The session opened amid a post-holiday surge of the novel coronavirus that has led to a record-high number of positive cases and hospitalizations. Lawmakers gathered a day after Hogan announced that two residents in Anne Arundel County were diagnosed with the Washington region’s first cases of the more contagious United Kingdom variant of the virus.
They also convened under the long shadow of last week’s mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, with heightened security throughout the State House and a call for civility in politics.
“The level of political discourse and division has got to stop. It must,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said.
Some senators joked about feeling like mice as they navigated a maze of seven-foot-tall, plexiglass booths that surround their desks. They likened the barriers to hockey penalty boxes or a carnival funhouse.
“Where’s the cheese?” one yelled as he headed to his seat. “The cheese is somewhere in here. I’m going to find it.”
In the House, Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) offered a prayer to a nearly vacant chamber.
The normally bustling plazas around the State House were empty. The advocacy group Progressive Maryland hired a truck to drive through around the complex for six hours, with a billboard-sized video screen broadcasting taped interviews with residents struggling with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
In some ways, the session began much like last year’s abbreviated session ended in March, with no cocktail receptions, no family members elbowing each other to get the perfect picture of their loved one on the Senate or House floor and no toddlers sitting on young lawmakers’ laps.
“By its nature. legislating is an interpersonal business. We shake hands, talk face to face,” Luedtke said. “It’s a very different feel this year. And people are going to adjust.”
After Wednesday, most committee work will be virtual. Much of the agenda will be driven by the virus and resulting economic crisis, including health inequities, and relief for jobless workers and struggling businesses.
It is not clear whether the state will vaccinate the legislature ahead of the general population. Ferguson said Tuesday that state lawmakers, as essential personnel, may be able to get vaccines when the next round of doses are administered. If so, he said, legislators who have comorbidities will be given priority.
Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City) responded that given the slow pace of the rollout, she would not agree to receive a vaccine until front-line workers received theirs first.
Lawmakers adjourned in about an hour, after passing rules that allow for remote work and reducing the number of times legislature has to work in the historic chambers. They postponed until Friday votes to reverse Hogan’s veto of marquee legislation passed the year before, including a sweeping education overhaul.
In his opening remarks, Ferguson noted the absence of former Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who retired last month after 50 years as a lawmaker and is being treated for metastasized prostate cancer.
“His physical presence is not here but I’m sure he’s listening, taking note with what went wrong,” Ferguson said jokingly. Former delegate Michael A. Jackson (D-Prince George’s) was sworn in to fill Miller’s seat.
One of the Senate’s first orders of business will be convening a legislative work group to discuss the state’s sluggish vaccine rollout, which is still behind D.C. and Virginia in inoculating health care workers and nursing home residents.
Hogan and legislative leaders have all made pandemic-related economic relief a top priority, though they have yet to settle on a relief package or a timeline for passing it. On Wednesday, Hogan criticized a House of Delegates plan to not gather in person to pass any bills until next month.
“We cannot wait until February to get this stimulus out to the people of Maryland,” said Hogan, who has pitched a $1 billion plan that would send $750 to the state’s poorest families and let businesses keep up to $12,000 in sales tax. Passing a stimulus and aid package, he said, is “really the only thing I care about.”
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said lawmakers have been working on their own proposals for months. She noted that Hogan had described his proposal to the public but not provided lawmakers with a draft of the bill.
“We have a relief package, and we’re going to prioritize that and see what’s in the governor’s bill,” said Jones (D-Baltimore County). “We want to make sure that we get it right.”
Ferguson said the Senate also will move quickly on relief, but will make changes to Hogan’s proposal.
Lobbyists, activists and politicians have curtailed what in usually a sprawling wish-list of bills, in an effort to streamline how the legislature works.
“It’s really important that the focus of this session is really narrow,” said House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel). “Everyone really wants to avoid a superspreader event.”
Yet hundreds of bills have already been filed, from legalizing marijuana to ending a 15-year lawsuit from the state’s underfunded historically Black colleges and universities.
The General Assembly will take up major police reform legislation, which has taken on fresh urgency amid an ongoing national reckoning with racism. Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who normally attends the opening, instead spoke remotely with reporters about her plans to push for passage of the bills.
Alsobrooks, a former prosecutor, said for the first time that she supports Jones’s effort to repeal Maryland’s powerful Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. The protections it contains, she said, prevent officials from removing bad officers from the force: “I think it doesn’t work for us at all.”
Rachel Chason contributed to this report.