Will Maryland Lawmakers Come Back to Work?

In a moment of crisis, the state Senate and House are slated to be in recess until January.

Will Maryland Lawmakers Come Back to Work?

In a moment of crisis, the state Senate and House are slated to be in recess until January.

As the nation faces multiple crises—a devastating pandemic, record job losses, and ongoing police brutality—some state legislatures are returning to work to pass badly needed reform and relief bills. But unless something changes in Maryland, elected officials are going to wait to act for another six months, until January 2021, when the next regular session is set to begin.

When it comes to partisan control of state legislatures, it doesn’t get much bluer than Maryland. Although the two-term governor, Larry Hogan, is a Republican, Democrats are firmly in charge in both the state Senate and the House of Delegates. With a pair of veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers, the party can functionally do whatever it wants, so long as its members are united in their commitment to act.

That is, when it’s in session—but the legislature adjourned early this year, leaving Annapolis on March 18 as the novel coronavirus brought business and government alike to a virtual standstill. At the time, lawmakers hoped to return in May to potentially override some of Hogan’s most recent vetoes, including bills that would overhaul the state’s public education system and fund a state board charged with reviewing prescription drug prices. Reconvening would also allow the legislature to consider proposals to provide Maryland’s six million residents with additional COVID-19 assistance. 

In late April, House Speaker Adrienne Jones cited safety concerns and the advice of health experts when announcing the decision not to reconvene in May, and the legislature has not returned since. Some lawmakers have asked state Attorney General Brian Frosh for an opinion on whether the legislature could convene remotely, but his office has yet to publicly provide an answer.

Under the state Constitution, Hogan is the only one with the power to call a special session, and he presumably has little incentive to jeopardize his vetoes by calling one on his own. But state law allows the legislature to force him to do so by simple majority vote of both chambers. So far, Democratic leadership hasn’t been willing to take that step. Jones and Bill Ferguson, the president of the Maryland Senate, did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

Polling conducted in May indicates that even before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis drew renewed scrutiny to the role of police in American life, Marylanders grappling with a deadly pandemic and its economic fallout strongly supported their lawmakers getting back to work: 76 percent of all respondents, including 85 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Democrats, and 63 percent of unaffiliated voters, per Maryland Matters. During an international emergency, people are seemingly less concerned with partisan politics than they are with the government making an effort to get help to those who need it.

Julian Ivey, a House of Delegates member who represents part of Prince George’s County, is trying to bring the legislature back. He has circulated a petition among his 187 colleagues in the General Assembly, asking Hogan to convene a special session, their partisan differences notwithstanding. 

So far, Ivey says, “numerous” colleagues have called him to voice their support for his petition, but say they’re reluctant to speak out without the approval of Democratic leadership. Publicly, only “about six” have been willing to put their names to it.

“We are, unquestionably, in the midst of an extraordinary national crisis that has been sparked by the killings of unarmed Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others,” the letter reads. “We believe that the people of Maryland deserve a prompt legislative response.”

If lawmakers were to return to work, Ivey argues that they should repeal the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, one of the strongest laws of its type in the nation. He also wants to “heavily amend” the Maryland Public Information Act to weaken its ability to shield police misconduct complaints from public disclosure. 

“These aren’t new ideas. These aren’t new issues,” Ivey told The Appeal. “The only thing new is that we have the energy of the people on our side.”

In an appearance on The Appeal’s “Briefing” on Wednesday, Ivey, 24, emphasized his continued support for Democratic leadership, and said that Speaker Jones is doing a “wonderful job.” “But I also have to speak on behalf of the district that I represent,” he added. “As the youngest member of the body who is also an African American male, it’s my duty, I believe, to speak on this issue of police brutality, police misconduct, because quite frankly, if I won’t be that voice, I don’t know who will.” 

Other Democrats argue that drafting systemic police reform legislation requires more time, and that rushing would risk squandering a moment when the political will might exist to pursue even more ambitious reforms. “I certainly appreciate the fierce urgency of now,” state Senator William C. Smith, chairperson of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, told The Appeal. “I wonder if it’s prudent to do it immediately, when we’re not quite prepared to address those issues with the type of attention to detail that we need to.” 

Smith, a criminal justice reform proponent, argues that repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights “sounds great,” but would leave in place a patchwork of disciplinary regimes used by Maryland’s different law enforcement agencies, some of which have locally adopted the officers’ bill of rights verbatim since its enactment at the state level. “The difficult part is going to be replacing it with something that holds police accountable,” he said. “That’s the hard work at hand.”

Further complicating matters, Smith says, is that “the full picture of the fiscal impact” of the pandemic remains unclear, making it difficult for lawmakers to set priorities of any kind at this particular moment. (State law requires lawmakers, if they were to reconvene, to override Hogan’s vetoes in that session, making a hypothetical special session their last opportunity to do so.) But Smith acknowledges that as circumstances evolve, the urgency of providing Marylanders with relief during COVID-19 could take precedence over the desire to wait to pass a comprehensive police reform package, particularly if Hogan’s responses prove insufficient.

I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to come back and take legislative action if the executive doesn’t,” Smith says.

Ivey, however, doesn’t want to wait for Hogan. He says he wants to take up measures to provide hazard pay and personal protective equipment for essential workers, and to set aside additional financial support for renters. Although the governor committed $30 million in eviction prevention assistance last month, advocates say the state needs five times that amount. 

Ivey also notes that previous General Assemblies convened special sessions to do things like raise taxes and expand legal gambling. If those issues merited urgent action, he argues, a looming evictions cliff, a public health disaster, and an epidemic of police violence should be worthy of the same treatment.

“History will look back at this time and it’ll be very clear that this is the right issue for us to be standing on,” he told The Appeal. “We’re asking other people to go and continue putting their lives on the line. We should be doing all that we can to provide the relief that they need throughout this pandemic.” 

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