Emotions Raw in Session’s Final Hours, But Lawmakers Hail the Finished Product

The Maryland State House dome is lit up on the final day of the 2021 General Assembly session. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

For the third straight year, the Maryland General Assembly adjourned on Monday night without balloons or confetti a nod to the serious nature of lawmakers’ work due to COVID-19 and the restrictions placed on outsiders’ access to the State House complex in Annapolis.

It was a fitting coda to a grueling year that required all the usual hard work but contained none of the joy the carnival-like atmosphere of the 90-day session usually brings.

But even though tensions flared at times throughout the final long day of session, policymakers emerged largely upbeat about their accomplishments, which they said addressed the multiple crises confronting the state, from the public health and economic disasters wrought by COVID-19 to longstanding societal inequities that the pandemic has exacerbated.

“It has been a long day but it is the end of what has been an incredibly successful session,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said during a virtual press conference early Tuesday morning.

This is the session where we are handling and dealing with a once in 100-year pandemic,” he told reporters earlier in the day.And I think one of the biggest lessons that we’ve seen from this pandemic is that the gaps that existed in our society, the racial gaps, the wealth gaps, the foundational breakdowns of our social contract — they existed before the pandemic, but they were put on wide display on a billboard for just how bad these gaps are. And the the intensity of the pandemic on communities of color, on low-wealth communities, on our immigrant communities has been more present than I think it has ever been in, in our society.”

On the final day of the 2021 General Assembly session, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) hailed it as the “best legislative session” since he took office. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

Lawmakers moved quickly in the early days of the session to pass a $1.45 billion relief package from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) that would aid struggling Maryland families and small businesses. They also passed a $54 billion operating budget supplemented by federal stimulus funds; enacted a series of sweeping police reforms; approved record funding for the state’s historically Black colleges and universities; set up a regime to bring sports gaming to Maryland; and advanced measures to help fund the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform plan.

In the final hours of the session, lawmakers passed a measure allowing restaurants to continue selling alcohol to-go — a privilege that they’ve enjoyed since the pandemic broke out. They also approved a public health bill requiring the Maryland Department of Health to establish a long-term policy for coronavirus testing and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Honest to God, it was a great session,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), the sponsor of the COVID bill. “It was humane. We took care of people and their problems.”

But not every top priority of Democratic leaders made it to the finish line. The House and Senate, in an epic test of wills, could not agree on major legislation to address climate change, though certain provisions of the bill wound up in other legislation. Some measures to protect tenants also fell short.

Hogan who several years ago compared General Assembly members to drunken spring breakers bent on destruction — on Monday called this year’s session the best of his seven-year tenure. The passage of the relief bill was Hogan’s top priority.

“I think it was a terrific session,” he told reporters late Monday afternoon. “I want to thank legislative leaders and legislators on both sides of the aisle for their hard work over the past 90 days.”

‘The senator is out of order!’

But the legislative session was not without its tension and drama and anger between the two political parties and among Democratic leaders in the House and Senate spilled into the open on several occasions during the final hours Monday.

The flare-ups appeared to reflect the cumulative impact of a tedious, pandemic-impacted session in which lawmakers — operating largely in Plexiglas booths and sterile Zoom meetings — slogged through an unusual number of thorny issues. 

During the early afternoon floor session in the House Monday, Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) requested a parliamentary ruling after an effort to postpone debate on an amendment she offered.

She requested the parliamentary ruling from “my parliamentarian in the annex”  referring to Del. Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. (R-Carroll), who serves in that role for the House Republican Caucus and was sitting in the chamber annex, across the street from the State House, where half of the House has been stationed to achieve social distancing throughout this pandemic-marked session.

That immediately elicited groans from within the chamber and the annex. And the actual House parliamentarian, Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), stood to address the chamber.

“The parliamentarian in the House and I don’t always agree on things,” Szeliga said.

“First and foremost, to the minority whip, there’s one parliamentarian of the House of Delegates. That is me,” Wilkins responded, as colleagues applauded. “…I have the floor, per the speaker of the House.”

The delay on Szeliga’s proposed amendment was granted, and several hours later, she withdrew it.

In the Senate, things went off the rails in the afternoon during debate on a proposal to increase the fee that landlords pay to begin the process of evicting a tenant. The measure sought to raise the current $8 filing fee to $50.

Sensing an onslaught of amendments from Republican opponents of the bill, Democrats voted to limit debate to 40 additional minutes, divided evenly between supporters and opponents. 

GOP lawmakers objected, arguing that a time constraint would effectively cap their ability to offer amendments. 

As Ferguson explained his ruling — and how his chamber’s rules differ from those used in the House of Delegates — Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) interrupted him loudly, an unusual breach of protocol.

The normally mild-mannered Ferguson, clearly angered, banged his gavel loudly.  

“Senator! Senator!” Ferguson bellowed, staring Cassilly down from across the floor. “The Senator is out of order!” For a moment, his words hung in the air. 

Cassilly then formally appealed the chair’s ruling to limit debate, another rare occurrence in a body that prides itself on its collegiality. 

Ferguson stepped aside, as required, so President Pro Tem Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) could preside over the protest. Democrats prevailed easily, 31-15, with Ferguson abstaining. He then returned to the rostrum to continue running the session.

Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) then sought to restore calm. “We’ve been down here 89 days and done a great job,” he said. “It’s been tough and we can finish strong.” 

Tempers flared again on Monday night, during House debate on a bill to prevent counties from signing contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. At one point, Del. Brian A. Chisholm (R-Anne Arundel) yelled at Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) as she attempted to restore order.

The bill did pass — but Hogan railed against it on social media, calling it “sanctuary legislation” and vowing to veto it.

But there wasn’t just partisan animus on display Monday: tensions were also percolating between House and Senate leaders. In one extraordinary development Monday night, House Jones posted two brief videos to her Twitter account urging the Senate to compromise on the climate bill and pass House Bill 655, a measure that would change the way county commissioners are elected in five rural counties.

In her video, Jones called the voting measure “critical civil rights legislation.”

“For too long we have ignored these laws that were designed to quality disenfranchise voters, particularly rural Black voters,” she said.

But Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and House Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar P. Barve (D-Prince George’s) could not agree on a compromise in the waning hours of the session, and the climate bill died.

Similarly, HB 655, sponsored by Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s), remained bottled up in Pinsky’s committee — for reasons that remained a mystery Tuesday morning.

 

No balloon drop

Traditionally on Sine Die, the final night of the legislative session, student pages stand in the House and Senate galleries and drop balloons and confetti on the presiding officers and lawmakers as the clock strikes midnight.

But that ritual last took place in 2018: In 2019, lawmakers were in mourning following the death the previous day of long-serving House speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). Last year, the legislative session ended three weeks early as lawmakers sought to hurriedly leave town as the pandemic took hold.

And this year, there were no student pages on hand — and no guests in the Senate and House chambers. And many lawmakers were still quietly mourning the death of former Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. on Jan. 15.

Fittingly, the last bill considered in the House just before midnight prompted a partisan skirmish over both procedure and substance.

“This bill wasn’t quite ready,” Szeliga, the House minority whip, said of House Bill 1069, a measure by Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) that calls for testing and remediation of contaminated well water on rental properties.

After several other Republicans raised objections to the bill, Szeliga clearly thought she had talked it to the ash heap, but Jones called for a vote right at midnight.

It passed, 89-46.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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More headlines from Sine Die:

Saying Goodbye — Most Likely — to the House’s Home Away From Home

Legislature Passes Immigrants’ Rights Bill; Hogan Veto Expected

Legislature Votes to Remove Governor From the Parole Process

Sports Betting Deal Approved Overwhelmingly; Hogan Likely to Sign

Tenant Relief Efforts Fail on Sine Die

Climate Bill Dies as House and Senate Fail to Compromise

 

Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran 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 was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.
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.