It took about three weeks for the entire world to be turned upside down. Those three weeks ended with the most morally bankrupt legislative session I have witnessed since my time in public office. After having had time to catch up on family needs, I write today to speak about how the 2020 legislative session ended.
Our priorities for this session were similar to previous sessions. We were back to work on crime, tax reform and community blight. By late February, I had seven bills that were either moving through the legislature or were actively discussed. It was at that time that the COVID-19 became, increasingly, the topic of discussion in every meeting.
We discussed policy less and discussed the impacts of the expanding global COVID-19 outbreak more and more. Although assembly leaders downplayed the story in official news sources, rumors began to circulate that session would adjourn early due to the risk of COVID-19. Around March 9th, the public was cut off from accessing the legislative complex and bill testimony was limited to the sponsor. Then staffers were sent home. Then lobbyists and advocates were prohibited from the complex and public protests were banned. That week, military vehicles were stationed at the state house.
The idea of banishing lobbyists may sound nice to the layman. However, public and professional access of our state capital is what keeps the system in check. The legislature cannot act in secret with rooms full of people testifying, taking notes and recording discussions and hearings.
For about ten days, the only people walking the halls of Annapolis were lawmakers and security. The only access the public had to the process was the video streaming, which was intermittently failing because so many members of the public were accessing it at the same time. It was a terrible feeling.
The day after the complex was locked down a member of the speaker’s staff joined the Republican caucus to discuss, for the first time, the possibility of adjourning session early. At this point, several of the members of the House of Delegates – older members and those who had compromised immune systems – had already gone home for good due to personal health risks of being exposed to COVID-19. There was a palpable irritation that there was no actual date of adjournment being offered. We were advised that the issue was so threatening that we had to clear the entire complex but the legislature had to sit less than 12 inches away from each other in a room of 150 people. In fact, some members of the majority party wanted to see the session through to the normal adjournment day of April 6th.
I stood up and spoke to my disagreement with the whole scenario. It seemed to me at that point that we were wrong for operating in complete secrecy. By cutting the public out of the process, we created a situation that was rife for abuse. I suggested that if the threat of COVID-19 were significant enough to shut down public access, we should just pass the budget – which is our only constitutional mandate – and go home.
I was assured that everything would be fine, that people had access and that both parties would get a fair shake in the remaining days. It was at that point where everything fell apart.
We worked for ten days straight. During that time, the window of opportunity closed and good bills died. The Governor’s crime package had been quietly parsed onto smaller bills and moved through the Senate. Those bills failed. I worked with Delegate Cox on House Bill 802, which gave civil protections to teachers acting in to control disruptive students. That bill failed. After years of work, I had a bill moving through the legislature to deal with the midge infestations in communities adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant. That bill failed in the Senate. During that time, the focus was on the worst capers I have witnessed in my six years in the legislature.
Out of committee came House Bill 650, which essentially gave the state full powers of martial law. The bill empowered the state to push people out of their property, empowered the state to forcefully coerce the disclosure of personal health information and empowered the state to seize all forms of private property, including fuel, food, medicine and housing. A handful of us voted no. Some members walked off of the floor in protest. At a subsequent meeting after the passage of the bill through the full House of Delegates, a meeting was called with the states emergency management liaisons who had requested the bill. It was clear that nobody had read it. Fortunately, we were able to kill it in the Senate.
The passage of the “Kirwin” bill, which purportedly redesigned public education for the better, had a price tag of more than $30 billion dollars. When asked what revenue stream would pay this new $30 billion mandate, nobody had an answer. However, multiple tax proposals were floating through the legislature the entire session. With the public absent and the media consumed by COVID-19, out of committee came House Bill 932, which has become known as the “Disney Tax.” This bill applies a 6% tax to commonly used streaming services like Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Steam. This is another regressive tax hefted onto the backs of working families, passed by the Democrats when the entire world was focused on COVID-19 and the public was banned from Annapolis.
Maybe the worst of the Annapolis scams is Senate Bill 1028. In Maryland, the Governor has special budgetary authorities as the legislature has a history for bankrupting the state. The legislature can remove money from the budget and in a limited capacity can shift dollars within the budget. However, the legislature cannot add money to the budget. Senate Bill 1028 steals the authority to add money the budget from the office of the Governor and puts it back into the hands of the legislature.
In the last sixteen hours of the session, Senate Bill 1028 moved completely through both chambers and was passed. The legislature is a bicameral body, meaning that it has two parts. Each chamber is bound by rules specifying that a bill must be read on three different legislative days. For the purpose of public transparency, this means that any bill that would be passed has a lifetime of at least six days. Those six days were crammed into the last sixteen hours of this “COVID-19” legislative session, passing Senate Bill 1028.
In an act of masterful deception, Senate Bill will put this language on a referendum on your ballot when you vote this year: “Authorizing the General Assembly to increase, diminish, or add items in the annual budget bill in order to enact a balanced State operating budget for each fiscal year 2024 and each fiscal year thereafter.” Voters will vote on this item this year. They will think they are voting for a law requiring a balanced budget. If they vote yes, they will be voting to empower the legislature to bankrupt the state.
The impacts of COVID-19 may very well push us into a recession and our economy is already seeing a major impact. We should not raise taxes with an economic downturn! We should not be piling on additional economic burdens when working Marylanders may be dealing with the biggest economic hardship of their entire life.
We did make progress on many positive goals this session and I hesitate to deliver such a dramatic report but I wanted to give the people an honest account of the final days of this legislative session and the impact that the actions of the Maryland General Assembly will have on you and your family.
The COVID-19 virus already has made a real impact on people and our economy. I plan to follow up on with information and resources that may be helpful to you and your family. If you have any questions or need help, please treat my office as a resource. The best way to reach me is via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 410.841.3298.
Delegate Robin Grammer