It was half an hour before the first formal House floor session of the 2021 General Assembly session Monday, and in the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis, it felt like the tense moments before the start of a live TV show.
Across the street from the State House, in two meeting rooms that have been repurposed as the “Chamber Annex” ― the workspace for half of the House during floor sessions, to keep delegates at a safe distance during the COVID-19 pandemic ― half a dozen legislative staffers, technicians and state troopers were bustling about, checking sound and video equipment, eyeing the four doors to make sure all the lawmakers could enter and exit in an orderly and socially distanced fashion.
One staffer went into a booth in the middle of the room ― the designated area for lawmakers who want to speak publicly ― to test the lighting.
“It looks like you’re testifying in British court,” Jeremy P. Baker, a senior adviser to House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) observed.
This was the start of a grand experiment for the House and its 140 members (there is currently one vacancy).
The state Senate has been holding floor sessions a couple of times a week since the start of the session on Jan. 13, and thanks to the size of the body and the configuration of the chamber, all 47 senators have been able to meet together on the floor, with plexiglass surrounding three of the four sides of each member’s desk.
The House, which has three times as many members, has split the delegates up: Half, including the speaker, the majority and minority leaders and whips, and all the committee chairs, will be in the main chamber for every floor session. The other half, including the speaker pro tem and the committee vice chairs, will be in the annex. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, the two chambers will be able to interface with each other in real time ― and lawmakers in the annex will be able to speak and vote as if they were on the House floor.
Del. J. Sandra Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel), whose office is off a hallway just behind the annex, was the first to arrive on Monday afternoon. Next came Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), the vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, followed by Del. Carol L. Krimm (D-Frederick).
“How are you?” Bartlett yelled across the room to Krimm. “Hug, hug!”
As members filed in, some bumped elbows. A handful wore plastic shields over their masks. Some came by to greet one of the newest members, Del. Marlon C. Amprey (D-Baltimore City), who took his seat in January.
“Welcome to the fray,” said Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D-Prince George’s).
“I’m hoping our maiden voyage goes successfully,” Holmes told a reporter, after mistaking him for someone who could provide tech help. The set-up, he said, seemed better than the time lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly met outdoors due to COVID-19 restrictions.
— Ariana Kelly (@DelArianaKelly) February 9, 2021
A few minutes before the session was to begin at 3 p.m., Baker addressed the assembled lawmakers: “You need to be in your seats or on your way to or from the door,” he said. “Otherwise, the nice troopers will have a conversation with you.”
Then Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore), standing at a podium in front of the room, urged her colleagues to settle down. “As you know,” she said, “the speaker likes to start on time.”
But the meeting did not convene on time ― it was delayed for approximately nine minutes ― as delegates in the chamber annex had trouble logging on to their I-Pads and recording their presence for the initial quorum call.
“With 134 members present,” Jones eventually intoned, “the House is in session.” The lawmakers in the annex applauded.
From there, the session proceeded fairly normally. Before long, the lawmakers got to the top business of the day: Whether to override Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a sprawling education reform bill. Washington, one of two designated floor leaders, led off the debate, now from a podium in a plexiglass stall off the House lounge in the State House.
The discussion proceeded pretty seamlessly from there, toggling back and forth between speakers on the House floor and speakers in the chamber annex. Only once was there a brief mix-up, with speakers talking simultaneously on the House floor and in the chamber annex.
Republicans, urging their colleagues to sustain the veto, did most of the talking, and every time one emerged from the booth in the middle of the room after speaking ― Del. Brian A. Chisholm (R-Anne Arundel) referred to it as “a penalty box” ― a legislative staffer dutifully wiped it down.
At some point while the debate was taking place, someone in the chamber annex sneezed ― bringing a low groan from the assembled lawmakers in a room where there’s much less circulation than there is in the House chamber. When Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti (R-Frederick) came on the screen from the House chamber, comparing the education reform plan to “Red China,” someone asked, “Who’s that?”
Throughout the proceedings, several members in the chamber annex were tweeting, broadcasting pictures of their colleagues and themselves. Most made reference to the unusual working conditions ― some more colorfully than others.
“I put on a tie (& mask) to override @GovLarryHogan vetoes today,” Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) wrote. “Maryland House members have been split into two ‘Floors.’ There’s the normal House Floor and Bizarro House Floor.”
When the session ended two hours after it began, House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), speaking from the House chamber, praised Jones.
“Thank you for ably guiding us for this first session of our new world,” he said. Everyone in the chamber annex applauded.
As members filed out into the hallway ― where they bumped into many of their colleagues returning to the House office building from the State House ― several expressed satisfaction with the way the day turned out.
“Major thanks are in order for our IT,” Bartlett said. “It was so impressive.”
This is an experience like no other, and it is necessary to experience it in order to truly understand our commitment. Our new normal. I am working from the Annex. 2020 Veto overrides. #Working4MD pic.twitter.com/hn8uH3erYD
— Del. J. Peña-Melnyk (@JPenaMelnyk) February 8, 2021
“It was crazy ― but all things considered, it was really good,” said Del. Wanika B. Fisher (D-Prince George’s).
Asked how the experience lined up with his expectations for the first floor session of his General Assembly career, Amprey replied, “At the end of the day, it’s not about what it looks like or what the set-up is. It’s about getting the work done.”