Maryland Legislators Rush To Pass Bills As Coronavirus Halts Session

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When Americans realized the full scope of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) impact, governors across the nation began to ban large public gatherings, educational leaders scrambled to close schools, and lawmakers worked to finish their annual sessions early. Maryland was no different, with 660 bills passing in the final days of the 2020 session, which adjourned roughly one month in advance of its scheduled end.

“We were trying to make sure we had consumer protections against price gouging, that we had protections for employees so they couldn’t be fired for having to take time off to quarantine, and we wanted to make sure there was expanded unemployment,” said Delegate Heather Bagnall, a Democrat from District 33. “There were things we couldn’t do. We ran out of time. A lot of us continued to work with our federal delegations to make sure these gaps were filled.”

Not everyone was pleased with the result. Delegate Sid Saab, a Republican from District 33, referred to the relief package as a one-size-fits-all approach, and he said several bills were rammed through the legislature without a full hearing in both chambers.

“We need to help hotel workers and restaurant workers, not the people who are at home but still getting paid,” he said.

While the 2020 legislative session will largely be remembered for its abrupt end, it still yielded enough time for lawmakers to enact reforms that will impact Marylanders for years.

One of those bills was the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — an education plan that stems from the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations — which will cost roughly $4 billion per year over the next decade.

“The blueprint was a promise to Maryland; it was a promise that even after a crisis, we’re committed to improving Maryland schools, that we’re committed to finding solutions to a global education system, and that we’re committed to seeing this out all the way through,” Bagnall said. “The Thornton [Commission law] was working and then we stopped funding it, and we can’t do that again. Even in the 11th hour when the magnitude of the coronavirus was coming to light, we were still putting in guardrails; we were still putting in safeguards and measures to figure out, if the economy does change, what do we do? Do we expand the timeline? If we hit a recession, what do we do? So that bill was a promise that every year we will come back and make sure Maryland’s future is secure.”

To offset some of that cost, the General Assembly expanded Maryland’s 6% sales tax to digital products and services (like streaming services and software downloads) and raised the tax on cigarettes while also applying that tax to vaping products. The contentious bill was supported by most Democrats and opposed by most Republicans.

“Whether they’re self-quarantining or required to be at home, or they’re home because unfortunately they don’t have a job to go to right now, you’re going to be increasing the tax on one of the few things they can do from home,” Delegate Michael Malone, a Republican, said of taxing streaming services. “We certainly hope that by the time the tax goes into place that things will improve, but the messaging of it is quite concerning.”

Bagnall liked the bill, saying it “leveled the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses.”

“In Anne Arundel County, 80% of our businesses are small businesses. So when we aren’t taxing our corporations and we aren’t taxing our online businesses to the same degree that we are taxing our brick and mortar, it actually hurts local business,” Bagnall said.

Malone also took issue with the tax on cigarettes.

“Although I am very concerned about the tobacco use in Anne Arundel County, the state and the nation, as a whole that’s still a very regressive tax,” he said. “It’s going to nearly double the tax on cigarettes and make it nearly $10 a pack. And although it would be wonderful if that gets somebody to stop smoking, if it doesn’t, it puts greater financial strain on folks.”

Democrats also drafted legislation for a referendum that will ask voters if the General Assembly should be able to reallocate funds from the governor’s proposed budget instead of having only the ability to cut items from the budget, or to add items only with a revenue stream. Republicans tried to pass an amendment to rephrase the wording of the question, which will appear on November’s ballot, but it failed.

“My concern with the ballot measure is a key line in the text [explaining the] shift of how the legislature can cut from the budget, then reallocate, and the last line is to ‘maintain a balanced budget,’” Malone said. “So when you hear that, I think the voters will think this is a good thing because they will focus on that including clause about the balanced budget because they will think that is something new, and Maryland already has in its constitution that the budget may be balanced.”

Another potential ballot item, which did not pass, was Malone’s redistricting bill that he has championed for three years. The bill would ask voters if congressional districts should be drawn so that they’re compact, contiguous, of adjoining territory and give due regard for geographic and political boundaries. That measure would need to pass this session to reach voters by November’s general election instead of waiting until the next cycle. Malone’s bill had 63 cosponsors but never made it to a vote.

“On the last day of session, the rules committee, which is the committee that needed to vote on it to get it on the floor, took time to vote on a resolution on whether or not Washington D.C. should have statehood,” Malone said, “and they took time to vote on two procedures on how FIFA will handle the World Cup and competition related to any World Cup games that might be played in Maryland. I didn’t think the resolution was bad, but the World Cup is not coming to North America until 2026. Why were those two things being addressed but not redistricting?”

A special session may be held in May. If so, it will be reserved for emergency legislation, not the bevy of bills that didn’t pass in 2020. This year’s General Assembly session is over, but the work is far from done.

“People want to help, and the challenge right now is people don’t know how to help,” Bagnall said. “So they’re finding ways to take care of each other. That’s a real testament to the people we represent, and it is a real honor to represent this district.”

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