An Unprecedented Year Shakes Up The Maryland General Assembly

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As the 2021 Maryland legislative session began on January 13, lawmakers began to face new and familiar challenges as the coronavirus continues to surge through Maryland and the United States.

With daily COVID cases now nearly six times higher than they were when the legislature ended prematurely in March of last year, State House officials took extra precautions to ensure the safety of lawmakers and the integrity of the legislative session.

The House has been separated into two separate groups, while masks, social distancing, plexiglass, and air purifiers make up both the House and Senate floors.

“I feel like our leadership has done everything in their power to make us as safe as possible,” said District 33 Delegate Heather Bagnall, a Democrat. “And I think there's always going to be some level of risk as there is in any sort of health crisis.”

Senator Ed Reilly and Delegate Michael Malone, both Republicans, share this cautious optimism, but fear the biggest effects will be felt by constituents. Public hearings and testimonies have been severely limited by the pandemic as the legislature switches to live-streamed virtual committees to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“The testimony will be shorter and more concise,” Reilly said in reference to the new system in the Senate that allows for just four people to testify for and against a bill. “It's going to exclude a great number of people who want to verbally testify.”

In the House, testimony has been limited to 50 witnesses per case. Malone believes that virtual calls may make the hearings more accessible to those attending, but that the limits on witnesses make it difficult to guarantee a balanced presentation.

“I think a lot of us have been very strategic on the work that we’re going to be doing and how we’re going to be doing it,” Bagnall said, “because we recognize the need for a very streamlined process.”

Despite the uncertainty of the times and the expectation of adaptations as the session moves forward, representatives expect the session to last the normal 90 days, and they prefiled the majority of their bills in order to facilitate that deadline.

Lawmakers in the Democratic-led General Assembly are eager to provide further protections to tenants suffering due to the ongoing pandemic, but District 33 Republicans want to make sure small landlords with multiple mortgages are not being left out of the discussion.

“You're going to have to find a balancing act and, of course, everything has to be paid for,” Malone said, “so we will be facing the challenges of prioritizing where government dollars go.”

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an educational reform initiative passed by the legislature in 2020 but vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan, will be brought back onto the floor this session. The Blueprint - which expects to increase education spending in the state by nearly $4 billion by 2030 - seeks to expand prekindergarten programs, career education for high school students, increase pay and opportunities for teachers, while also increasing funding for schools in low-income communities.

Bagnall said she was frustrated with the veto last session “because the governor wasn’t part of the discussion, who signaled very early it was not a priority.”

Bagnall acknowledges the economic implications of the growing pandemic gave Hogan a legitimate cause to veto the bill, but she said that alternative avenues for revenue were already being explored during the bill’s processing if the state were to experience a recession.

Malone and Reilly, who voted against the bill in 2020 due to its high price tag, plan to support the veto this coming session and are ready to vote against the bill again if it reappears on their respective floors with an unaltered price tag.

“It all has to do with the money,” Reilly said. “We just may not have enough money to fund that program.”

Democrats are yet to signal whether they plan to fight the veto or amend the bill, which is compiled of policy reforms with no indication of funding. Republicans worry this may lead to an increase in taxes in a time when people are already struggling to make ends meet.

“I think that it goes back to ‘if not now, when?’” said Delegate Bagnall in favor of the bill. “How many generations do we lose in the gap between doing something and not doing something.”

Each representative will sponsor a handful of their own bills as well. Malone seeks to expand therapy dogs for testifying witnesses to include veterans while also reintroducing an anti-gerrymandering bill that would redraw voting districts “so they're compact, continuous and give natural political and geographic boundaries.”

Reilly prefiled a bill with hopes it will increase protections for both tenants and landlords by requiring a further notice of tenant evictions. This bill seeks to prevent a tenant’s possessions from being mistakenly removed while also preventing landlords from hiring unneeded moving companies. He also hopes to pass a bill requiring pharmacies to notify patrons of their closure in a timely manner, so that clients can choose their next pharmacy without being automatically reassigned.

Bagnall has brought forth bills for the creation of committees to investigate problems in Maryland’s oral health and student mental health. Another bill also seeks to lower the age of informed consent when a child may be struggling with mental health and substance abuse.

All three senators have put forward bills in the interest of protecting the riparian rights of community organizations, in reference to a lawsuit involving a Cape St. Clair community losing its rights to shoreline in the face of erosion and rising sea levels.

Delegate Sid Saab, who could not be reached in time for this article, had yet to file any sponsored bills before this article was published.

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