Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
I was shocked to read about the dramatic confrontation between Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the last day of Maryland’s state legislative session last week.
But that shock soon turned to confusion. Why were lawmakers voting on a bill at the last possible second, just minutes before midnight, in the first place? Upon further reading, I learned that this is standard operating procedure for the General Assembly every year.
Voting on an important bill, especially one with huge positive implications for racial justice, minutes before the end of session is like starting the final paper for a class the same night it’s due. Neither scenario allows any room for error and neither are responsible decisions.
That’s why the Maryland General Assembly should become a full-time legislature, enabling lawmakers to pass legislation year-round while preventing unnecessary time crunches.
The General Assembly, just like state legislatures in about half of the country, is considered hybrid. Although lawmakers dedicate time equivalent to more than two-thirds of a full-time job to their responsibilities, they are only in session for part of the year. They also typically must maintain other sources of income to live comfortably.
Our legislature convenes for a 90 day session every January. Lawmakers, activists and lobbyists flood Annapolis for a three month long marathon, advocating for and against thousands of bills. Only a few hundred bills make it past the finish line.
Such a short time frame prevents meaningful legislation from being passed in a timely manner. If a bill fails to get a vote in time during session, the lawmaker who introduced it has to wait another whole year to reintroduce it.
This delay means that some state legislation takes years to get passed because it has to restart the legislative process each year.
This can have frustrating consequences. Graduate students and faculty members in Maryland pushing for collective bargaining rights were unable to get their bill out of committee this year.
Every session, advocates are able to build up momentum for their cause. From filling committee hearing rooms to strategically placing op-eds, these groups gain visibility and public support. But every sine die, these causes get set back. A full-time legislature would enable steady deliberation, instead of lesser known issues getting drowned out each year by other initiatives, like passing the annual budget. A full-time legislature would also mean electing lawmakers who are more representative of Marylanders. To compensate lawmakers for the additional hours they work, pay would increase, and a higher salary helps make legislative positions more accessible.
Not many jobs can accommodate taking three months off of work every year. Teachers, for example, would not be able to stop working for three months out of the school year. This makes the legislative process inaccessible in a way that would not be the case with a full-time legislature.
The current salary of state lawmakers is below the median household income in many Maryland counties. There could be many people interested in pursuing public service in the statehouse but are excluded because they cannot afford it.
Implementing a full-time legislature will also cancel out the need for special legislative sessions. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, reproductive rights advocates urged statehouse leaders to call a special session to codify abortion rights into the state constitution. But they didn’t. Efforts were put on hold until this year’s regular session, when lawmakers voted to put a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the right to abortion on the ballot in 2024.
There have also been special sessions called to address Congressional redistricting, leadership selection, tax code changes and gambling laws. With a full-time legislature, decisions would not have to wait, and would instead be a part of a regular legislative session.
A full-time legislature doesn’t mean that lawmakers have to stay in session every week of the year. Similar to the U.S. Congress, Maryland General Assembly leaders can set a schedule for when lawmakers should be in Annapolis or in their communities interacting with their constituents. Having a schedule set well in advance is surely preferable to having a special session suddenly interrupting lawmakers’ existing plans. Holding votes up until midnight isn’t worth celebrating with confetti and balloons — it’s irresponsible and unprofessional. State lawmakers work hard, so they deserve the time and pay they need to do their jobs well. A full-time legislature provides just that.
Dhruvak Mirani is a freshman computer science and government and politics major. Mirani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.