Session Preview: Maryland, where politics comes first

January 6, 2014

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, center, with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, left, and House Speaker Michael Busch during a bill signing ceremony in Annapolis in May (Photo: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Few Democrats with an eye on federal office have built longer résumés than Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has spearheaded initiatives ranging from same-sex marriage to a state version of the Dream Act to ending the death penalty.

His next act — his last, after seven years as governor — kicks off this week, influenced as much by the candidates hoping to replace him as by his own agenda. But O’Malley isn’t out of ideas: He will spend his last session pushing increases to the state minimum wage and fixes to the state’s troubled health care exchange.

Our Washington Post colleague John Wagner, of the Annapolis bureau, highlights what’s coming in the Maryland state legislature, which convenes for a 90-day session beginning Wednesday:

[I]n an election year in which most [legislators] are also candidates, politics is already overshadowing much of the policy, and any legislation that passes during the 90-day session could be less memorable than who gets credit for leading the fight.

The coming 90 days will be particularly important for gubernatorial contenders. The session is a chance for them to show they know how to lead — during a stretch when many voters will start to tune into a race that has become increasingly focused on issues of the day, including the botched rollout of Maryland’s online health insurance exchange.

The three top Democratic candidates for governor say they are backing bills to raise Maryland’s minimum wage, which has emerged as the marquee issue of the session. Two of them — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler — also promise to work for passage of similar bills to increase penalties for domestic violence.

The third, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery), plans to be heavily involved in the debate over whether Maryland should follow Colorado’s lead and legalize marijuana, which happens to be a key issue in her dark-horse gubernatorial campaign.

O’Malley plans to sponsor minimum-wage legislation, and his administration is expected to get behind some bills that have emerged in response to the scandal at a state-run jail in Baltimore. And on Friday, O’Malley announced plans to introduce emergency legislation to help Marylanders who have been unable to get health insurance through the state’s glitch-plagued online exchange.

Legislative leaders are expecting several minimum-wage bills to be introduced, all with the aim of increasing Maryland’s statewide rate of $7.25 an hour. The debate will center on how high to raise the minimum and how soon. Union leaders are pushing legislation that would gradually raise the statewide minimum to $10.10 by 2016 and tie future increases to inflation.

In the wake of legal marijuana sales beginning in Colorado, a spirited debate is expected in Maryland, but lawmakers say the odds of passage are long. [Thomas V. "Mike"] Miller, the Senate president, voiced his support last week for regulated marijuana sales, but House leaders remain wary.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · January 6, 2014