework will do so.
  • Interns and pages will work remotely.

The plan was put together in consultation with public health experts, lawmakers from both parties, representatives from local governments, citizens groups and the Annapolis lobbying corps, the Senate President’s office said in a statement.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce was also consulted, as were labor leaders, the region’s press association and others.

“By and large I think it’s pretty good,” Senate Minority Whip Michael Hough (R-Frederick) said. “It’s very important to the minority party that we’re able to debate bills, argue on bills, argue procedural points and all of that. …My take is that they seemed to take a lot of input.”

The House plan 

Because the 141-member House is three times as large as the Senate, Jones and her team have decided to put 70 members into Rooms 170 and 180 of the House Office Building during floor sessions.

The auxiliary space will be known as the Chamber Annex.

Delegates assigned to the Chamber Annex will sit at socially distanced desks.  They will be able to participate in debate, offer amendments and vote in real-time with their colleagues in the House chamber.

A lottery will determine who sits in the auxiliary space, Jones told colleagues in a letter. Delegates will be required to wear face coverings regardless of where they sit.

Committee meetings will occur remotely and lawmakers who wish to participate from home may do so.

House floor sessions will last no longer than two hours without a break, “to allow for the Chamber and the Chamber Annex to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized and to give members a break,” Jones said.

Delegates who wish more space from their colleagues can sit in the gallery. They will be allowed to vote but not participate in floor debate. A limited number of reporters will be allowed to sit in the gallery.

The House will live-stream each floor session gavel to gavel, as will committee voting sessions.

On days where there are no floor votes, Delegates can work from home. “I would encourage those of you that do not need to be in Annapolis every day to not stay in Annapolis to the extent possible,” Jones wrote.

The Speaker is discouraging members from holding meetings in their offices.

Air flow has been improved and air purifiers have been installed.

Like the Senate, the House will not meet every day during the first month of session, and there will likely be no Monday night sessions until March, Jones said. “We will consolidate the work schedule of the House to minimize the number of people who need to be on campus each day.”

Ferguson and Jones met with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Thursday to discuss the upcoming session.

Three ‘stages’

The Senate will operate in one of three stages, or modes, depending on the extent of coronavirus infection among lawmakers, staff and others.

Stage 3 is the most “normal” of the three. The Senate will be in Stage 3 when there is little or no disease activity in the State House complex.

Stage 3 envisions two hours of debate and voting on the Senate floor per session, with members who wish to watch and vote from a committee room allowed to do so. (The Senate has several members who are over 70 years of age, putting them in a high-risk group.)

Committee hearings will be held virtually, with members in their offices. Voting will take place in-person in committee rooms.

Office meetings with constituents, lobbyists or others will be limited to two visitors at a time; guests must be escorted to and from lawmakers’ officers.

The Senate will drop to Stage 2 when there is “low level disease activity with documented exposures requiring quarantine.”

In Stage 2, “floor” debate and voting will move to committee rooms and be held virtually, to allow for more distance between lawmakers.

Bill hearings will be held remotely, with members in their offices. Campus access will be limited to legislators, staff and media. No visitors will be allowed.

The Senate will revert to Stage 1 if there is an “increase” in COVID-19 infection “or multiple instances of disease activity and potential transmission; pandemic conditions.”

Under Stage 1, debate and voting will be paused. All hearings will be virtual, with select voting “as necessary.”

The decision to move between stages will be made as conditions warrant, Ferguson said. There are no set metrics that would trigger a change and the state’s reopening stages will have no impact on the Senate’s decision-making.

“We will be very focused on the campus, the level of the disease spread on campus,” he said. “What’s happening around or in the City of Annapolis, or Anne Arundel County generally, will certainly inform where we are, but we are going to be very focused on the data for members and staff.”

The changes the legislature adopts for the upcoming session — while in a few ways similar to the frantic closing stretch of this year’s gathering — are certain to be jarring, as they will represent a scrambling of the capitol’s longstanding rhythms.

The absence of the public from the premises is perhaps the most dramatic, and sobering, element of the new reality, though the addition of gavel-to-gavel video coverage does represent a long overdue step forward for transparency.

Lobbyists, issue activists and journalists will also have to find new ways of operating.

Lobbyists who were recently interviewed before Friday’s announcements said they were already preparing for a departure from normal.

“It’s going to change the way we do business,” said Sushant Sidh, a partner at Capitol Strategies LLC. “I don’t think it’s going to be scary. It’s just going to be a matter of adjustment.”

Kristen Harbeson, political director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, lamented the lack of in-person access to legislators.

“These ‘I just need three seconds’ conversations with lawmakers in the hallways are the foundation of what we do,” she said.

But she also struck a hopeful note: “It could make it easier for community members to weigh in, because they won’t have to go to Annapolis and sign up to testify and wait for hours to testify for two minutes.”

Groups that wish to gather outside the State House will be allowed to do so, Jones said.  “Construction on Lawyer’s Mall will be completed by January, so outdoor rallies will still be permitted if socially distanced and masked, based on City of Annapolis guidelines.”

‘A bigger task than I imagined’

Ferguson stressed that the rules changes being enacted for 2021 are only intended to get the Senate through the COVID pandemic and are not a preview of how the chamber will function post-vaccine.

In an interview with reporters on Friday, he said crafting the operations plan was “a bigger task than I imagined.”

“From the outset it became very clear that we were going to have to be redesigning and rebuilding the legislative process more or less from scratch,” he said. “The very nature of legislating is the act of coming together, convening, to build the laws for the people of Maryland.”

“In the midst of a global pandemic, convening is not a recommended strategy to employ,” he added.

He said the health and safety of legislators, staff and the public were his primary focus, balanced against the need for the General Assembly to perform its functions in a transparent manner. But he cautioned that the legislature is not attempting to create a “bubble” or safe zone, such as the NBA has sought to do.

The Senate released its plan two months before the start of session to give people time to provide feedback, the president said. In addition, a bipartisan Senate operations “working group” will sift through potential policy tweaks in the lead-up to and during session.

“As much as we prepare and try to prepare, this has been such an extraordinary circumstance, with this pandemic, that I am very confident that there will be something that comes that none us could have foreseen.”

Josh Kurtz and Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated twice — once after an interview with Senate President Bill Ferguson and a second time after the release of the House plan. 

Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.