The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In transformed State House, Md. lawmakers will debate how much pandemic aid — and for whom

The Senate chamber of the Maryland State House, with plexiglass booths to shield lawmakers from the coronavirus, as it appeared on Jan. 7. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
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A maze of plexiglass booths occupy the floor of the Maryland Senate. The House of Delegates has been cleaved in two, with half of the lawmakers assigned to an annex across the street.

The Maryland General Assembly convenes for its 442nd session on Wednesday under unprecedented circumstances, physically distanced because of the coronavirus and facing a complex and wide-ranging set of health, economic and racial crises that the months-long pandemic has laid bare.

“It’s a 100-year moment,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said in an interview. “We have the opportunity to get support to the most vulnerable people, who need it most to survive until we get through this.”

As they prepare to gather in Annapolis, sometimes remote and sometimes segregated by yards of plexiglass, political leaders from both parties say the pandemic’s wrath has set the agenda for them.

“Our priorities for the session are pretty simple: We’re focused on the response to the virus and the recovery of our economy,” Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said. “We all share the same desire that the most important priorities are struggling Marylanders, struggling businesses, helping people get the assistance they need, providing more economic relief and continuing to fight the virus.”

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Despite the unity of mission, however, there’s no consensus on what a rescue package would look like, how much it would cost or who should be at the front of the line for aid.

Hogan plans to unveil his proposal before Wednesday. House and Senate leaders have each developed their own packages, with price tags that could reach hundreds of millions of dollars, if not over $1 billion, in state cash. It’s an enormous sum for a state that, like most, is grappling with declining tax revenue, without federal stimulus to pay for the normal functions of running a government.

The pandemic curtailed last year’s legislative session in mid-March, about three weeks early, leaving unfinished business on this year’s agenda. Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers, intend to override some of the 22 bills Hogan vetoed in May, when he deemed it “irresponsible” to enact new spending amid a global economic crisis.

The top veto-override target is reinstating a sweeping overhaul of public schools that proponents said would fix generations of inequity — and legislation requiring new taxes to pay for it. Hogan has long derided the plan as too costly.

On one vetoed bill, which would have settled a 15-year lawsuit over unequal resources given to Maryland’s historically Black college and universities, the legislature intends to skip an override and instead pass it a second time, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said.

Jones (D-Baltimore County), the first Black person to lead a legislative chamber in Maryland, said she’s optimistic Hogan won’t veto the legislation again.

“I’ve spoken to the governor and given him the idea he could be a little bit of a hero on this,” she said.

For many lawmakers, the pandemic has defined public service since they left Annapolis.

Thousands of their constituents were sickened and killed by the virus, disproportionately in minority communities. Thousands more have struggled to access unemployment benefits, money to save their businesses, Internet access to telework or do remote schooling, or mental health resources to cope with the grief of life upended.

Jones said the General Assembly’s priorities “are a reflection of what our constituents have been calling to tell us.”

“We feel their pain. We want to address it.”

Democratic leaders share a laundry list of ideas to stave off an eviction crisis, bolster an unemployment system buckling under unprecedented jobless claims, funnel money to restaurants and other small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, and reward private companies that keep employees on telework for months to come.

After the summer’s nationwide reckoning with racism, many of the economic proposals pay special attention to access and disparities for Black and other communities that have been left behind by generations of structural racism. Maryland’s population has the highest concentration of Black people outside of the Deep South; its largest city, Baltimore, in the early 1900s was the birthplace of housing segregation laws that grew into a national policy known as “redlining,” which suppressed the accumulation of wealth.

Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today.

A separate package of bills, unrelated to the pandemic and under consideration by both chambers, examine unfair practices in housing, banking, business, employment and other areas.

“We need to address this in a way that’s lasting,” Jones said, adding that details will be announced in coming days.

Lawmakers are also weighing whether to curtail or eliminate long-standing protections for police officers accused of wrongdoing.

Republicans in the legislature say they’ll try to use their minority caucus to blunt what they view as excess spending and stave off policies that go too far, too fast.

“We have to be really careful, because unlike the federal government, we can’t print money,” said Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick). “I want to help people . . . [but] we’re not the federal government. We can’t even begin to have conversations about giving people $2,000 checks.”

Ferguson, the Senate president and a budget expert, said he’s working on legislation that is targeted to “those individuals who fell through the cracks.” For example, the state could extend small-business grants to firms that didn’t apply for state aid within the first weeks of the pandemic and therefore missed out. Or Maryland could temporarily offer unemployment benefits to people who left their jobs to supervise remote schooling for their children.

“There are going to be significant resources required, the scale of which we haven’t seen in Maryland,” Ferguson said. To help pay for it, he proposes delaying construction and other projects for a year to 18 months, or scaling back planned spending. Ferguson said the multiple rounds of federal stimulus have already sent “somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion” in aid to Maryland residents, and the state needs to find more. “It’s a significant amount of money, but it’s not been enough.”

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The House’s Democratic caucus, meanwhile, is working on an array of separate relief proposals, from offering cash assistance for overdue utility bills or financial bonuses to essential workers, to paying for lawyers to represent low-income people in eviction proceedings. Jones said there’s no price tag yet on the multipronged effort, and she’s hopeful a new round of federal stimulus funding under President-elect Joe Biden could pay for much of the relief her caucus is seeking.

The public, including lobbyists, will be barred from the State House complex because of the pandemic, so for the first time in state history all chamber proceedings will be live-streamed. Social events and receptions are also prohibited, collectively eliminating the typical avenues to access used by Annapolis’s large and varied activist and lobbying corps.

Lisa Harris Jones, a lobbyist whose firm works on an array of issues, said she’s urged her clients to focus on just one key priority each. She spent the summer and fall making sure she had direct email and phone lines to every lawmaker, people whom in other years she would be able to snag in a hallway. Her work setup includes two iPads and an iPhone, on tripods, so she can be engaged in multiple Zoom events at the same time.

“There’s still that anxiety, though, what are other people doing?” she said.

The annual pre-session fundraising crush has also shifted online, with donors asked to pay $2,000 or more to hang out in virtual chat rooms, sometimes bringing their own breakfasts to their laptops and in one case watching a magician. Some lawmakers are hosting “no-show” receptions, where donors can simply send a check on a certain day, no virtual appearance required.

In addition to the plexiglass barriers that will envelop masked lawmakers inside the chambers, the politicians have access to rapid and PCR tests five days a week in a tent outside the complex. Senators are required to get regular tests.

“There’s no such thing as a no-risk thing during the pandemic,” Ferguson said. “I stay up every night thinking about what could go wrong.”

Despite all the precautions, which were developed in consultation with public health experts and epidemiologists, lawmakers are bracing for the possibility that the virus could emerge in the State House complex.

“Barring a broad vaccination, I would imagine you’re going to have outbreaks in the General Assembly,” Hough said.

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