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COVID-19 in Maryland Government & Politics

Lobbyists and Advocates May Come Out of Hibernation for Next Week’s Special Session

In March 2020, as the General Assembly prepared to adjourn early because of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, lobbyists awaited the arrival of lawmakers near the State House. There will be at least two rallies outside the State House and other scattered lobbying activities during the special legislative session next week. File photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Next week’s special General Assembly session has a fairly limited agenda. Lawmakers are scheduled to produce a new congressional map for Maryland, consider whether to override two dozen of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s vetoes, and elect a new state treasurer.

But several state government lobbyists and advocates said they expect next week to look and feel more like a normal legislative session than any other time since the legislature shut down early in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“It does seem like everybody’s going to be in town,” said Caitlin E. McDonough, an attorney and registered lobbyist with the firm Harris Jones Malone. “I have more in-person meetings scheduled than I’ve had in a while.”

The General Assembly did manage to get through a full 90-day session earlier this year. But the calendar and legislative flow was dramatically different. Public access to the State House and other legislative buildings was severely restricted. All hearings were held virtually. Registered lobbyists were almost invisible in Annapolis. And advocacy groups held a handful of rallies — a fraction of the typical number.

Several COVID restrictions will be evident still on the legislative campus next week — and during the regular 2022 session, scheduled to begin on Jan. 12. So even regular Annapolis denizens are looking ahead to next week with a degree of uncertainty.

“I’m looking forward to being in Annapolis and walking the halls to the extent that we can, talking to people outside and just seeing people,” said Ann Ciekot, a partner at the firm Public Policy Partners and president of the Maryland Government Relations Association. “It’ll probably be a little more social than business for a lot of us.”

With redistricting topic one at next week’s special session, good government and political reform advocates will be on hand, seeking to influence the legislative debate.

“We’re trying to function somewhat normally,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “In terms of on the ground organizing, I’m not really sure how normally.”

Antoine said her group dispensed with the idea of a full-blown lobbying day in Annapolis, even though that was the original goal. Instead, activists will drop literature in lawmakers’ offices and attempt to have one-on-one meetings with them when possible, she said.

The League of Women Voters plans a rally on Lawyers Mall Wednesday morning in favor of fair maps. The group is hoping to bus people in from all over Maryland.

Fair Maps Maryland, the bipartisan organization affiliated with Hogan, is also likely to be a presence in Annapolis next week as the legislature votes on a congressional map.

But with several other measures up for debate as lawmakers vote on which of Hogan’s vetoes to override, other interest groups — and their lobbyists — also plan to be on hand. Criminal justice reform groups, for example, will rally outside the House office building Monday morning, urging legislators to override Hogan’s veto of a bill that would have given prisoners serving life sentences more opportunities to qualify for parole.

The COVID session of 2021 reduced formal social activities to almost zero, and it seems unlikely that there will be an extensive roster of receptions, committee dinners and special interest events in Annapolis during the 2022 session. But next Monday evening there will be a happy hour at an Annapolis restaurant — with indoor and outdoor spaces — sponsored by the Maryland Government Relations Association and the Culture Caucus, a group of young professional political staffers and advocates. About 200 people are expected to attend.

“We feel like this is a ‘welcome back’ in a way,” Ciekot said.

Ciekot and other lobbyists said that even if they aren’t specifically working issues that will be on the special session agenda, they see being in Annapolis next week as a way to get a leg up on the 2022 session and work their clients’ interests in advance.

“It will be our first teeny-weeny taste of what the session is going to look like in January,” said Lisa Harris Jones, the founding member of Harris Jones Malone.

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