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Coronavirus to shut down Maryland General Assembly

For the first time since the Civil War, the Maryland General Assembly will shut down before its regular adjournment as lawmakers hope to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Amid social distancing guidelines that bar large gatherings and urge isolation, 188 state lawmakers had for days been sitting elbow-to-elbow in marathon sessions to rush through their work.

But on Sunday, leaders announced a nearly unprecedented decision to suspend their annual 90-day session on Wednesday, about three weeks early, and focus only on their highest priorities. Those include passing a state budget and coronavirus legislation that would give job protections to people who are quarantined and temporary unemployment benefits to people who lose pay because of the pandemic.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) called it a “fragile moment” in the statewide effort to preserve the state’s public health.

“This was not an easy decision to make,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said at a news conference packed with lawmakers from both parties.

“We will essentially be condensing the last month of session into three days, with a third of the staff.”

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Staff burnout was a chief reason for suspending work, lawmakers said, along with concerns about forcing the general public and lobbyists out of public buildings. Across the country, legislatures in more than a dozen states have adjourned early or curtailed their schedules. Even more have barred the public.

Maryland lawmakers plan to return to Annapolis to do unfinished work during the last week of May, after Memorial Day. Ferguson said they picked that time because it is when, they hope, “the public health crisis will have passed.”

Roughly 2,400 bills are still pending, including marquee legislation to compensate innocent people who were wrongly imprisoned, address the unrelenting murder rate in Baltimore and legalize sports betting.

The Democratic presiding officers promised they would not leave town without passing a top-to-bottom education overhaul and a package of tax increases to help pay for it.

The Democratic-controlled legislature has already moved to curtail a large education overhaul, which was three years in the making, over concerns about the economy’s reaction to the pandemic.

A package of roughly $700 million in tax increases to finance the proposal are still pending and require compromise to pass.

Republican leaders supported the early adjournment.

“I stand side by side with my colleagues — at a safe distance,” said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford).

He also referred to the State House as a “petri dish.”

After the shutdown announcement, lawmakers got straight to work, moving dozens of bills at a rapid clip.

They sent a bill to the governor that forces the state to settle a protracted lawsuit with the state’s four historically black colleges and universities over inequitable funding at Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

The legislation, which was a priority of Jones’s and the Legislative Black Caucus, would provide $577 million to the HBCUs over 10 years.

A coalition of college graduates filed a lawsuit in 2006, alleging that the state caused damage to the HBCUs’ enrollment by letting other state colleges duplicate programs that once attracted a diverse student body to the historically black institutions.

Similar bills have stalled in past years.

“This issue is something that is so important,” said Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), “not only to the black community but also to this state.”

Ferguson said the Black Caucus fought alone for too long to get the legislation passed.

“This will improve the life of all Marylanders,” he said.

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The General Assembly has also quickly advanced bills to expand access to telehealth and to set aside as much as $60 million to address the fallout of the epidemic. A $48.5 billion budget deal is up for a committee vote early Monday, as much as two weeks ahead of schedule.

Ferguson, the Senate president, said legislative leaders are taking steps to ensure transparency until the General Assembly adjourns this week. One step is to live-stream voting sessions, which are not normally streamed online.

“We know the situation is not ideal for any of us, but we are doing our best to ensure open government in this time of a public health crisis,” Ferguson said.

The General Assembly last adjourned early during the Civil War, when the entire legislature moved to Frederick to debate whether Maryland, a slaveholding state, should secede from the union. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 rolled through Maryland in the fall and winter, when the legislature was not in session.

By law, Maryland’s General Assembly has a single duty: It must pass a budget before midnight on April 6, or the government will not have money to operate come July. The legislature was about halfway through that process when the first confirmed case of coronavirus was reported here on March 5. By Sunday evening, Maryland authorities reported the state had at least 33 cases.

During Sunday’s session, three lawmakers stood up to publicly explain the origin of several coughs. “There’s some bronchitis going around,” said one. “I’m not contagious,” assured another.

Del. Bonnie L. Cullison (D-Montgomery) was standing to speak on a bill when she paused to cough into her elbow. Heads turned.

“Excuse me. Allergies,” she said to laughter.

“Thanks for the clarification,” Jones said.

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