The Maryland legislature wrapped up its annual 90-day session on April 12, passing some of the most comprehensive bills to come across the statehouse floor in recent history.
As the pandemic continues across the country, the 141 members of the House of Delegates were split between two groups, while masks and social distancing made up the House and Senate floors.
Apart from a few false positives, all members of the legislative assembly were able to avoid contracting COVID-19 over the session.
Most committees were held over Zoom, introducing new opportunities and challenges to legislatures and members of the public wishing to testify.
Virtual hearings meant constituents could listen in and testify without leaving their homes, but some representatives felt this year’s turnout was still less than previous sessions.
“There were really great things about being virtual for folks that don't live close to Annapolis,” said District 33 Delegate Heather Bagnall, a Democrat. “But it's certainly not a perfect situation. And virtual will never replace in person.”
Technical and logistical issues that often plague Zoom calls made representatives on both sides eager to return to in-person next year. And being able to shake hands with those across the aisle after votes were cast was an important element that was absent from this session.
“That's a tough thing to create virtually,” Bagnall said. “Losing that camaraderie in such a consequential year was probably the hardest thing.”
Nevertheless, the State House had one of its most exhaustive sessions to date. Most notably, lawmakers tackled issues of pandemic relief; police, education and unemployment reform; and new avenues of tax collection through sports betting and the first-in-the-nation digital ad tax. They accomplished all of this with an increased balanced budget of $52 billion, with roughly $4 billion coming from federal pandemic relief.
But “the primary duty of this year was to deliver relief to individuals and small businesses,” said District 33 Republican Sid Saab.
Prioritized early on by Governor Larry Hogan, lawmakers passed more than $1 billion in pandemic relief in February. The bill included over $178 million in relief to roughly 400,000 state residents. A tax credit for low-income residents was expanded by roughly $478 million for the next three years. Unemployment benefits for tax years 2020 and 2021 cut state or local income taxes, while small businesses also saw a break in sales taxes.
“We fought to make sure people had money in their pockets,” said Bagnall, “and we had to do it immediately because we said, ‘Help is coming.’”
And while all members were pleased to put money back in the hands of individuals and businesses, some have concerns about the impact of that kind of spending.
“As a fiscal conservative I'm always concerned about the long-term impact,” said District 33 Senator Ed Reilly. “It’s always a double-edged sword. You try to do your best for your community without destroying the long-term financial fabric of our country.”
Similar concerns were also brought up by Saab and fellow District 33 Delegate Michael Malone. Saab noted his concern that this money could potentially be going to members of the community that are here illegally.
The Police Reform and Accountability Act was one of the more public and contentious bills to pass this session, just two weeks before Derek Chauvin was read a guilty verdict in his killing of George Floyd.
The bill, which is one of the most expansive plans in the country, guarantees body cams for every officer by July 2025, a new civilian-ran disciplinary process, restrictions on no-knock warrants, and a newly created unit in the attorney general’s office that will investigate all police killings of civilians, among many other bills.
And while Bagnall hopes “it provides a roadmap for reforms across the country,” others worry that these new regulations could hinder officers’ ability to do their job.
“I have significant concerns that the reform is going to make it very, very difficult for law enforcement to carry out their duties,” Malone said.
Malone and his District 33 Republican colleagues all pointed to the new law that forces officers to wait 20 seconds after knocking before they can enter with their search warrant. Additionally, no-knock warrants must be carried out between 8:00am and 7:00pm, except in emergency situations.
“Although there is police reform that is needed,” Saab said, “I don’t think the product we ended up with was the reform we needed.”
Each representative also found challenges and success with their own bills this year.
Reilly managed to pass the Dennis Robin Act. This bill will require closing pharmacies to alert clients 14 days in advance. This way, they will have the opportunity to choose their next pharmacy without being automatically reassigned.
While Bagnall’s Mental Health Access Initiative (which sought to lower the age of informed consent when a child may be struggling with mental health and substance abuse) did not pass through the House, a similar bill was able to make it through the Senate.
“I couldn't be prouder of a single piece of legislation that will never have my name on it,” Bagnall said after spending two years developing the bill with District 44 Senator Malcolm Augustine. “It is a bill that will absolutely save lives.”
Saab proposed a bill that would allow constituents to vote on the addition of term limits to the Maryland legislative branch.
“Honestly, after eight to 12 years of being in office, there’s really not much more you can do; you just become part of the problem,” Saab said, hoping his bill will gain more traction next session.
Malone was pleased to have his court dog program bill pass the House — which will expand therapy dogs for testifying witnesses to include veterans. But he was frustrated that his anti-gerrymandering bill was not even voted on, especially with redistricting coming up next year.
Reilly, Bagnall and Malone each had bills pertaining to riparian rights — control of the waterfront — of community organizations, in reference to a lawsuit out of Cape St. Claire in which a developer was given permission to build a pier over shoreline that belonged to the community.
The bills would create a clearer relationship between the state and county so permission is not given for a possibly illegal structure, while also protecting communities from losing their rights to the shoreline in the face of erosion and rising sea levels.
Due to time constraints, none of the three bills were voted on but each representative plans to work to get them passed next session.