Senate President Bill Ferguson on Monday predicted that the General Assembly would give serious consideration next year to bills changing the way legislative vacancies are filled in Maryland.
Speaking to a breakfast meeting of the District 18 Democratic Club in Chevy Chase, Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said he is uncomfortable with the power local party central committees possess over vacancies in the House and Senate.
Asked by a club member if he favored reforming the replacement process or if he was fine with the system “the way it is,” Ferguson replied, “I do not think it is fine the way it is.” But he conceded that he is not completely certain how the system ought to be changed.
Legislation has been introduced in multiple sessions requiring special elections for legislative vacancies that occur within the first two years of the four-year legislative term. But so far, they have run aground.
Since the 2022 election, there have already been nine legislative vacancies, due in part to several lawmakers resigning to take positions in the fledgling administration of Gov. Wes Moore (D). On Friday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) announced that she would resign this month to run the Maryland Hospital Association.
Her looming departure will necessitate at least one more appointed lawmaker whose name is forwarded to the governor by a party central committee. And if Griffith is replaced by a member of the House of Delegates — a distinct possibility — that creates yet another vacancy that the central committee will effectively fill.
“This is an issue that we are going to take up very seriously,” Ferguson said. 2024 is a good time to consider such legislation because any change in filling legislative vacancies would have to go before voters in a statewide referendum, which would logically take place that November, he said.
But Ferguson acknowledged that state elections administrators have been reluctant to embrace the idea of special elections for legislative openings, given the expense and extra administrative burden.
“The administration of special elections is not something that Maryland elections administrators have been anxious to take on,” he said.
Ferguson also personally endorsed another political reform that has yet to gain much traction in Annapolis: the idea of instituting ranked-choice voting in Maryland elections, a system that enables voters to rank their preferences among the candidates.
“I am almost entirely certain that ranked-choice voting is the way to go,” he said.
But Ferguson also shot down the idea that the measure is going to pass in the General Assembly anytime soon, suggesting that the timing is not right due to the amount of suspicions some voters have about election integrity.
“When there are so many questions about elections in general, I am reluctant now to move [ranked-choice voting] forward,” he said. “I think more education is needed. But I do think it’s something that will happen eventually.”
Speaking of Griffith, Ferguson told the political club that he hopes to name her replacement as chair of the Finance Committee “soon.” But asked about how much disruption there will be to the Senate as a result of her pending resignation, Ferguson said given the fact that he shook up two committee portfolios last year before the start of this legislative term, his objective would be to create the “least amount of ripples possible.”
Asked if Griffith’s resignation would have much impact on Montgomery County’s Senate delegation, Ferguson said it was unlikely, noting that the county already has two committee chairs, two vice chairs and the majority leader, among others, in leadership posts. Still, “any move means there are 15 other things that will have to be adjusted,” he said.
Ferguson said he is particularly sensitive to the concerns of Prince George’s County, which with Griffith’s departure will be losing a significant measure of influence in the Senate.
“I have a lot of feelings about this,” he said. “Sen. Griffith is my good friend and one of my most reliable allies.”
The bulk of Ferguson’s speech was a look back at legislative achievements during the 2023 session, including strengthening abortion rights, responding to the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision making it easier for Americans to carry concealed weapons, expanding mental health services, standing up a service-year program through state government, and continuing to strengthen the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform plan.
Under questioning from the Democratic activists, Ferguson predicted that the Senate would once again take a close look at medical aid-in-dying legislation, which after passing narrowly in the House in 2019 stalled in the Senate on a deadlocked floor vote.
“I think it’s going to be a very real conversation this year,” he said. “…We have not really started to fully count the votes…I would say it’s probably going to be one of the headline issues to be addressed this year.”
Ferguson also expressed skepticism that the state would seek to start the federal environmental review process for the proposed widening of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 from scratch, considering the likely 6-year timeline. Inevitably, he predicted, at least part of the project is likely to include toll lanes, as the Hogan administration envisioned, whether the Moore administration is happy about the idea or not.
“I know the [Department of Transportation] is wrestling with that,” Ferguson said. But he vowed that the state would eventually advance “a mixed, multi-modal solution” for alleviating highway traffic, which the Hogan administration did not promote when it came to the Beltway/270 project.