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During the 90 days the General Assembly was in session, we ran out of ways to say what an unusual, challenging and hard session it was. We overused the word “surreal” to describe the feel of the State House and the legislative campus as lawmakers attempted to do their work with the specter of a COVID-19 hanging over their heads.
But that really was the best way to describe it. We missed all the rhythms and serendipity of a normal legislative session. We missed seeing everybody.
Yet here we are, on the other side, and everyone survived it — and in many ways thrived. It may not have been especially enjoyable for the legislators and other regular State House denizens. But this was one of the most consequential sessions in memory — as lawmakers moved to address the many challenges brought on and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Lots of people did great work this legislative session — and we’re sorry we can’t acknowledge them all. But here’s our attempt to assess the good, the bad and the ugly.
The health protocols: The regular COVID-19 testing. The social distancing. The mandatory masking. The maze-like set-up on the Senate floor. The House “chamber annex.” The virtual committee hearings. Banning the public from legislative buildings. Against all odds, these protocols, designed by public health experts, the General Assembly’s presiding officers and their top staffers, kept 188 lawmakers, dozens of legislative staffers, the buildings’ essential workers, police officers and a small core of journalists healthy and safe over a period of 90 days. Kudos to one and all.
The IT folks: See above. Sure, there was an occasional glitch. But without the smooth live-streaming of House and Senate floor sessions and committee hearings, as well as near-seamless, real-time communication between the House chamber and the chamber annex, the session wouldn’t have gone as well as it did. Kudos to them as well.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County): Not only did she keep her occasionally unruly chamber together under the most trying of circumstances, but she saw almost all of her very consequential legislative initiatives — from police reform to HBCU funding to greater minority participation in sports gaming, and more — sail through.
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City): He’s proving to be a high-energy and collaborative presiding officer who is slowly steering his chamber to the left and relying on a talented array of lieutenants to move it there, sharing the credit for the Senate’s accomplishments with as many members as he can. He may not have as much control of the Senate chamber as the speaker does of hers — but then, he doesn’t have to.
Alexandra M. Hughes and Yaakov “Jake” Weissmann: For all the reasons listed above, the chiefs of staff to Jones and Ferguson, respectively, organized and led their respective chambers through all the changes. It wasn’t always pretty. But disasters never materialized, and they deserve a shout-out.
Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City): This session, you might say, was the culmination of her life’s work (though she’s only 56). After years as an outsider, she was given a seat at the table to help craft police reform legislation. While she pushed for policies more radical than what ended up on the governor’s desk, some of her priorities will become law without his signature, including the creation of a statewide use of force policy and more transparency regarding officer misconduct. Both of these measures were outlined in a previous version of Anton’s Law, which she and Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) co-sponsored during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions. Anton’s Law, named after Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in police custody on the Eastern Shore in 2018, passed this session under their sponsorship.
Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard): As the leader of the House workgroup on police reform, Atterbeary did the hard work, kept her colleagues on task, grew in stature, and basked in the spotlight.
Voting rights: As other states restrict voting rights, Maryland expanded voting by mail, drop boxes, student accessibility and military accessibility. And the House approved a bill, which the Senate did not move, that would have made elections in five rural counties more democratic.
Public health: Bills passed for health equity resource communities, young person health care subsidies, health enrollment on unemployment forms, telehealth, and more behavioral and mental health services.
Public transit: Lawmakers passed a broad transit bill that prioritizes safety and future investment, especially in the Baltimore area. And they passed a measure providing funding for the Maryland Department of Transportation to complete the design, engineering and environmental studies necessary to prepare the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit project for future construction.
Sens. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll), Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick), Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) and Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore): Whether you agree with them or not, nobody makes more cogent arguments on the Senate floor, and you want to listen to them every time they get up (which in Cassilly’s case is on just about every bill).
House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery): The closer. Sometimes majority leaders simply move to adjourn. Luedtke was an architect of key legislation, managed several bills on the House floor, often made the closing arguments on top leadership initiatives, and attempted to diffuse tensions on the House floor when they arose. He filled in the gaps in the speaker’s leadership style and has really come into his own this session. He’s probably the most powerful House majority leader since the late John S. Arnick (D-Baltimore County).
State coffers: In the months immediately after the COVID-19 outbreak, lawmakers were faced with dire predictions of multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls. From the start to the end of the legislative session, the state’s 2021 budget grew by more than $3 billion thanks to federal stimulus funding. But the question remains: can the state’s good fortune continue if federal funds dry up?
Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City): They worked to ensure that the legislature would have its fingerprints all over the $3 billion in federal aid and they succeeded. And with little fuss, Guzzone’s committee also added half a billion dollars to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) RELIEF Act proposal.
Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany): Started the session as that guy in the back row who often helps fellow House Republicans out of legal jams. Ended it as the new House minority leader.
HBCUs: With a guarantee of an additional $577 million in extra funding over the next decade, putting an end to a 15-year legal dispute, they’re about to enter a new golden age.
Broadband: The state is finally putting its money where its mouth is by allocating a record $300 million to broadband, and potentially, if all goes right, finally getting this vital service to the communities that need it.
Out-of-state corporations: Once again, legislation to close a major corporate tax loophole — and generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the state treasury — by implementing combined reporting was not even given consideration. Until this proposal gets a serious airing, no one can rightly say that the General Assembly has become captive to the left.
Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery): A star is born. Between her roles as House parliamentarian and chair of the Ways and Means Election Law Subcommittee, she spoke on the House floor early and often, rebutting Republican attempts to derail voting rights legislation with skill and patience. As the House point person on the Census and the Legislative Black Caucus point person on redistricting, she will remain prominent in the months ahead. And steeping yourself in election law is never a bad career move.
Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Baltimore and Harford): Protégé and district-mate of departing House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) displayed her mentor’s talent for asking barbed questions delivered in a good-natured way on the House floor. She also told folksy stories about the people back home, and made self-references to her upbringing and farming life that were by turns funny and moving. Maryland Republican leaders are looking to boost the profile of several women in the years ahead, and she will be one of them.
Workforce development: $10 million in the RELIEF Act and $75 million in the supplemental budget for workforce training, plus the unemployment legislation that passed this year allows for access to unemployment claims by local workforce boards.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) and Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D): Most leaders of the “Big Eight” — Scott and the executives of Maryland’s seven biggest counties — walked away from the session with something they wanted. But Pittman and Scott were probably the most successful. Scott saw passage of the transit bill and legislation returning control of the Baltimore Police Department to the city. Pittman passed his top three priorities: a progressive local taxation bill, a bill providing oversight of organizations that receive funding from the county hotel tax, and a housing trust bill. But will the taxation legislation come back to bite him in the 2022 election? Republicans are already itching to brand him a tax-and-spend radical out of step with the county’s voters.
Sens. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City): Just by sheer volume and breadth of bills they passed this year, it’s clear these stars of the Senate freshman class are fulfilling their promise.
Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City): When you’re running for statewide office it sure doesn’t hurt to amass a big list of legislative accomplishments. In Lierman’s case, those include more transit funding, housing and ethics bills, more protections for student athletes, energy assistance for low-income residents, government operations measures, and more.
Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City): She still sometimes appears flummoxed and disorganized on the Senate floor, but she made one parliamentary maneuver that was extremely consequential: moving to recommit her bill to provide extra energy assistance for low-income households back to the Finance Committee after the panel had added industry-friendly amendments. Afterwards, she and her allies shaped the bill back to its original form — a rare win for consumers.
Del. Patrick G. Young Jr. (D-Baltimore County): His fireside chat videos are one of the best things to ever come out of Annapolis, entertaining and informative, a needed tonic to all the drudgery of this COVID session.
Restaurants and craft brewers: Emergency regulations allowing them to sell take-out booze (including mixed drinks) and make deliveries are extended beyond the pandemic, though not indefinitely.
Maryland Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader: After a long slog, he finally got through!
Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick): You start the session with everyone talking about how you bused constituents to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and called the vice president of the United States a traitor that day. You finish with everyone talking about how you compared a mental health bill to the Holocaust. Not good. But you may have escaped without any disciplinary proceedings for the former.
Bipartisanship: Everyone in Annapolis likes to tout this, but it’s becoming more and more elusive. A number of marquee bills passed by lopsided margins, on party-line votes. At least one that got a fancy off-site signing ceremony — funding for HBCUs — only happened after years of acrimony. Hogan vetoed or allowed a large number bills to become law without his signature — including a bill that, if he’d signed might not have endangered federal stimulus funding.
Recreational marijuana advocates: Foiled again. Maryland is falling behind other states. And you still need to get a doctor’s note to buy medical cannabis.
Grocery stores: Still won’t be able to sell beer and wine. Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) just said the demise of this legislation is impeding her county’s ability to attract high-quality grocery stores. Maybe next year?
Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and House Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery): Boys, boys! While they both have accomplishments to boast of this session, their inability to lay aside personal or policy differences sunk the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, leaving their allies in the environmental community fretting on the sidelines. The differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill can probably be reconciled; the bruised egos, not so easily. The Senate committee worked painstakingly over a period of days to craft the bill and then shared the work-product with two other committees; the House panel seemed to start late. That remains one of the mysteries of the 2021 session.
Fraternal Order of Police: The police union did itself no favors by failing to engage in the legislative process as police reform was making its way through the legislature, erasing years of accumulated power and influence in the bargain. Bad, misguided or lazy cops are also the losers. If you’re a good cop who doesn’t get high on power and whose first instinct isn’t to reach for your weapon, your life will not change much with the police reform legislation. For the rest, you might want to consider a career change.
Hospitals: Lost on medical debt and essential workers bills, did not see one cent of reduction in Medicaid assessment, and lost a dedicated funding source during a debate on the health equity resource bill.
Del. Terri L. Hill (D-Howard and Baltimore): Even with the bills she passed, the lingering image this legislative session will be of Hill, a cosmetic surgeon by trade, in the operating room while participating in a Zoom committee hearing and a Zoom committee voting session. Hill insists that she was able to tend to her patients safely and successfully while keeping up with her legislative duties, but it was just plain weird and ill-advised. Just weeks earlier, a judge in California had chastised a doctor for performing surgery while a court proceeding was about to take place.
NRG Energy: The energy supply giant, which already has a talented corps of lobbyists, brought in extra firepower this year to begin a dialogue about bringing more “competition” — read deregulation — to the state’s energy supply market. Instead, the company found itself squarely in the middle of the electric power grid meltdown in its home state of Texas this winter. This wasn’t the year a big deregulation bill was going to pass anyway. But now the company has some explaining to do, and if you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Corporate bad actors: Legislation immunizing them from COVID liability suits, which seems to have been culled from the Koch brothers playbook, was never given serious consideration.
Working parents: Legislation for paid family leave stalled again. Another example of how the legislature isn’t as progressive as some people say it is.
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: Pulled out all the stops for its legislation to ban flavored tobacco, working closely with the Legislative Black Caucus, and it never got a vote.
The Annapolis economy: With lobbyists and their credit cards working 9-5 and from afar, with committee dinners and legislative receptions canceled, with no one eating restaurant lunches except during the session’s last few warm days, with no advocates coming to town to fill garages or pay parking tickets, the city’s hospitality industry and its overall economy are sure to take a big hit.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R): He got to put the spin on this session that he wanted — that there were some legitimate bipartisan accomplishments, that some real problems were addressed, and that he and lawmakers even delivered some tax cuts. But all of his vetoes, from last session and this one, were overridden. He got harsh scrutiny for the chaotic early rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines and the Korean test kit fiasco (though vaccine distribution is going a lot better now). And other than the one or two issues he cared about, he wasn’t particularly engaged in the legislative process, yet again. Lawmakers for the most part operated as if he didn’t exist.
Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s): He deserves enormous credit for introducing the bill that would have changed how county commission elections are held in five rural counties, which Speaker Jones built up by labeling it civil rights legislation. But the bill carried enormous political risk in Crosby’s conservative district and the fact that it stalled in the Senate, while not his fault, could be held against him in 2022.
Candidates for governor: The session was an opportunity for them to weigh in on important issues and become associated with certain causes, and most of them whiffed or stayed under the radar. Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), who has essentially had the field to himself for over a year, tried to influence the early debate on state relief efforts, but was otherwise not very vocal — he first addressed the police reform legislation on social media the day before session ended. And throughout session he has been scrambling to deal with technical glitches and shifting tax deadlines. Now other candidates are finally getting into the race.
Another potential Democratic candidate, former U.S. Education secretary John B. King Jr., stayed in touch with progressive activists on several issues through his new advocacy group Strong Future Maryland and testified a few times, but did anyone realize it or give him any credit? Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) was broadly associated with Kirwan 2.0 and other funding measures, but didn’t have a particularly high profile. Other potential candidates for governor were invisible.
Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert): He’s a sharp, fierce and clever debater. But he’s never going to win a popularity contest among his colleagues — and you could sense Speaker Jones’ sense of dread every time he got up to speak. Of course, from Fisher’s perspective, that’s probably the point.
Lobbyists: Most years we are able to declare some lobbying firms winners and others losers, but not this year. While it’s easy enough to tally lobbyists’ legislative wins and losses, without the ability to see them in action, plying their trade in committee rooms, the State House lobby, legislative building hallways and Annapolis watering holes, it’s hard to judge how they really did. Broadly speaking, we got the impression that some of the more traditional firms struggled with the COVID-19 protocols, while firms with younger, tech-savvy folks did a little bit better. But it wasn’t easy for anybody.
Transparency and public information: The legislature’s move to open some things, like committee voting sessions, to public scrutiny was welcome — even if some feeds were more or less reliable than others. Live-streaming of House and Senate floor sessions was generally a success. And it was nice for some advocates to be able to Zoom in to hearings from home when they might not have been able to invest a whole day in a trip to Annapolis. But the number of witnesses who could speak and the lack of in-person meetings and rallies stifled advocacy. And other seemingly arbitrary limits on public information persist — for example the public release of written testimony on bills, something even lawmakers openly grumbled about. What’s more, when a committee can walk off camera for over an hour to talk, there is still a problem. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that many of the reforms that were put in place — especially on listing online the bills that committees are planning to vote on — will become a permanent fixture of legislative procedure.
Gone but never forgotten
Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.