The presiding officers of the General Assembly are looking ahead to the upcoming session ― now just five weeks away ― with a mixture of uncertainty over the logistics and agenda but with a sense of optimism that things in Maryland will soon get better.
“We are facing a one in one hundred year moment in time,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said Wednesday. “The good news is, there is a very clear light spot at the end of this tunnel. The bad news, is the next four months” will be difficult.
Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) spoke virtually Wednesday to a session preview convened for the clients of the lobbying firm Harris Jones Malone. They both described how the session will be organized with multiple protocols designed to keep lawmakers and the public safe as the coronavirus rages ― and laid out tentative agendas for combating the devastation wrought by COVID-19.
“Everybody wants to know what session during a pandemic is going to look like,” Jones said. “Your guess is as good as mine. We are in uncharted territory. …What is certain is that this session will be unlike any other.”
Both presiding officers said mitigating the public health and economic devastation brought on by COVID-19 would be their top priority. Ferguson said the pandemic has been especially damaging to poor families ― specifically the 30% of the population at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Ninety percent of workers at the most risk of contracting the coronavirus earn $17 an hour or less, he said.
“Those who can least afford it are the ones who are being hit the hardest,” Ferguson said, describing Marylanders “facing the sheer terror of not knowing how to pay the rent or if they can put food on the table.”
Jones said the measures lawmakers will pursue include getting more money into the hands of the unemployed ― and more reliably; providing rent relief and halting evictions for financially strapped tenants; steering aid to struggling small businesses, especially restaurants; policies that promote teleworking, which has had a beneficial impact on the state’s environment; and multiple initiatives to promote racial equity.
But both Jones and Ferguson cautioned that their ability to do everything the urgency of the moment requires will depend to a degree on the state’s finances ― and that will be dependent to a degree on the federal government providing another COVID-19 relief package. New and consequential state revenue projections will be issued over the next few days.
“I’m looking to see what our revenue estimate numbers are ― and that’s something we’ll have to take into consideration,” Jones said.
The state of the state’s finances will also play a role in determining how many of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s vetoes the legislature will try to override in the upcoming session, Ferguson and Jones said. Neither could provide a timetable for when their chambers would take up the vetoes.
The presiding officers said passing police reform and accountability measures would also be among their highest priorities.
“It is not an easy conversation,” Ferguson conceded. “This session, we must, we must, we must restore a sense of accountability and trust and transparency in the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Both Jones and Ferguson said the police reform bills could be accompanied by a package of racial equity measures that are being developed. Neither offered many specifics ― Ferguson said Senate President Pro Tem Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) is heading the effort in the upper chamber. But Jones said, “I think the [Black] community will be pleased with what we come up with.”
The presiding officers described some of the steps the House and Senate would take to keep members from contracting the coronavirus. All committee hearings, subcommittee meetings and committee voting sessions will be virtual and will be livestreamed on the General Assembly’s website. Floor sessions will also be livestreamed. The public, Jones said, will not be allowed in the State House, and an individual may be able to meet with a lawmaker by appointment only. Masks will be required at all times ― except when lawmakers are in their own offices alone, without any staff members present.
“This helps us to stay safe, but it also enables us to maintain transparency and citizen participation,” Jones said. In answer to a question, she dismissed rumors that the session might end early: “We are planning for 90 days,” she said.
Jones ― the first woman and first African-American to serve as speaker of the Maryland House ― was asked for her reaction to the election of California Sen. Kamala D. Harris as vice president.
“She’s not just an African-American female ― she was very well qualified,” Jones replied. “And she’s well qualified to take the next rung as well.”
Jones added that Harris’ ascension was fitting because “Black women clearly made the difference” in the presidential election.
Ferguson and Jones were both asked about the new leadership in Baltimore City ― the city has new officials in all top three positions for the first time since 1987: Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D), City Comptroller Bill Henry (D), and City Council President Nick J. Mosby (D), who will be sworn in on Thursday.
“I am incredibly excited about it,” said Ferguson, who, at age 37, is one year older than Scott. “I think we’re going to see a radically different message. We are hiring a new team, new leadership.”
He cautioned that “there are inevitably going to be some growing pains,” be said “we can’t be distracted by what inevitably will be some bumps in the road.”
Jones advised the new officials to “keep the lines of communication open” with legislative leaders to ensure that the city gets the most it can out of state government.
“Don’t let me read about something on the 6 o’clock news,” she said.
As for the relative youth of the new city leaders, Jones, who is 66, joked, “All of them could be my son.”