Don Fry Commentary: New General Assembly leadership shone in first year

April 23, 2020

Talk about trial by fire.

The presiding officers of the Maryland General Assembly, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, had their plates full during this year’s legislative session even before the outbreak of COVID-19.

There was a packed legislative agenda of key policy initiatives, including a proposal to restructure the state’s horse racing industry including a new racing and activity venue at Pimlico Race Course and a bill to dramatically reform public education in Maryland – just to mention two controversial pieces of legislation that could test the legislative mastery of the most skilled politician.

Marshaling one or two such major bills to passage, in addition to addressing over 2,500 other legislative initiatives, is considered plenty for one 90-day legislative session.

But Ferguson and Jones juggled these and much more.

There’s no playbook that teaches  presiding officers and legislative leaders how to manage their many responsibilities or how to navigate and lead a General Assembly through the peculiarities of negotiating key pieces of legislation to passage before Sine Die.

Both Ferguson and Jones were showing leadership and mastery of these weighty responsibilities before the governor declared a state of emergency and ordered restrictions due to the  growing coronavirus (COVID-19), triggering a rethinking of what could be accomplished in an abbreviated General Assembly session.

To their credit, these new leaders were able to pass much of an ambitious legislative agenda before ending the session three weeks earlier than the scheduled final day, April 6.

It was an extraordinary achievement during an unprecedented time.

The leaders forged a number of agreements to ensure the passage of key legislation deemed high priority – including bills to meet the coronavirus threat head on.

The decision to shorten the legislative session was the first time the session was brought to an early close since the Civil War, according to multiple news reports.

Some tough calls

It took gumption to make that call as the final weeks of a General Assembly session is when legislators typically work at breakneck speed to resolve differences in hotly debated legislation.

They deserve accolades for courage and common sense, in addition to sound and wise leadership, at a time that is testing many as the norms of daily life are ever-changing.

Consider some of the key pieces of legislation Ferguson and Jones saw to passage:

  • An emergency bill granting the governor more authority if he declares a “catastrophic” health emergency.
  • A bill to reform Maryland’s public education system at a cost of $4 billion a year at full implementation.
  • A bill to allow voters to decide at the ballot in November whether to permit legalized sports betting in Maryland.
  • A bill to authorize a $580 million pending settlement of decades-old litigation over the funding of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
  • A bill to restructure Maryland’s horse racing industry to fund improvements at Laurel Park and Timonium
    Race Course and to provide for the redevelopment of Pimlico Race Course into a year-round activity venue and preserve the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

With the state budget projected to suffer up to $2.8 billion in losses due business disruptions from COVID-19 it remains to be seen how many key pieces of legislation the governor will sign into law.

When Ferguson and Jones were elected to their leadership positions in the Senate and the House, some wondered if they would be able to fill the large void left behind by their legendary predecessors: former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who stepped aside for medical reasons, and the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

In short, Ferguson and Jones did so and shone in the toughest of times.

Their first year leading the General Assembly in an unsettling time has been nothing short of remarkable, and all Marylanders should applaud their performance.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.

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