Pandemic protocols changed more than the physical operations of the General Assembly during its 2021 session. It profoundly changed the nature of debate and review around individual bills and critical issues.
Maryland is fertile ground for adventurous policy ideas and has always attracted attention from national non-profits seeking to implement their agenda at the state level. As COVID-19 protocols moved bill hearings and other activities onto Zoom and the General Assembly’s YouTube channel, the influence of these groups was felt even more. College professors, White House Fellows, national and regional think tanks, foundations, and dozens of non-profits dialed into bill hearings and subcommittee meetings to engage or initiate discussion on legislation. Access to broader range of ideas, more data and better analytics should improve outcomes – a good thing for a state faced with complex fiscal, environmental, and societal issues. Unfortunately, well-funded national campaigns do not always offer dynamic alternative ideas or solutions that fit Maryland’s circumstances.
At times, committees reached information overload and seemed to have difficulty separating signals from noise. This session, nearly 1,800 bills were introduced. Most committees had 280–300 bills but one Senate committee was assigned responsibility for 433 bills. The resulting uneven quality of decision-making sometimes meant consequential bills passed out of one chamber to the other based on a misunderstanding of the facts or without looking beyond what had been presented to reach an adequate balance between inquiry and advocacy. This put added pressure on leadership and the multistage legislative process to make corrections along the way.
No doubt, this organizational dynamic that will continue into the post-COVID era as the General Assembly continues the use of Zoom and other platforms to take testimony and invite public participation in its policy making.