The upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly was the topic of discussion at the monthly Coffee Chat hosted by MSBA President Hon. Mark Scurti on December 2, 2020. President Scurti was joined by Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, Senator Chris West, Delegate Erek L. Barron, and MSBA Legislative Director Richard Montgomery. All are anticipating a session that is different in every way.
The General Assembly will convene January 13 and plans to promptly pass rules allowing many aspects of the session to go virtual. Delegate Barron gave an overview of the ways in which the physical set-up have been modified to accommodate social distancing, including floor sessions split between the chamber and a “chamber annex” located across the street, and desks spaced apart and divided by plexiglass. He noted that legislators have been encouraged to pre-file bills. In addition, only a small portion of the usual attendees will be permitted to physically be in Annapolis. “It’s going to be very different … sitting at home conducting the people’s business,” he said. “How do you have floor debates if half the delegates are across the street in another room?” President Ferguson agreed that this session will look completely different. The “whole concept of ‘convening’ is opposite of what we’re trying to get done this year.”
The discussion turned to the substance of expected legislation. President Ferguson discussed the prime areas of focus, which he expects to be necessarily dominated by COVID recovery and response, including in the areas of healthcare and education. He observed that pre-COVID legislation addressed education gaps that have now become “chasms we never imagined,” in part because out of 900,000 enrolled in the Maryland public schools, up to 100,000 students have had little to no academic engagement for nearly a year. President Ferguson also expects the legislature to address the evictions and unemployment systems, and how to get resources to the industries that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, including tourism, retail, hourly wage jobs, and the service economy.
President Ferguson discussed the need for the Assembly to look at the larger system of equity and inclusion in the areas of healthcare, the creation of intergenerational wealth in minority communities, and environmental justice. “We need to lay the framework of trust, accountability, and transparency,” he emphasized. “If we get this right it will be better for all involved.
In more ordinary business, President Ferguson anticipates balancing the budget, noting that “it will be painful and hard” and that the state hopes to see federal support.
Mr. Montgomery provided an overview of the MSBA’s interaction with legislators during session, including reviewing all bills and referring them to the appropriate MSBA section.He encouraged listeners to become active in a section and noted that in any given year, 15 to 25 sections are “truly legislatively active.” As an advocate, Mr. Montgomery is trying to wrap his mind around operating virtually. Ordinarily, he would plan to meet people informally before daily sessions start, which will not be possible this year.
Despite admitting that the logistics of keeping everyone safe and healthy keeps him awake at night, President Ferguson said he has reason to hope, noting that the years following pandemics are “often some of the most productive, flourishing periods for humanity” and emphasizing that it is “on us to maximize that potential.”