2021 was a year of profound change in Maryland, beginning with continued uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-year, vaccinations were well underway in the state and local virus transmission rates had dipped, but the state is seeing record numbers of cases and hospitalizations as we move into yet another pandemic New Year.
The state is also seeing accelerated political turnover, reform efforts in criminal justice and education, and the emergence of new industries.
Below we offer a review of the year that was. These are the stories you made possible by supporting our independent, nonprofit newsroom.
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Vaccines Arrive, But COVID Continues Deadly Spread
As 2021 draws to an end, COVID hospitalizations are at a record high in Maryland, more than 700,000 people have been infected by the virus, and more than 11,500 Marylanders have died of COVID-19.
More than 450 deaths have been recorded this month, after the state’s COVID surveillance statistics came back online after a cyberattack.
In early 2021, the state’s vaccine program was just rolling out. Lawmakers in Annapolis were jabbed in January, retired nurses returned to the front lines to help vaccinate their neighbors, and essential workers said it was ‘like winning the lottery’ when they passed through the state’s first mass vaccination sites.
The state’s vaccination program — now one of the most successful in the country — faced some criticism for inequities and a slow rollout. But advocates pressed to close the vaccine gap in Latino communities and ‘Trump counties’ alike.
An Insurrection – and the Fallout in Maryland
Masking and physical distancing were rules of the day when Congress convened on Jan. 6 to certify the results of the 2020 election. But soon the rule of law broke down entirely as an angry mob incited by President Trump forced its way into the U.S. Capitol to disrupt certification of Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election.
Maryland police agencies and the state’s National Guard — which had been tapped days earlier to help with the state’s then-fledgling vaccination campaign — were called to D.C. to help quell the chaos.
When Congress re-convened overnight to certify the election results, Maryland’s lone congressional Republican, Rep. Andrew P. Harris, continued to reject the results — and was part of a heated altercation on the House floor.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. said at a State House press conference later in the week that there was “no question that America would be better off if the president would resign or be removed from office.”
The statement underscored a contrast between Hogan and Harris, Maryland’s most high-profile Republican leaders (see analysis above).
There were calls for expulsion from the General Assembly of Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick), who called Vice President Mike Pence (R) a traitor during the Capitol siege and had arranged for buses to bring supporters to the Trump rally that precipitated the insurrection. Last month, Trump endorsed Cox’s campaign.
A General Assembly Session Like No Other
The Maryland General Assembly convened in January at a State House closed to the public, with senators ensconced in protective plexiglass booths and with the House of Delegates divided into two spaces.
Lawmakers were masked, hearings were virtual, and everything was different – all in an effort to legislate safely during the pandemic.
In the end, lawmakers moved quickly in the early days of the session to pass a $1.45 billion relief package from Hogan 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.
The State House reopened to the public in May, after more than a year of being closed off.
Mike Miller Remembered
Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the longest serving state Senate president in Maryland history ― and in the United States ― died Jan. 15, just after the start of the legislative session, at his home in Chesapeake Beach following a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 78.
Miller was remembered as a fervent Democrat who believed that government had a role to play in helping those with fewer advantages achieve success, but also felt the pace of change had to be calibrated to suit a state that is home to both very liberal and very conservative voters.
The senate president was memorialized during a special ceremony in the Senate chamber, the room Miller ruled and where his portrait now hangs, with his flag-draped casket a few yards outside the tall mahogany doors.
A Changing of the Guard
The pace of political change in Maryland is accelerating after nearly simultaneous retirement announcements by the attorney general and treasurer this year.
After the retirement of State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp – who held the job for nearly 20 years – Dereck E. Davis (D) was elected by his colleagues in the House of Delegates as her replacement. Davis was formally sworn in a week later.
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) announced his retirement in late October. Retired Judge Katie Curran O’Malley (D) and Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D) are running for the open seat, as well as James F. Shalleck, an attorney and Republican activist in Montgomery County
Police Reform Passed
The signature effort of many Democratic legislators in 2021 was a package of police reform bills, which created new processes for independent investigations of police misconduct, open police records to public inspection, require body cameras and create a statewide use of force policy, among other changes.
During a special session this month, lawmakers overrode Hogan’s veto of a bill to remove Maryland’s governor from the parole process.
Education Reform Moves Forward
Also during the 2021 session, lawmakers overrode Hogan’s veto of a ten-year, multi-billion-dollar education reform plan. Hogan vetoed the broad education reform plan in 2020.
After a dust-up about the geographic diversity of a new education reform oversight panel, the group met for the first time in November – but a major topic of discussion was a lack of funding to fully operate.
In other education news, the state settled a long-running lawsuit over funding for Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities; the state will direct $577 million in additional funding to HBCUs over the next decade.
The General Assembly convened in early December for a special session with the primary purpose of creating new congressional district boundaries.
The map passed by the legislature is currently facing two legal challenges.
The need for new congressional and legislative boundaries was precipitated by shifts in Maryland’s population in the 2020 Census, the results of which were released in August. Over the last decade,
Maryland’s population exceeded 6 million residents for the first time and Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction in state history to register more than 1 million residents in the Census. Baltimore’s population dropped below 600,000 for the first time in a century.
In January, lawmakers will begin work on a new legislative district map; a draft proposal by the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission would decrease the number of senate districts in Baltimore City by one and shore up vulnerable Democrats in other parts of the state.
First Sportsbook Bets Placed
The first legal bets at a casino sportsbook in Maryland were registered earlier this month, after lawmakers approved a gambling framework that initially favors casinos, professional sports stadiums and racing facilities.
The nascent industry passed a final hurdle in November, after the Maryland Sports Wagering Application Review Commission approved sportsbook applications despite concerns from some commissioners who felt it was unfair to give certain operators a head start in a new and potentially lucrative industry. They worried that homegrown start-ups — particularly those owned by women and people of color — will struggle to compete with marquee names like MGM, Live! and Horseshoe.
Maryland appears to be the 32nd state in the nation where residents can legally place bets on sporting events.
Former Hogan Aide Indicted
Hogan’s former chief of staff, Roy McGrath, was indicted in October on charges of misappropriating government funds and misconduct in office.
The 30-plus charges stem from a $233,647 severance payment he sought as he moved from heading the Maryland Environmental Service to the governor’s office.
McGrath pleaded not guilty in federal court in November. McGrath has said Hogan expressed support for the six-figure payment, though the governor’s office rejects that claim and alleges that a memo McGrath has touted as proof in interviews with the media is a “complete fabrication.”
Pandemic Procurement Probes
A legislative auditor’s review of 15 pandemic-related emergency procurements, concluded that 11 contracts, totaling $189.4 million, were not obtained in accordance with state law — and three of them didn’t have formal written agreements.
The review probed a small slice of 848 emergency procurements related to the pandemic, which totaled approximately $1.7 billion across 19 state agencies between March 2020 and May 2021.
An April audit detailed the costs that went into a highly publicized purchase of 500,000 COVID-19 test kits from South Korea that couldn’t be used. Auditors concluded that the state spent a total of $11.9 million on the purchase and that there were several procurement irregularities related to the tests.
The Hogan administration called the April audit “a rushed and politically-driven” and disputed characterizations in the newer audit released this month.
Wind Energy Efforts Move Forward
In December, the Maryland Public Service Commission awarded new leases to two offshore wind energy companies to erect turbines off the coast of Ocean City.
Even so, it could still be years before the 800-foot wind turbines appear in the Atlantic off the coast of Ocean City.
The first and second phases of the wind energy projects still await approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The Biden administration, which is promoting renewable energy development on a variety of fronts, has vowed to expedite the approval process.
A deep dive into Maryland’s wind energy future was the first installment in a new Maryland Matters special project, Climate Calling.
Maryland Matters also published the Climate Voter’s Guide, which included interviews with all of the Democratic candidates for governor.