The 2014 session of the Maryland General Assembly is set to convene at noon on Wednesday.
Though the agenda is not as packed with hot-button issues as in recent years, expect plenty of political posturing in this election-year session — and no shortage of drama over a handful of several high-profile bills. Here, in no particular order, are 10 things to watch as the session unfolds over the next 90 days.
1. Whether the $11.50-an-hour minimum wages recently adopted by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will stand.
With so many Democrats expressing support, an increase in Maryland’s minimum wage seems a very good bet. But it’s also unlikely that lawmakers will support a statewide standard as high as $11.50 an hour that was recently adopted by county councils in Maryland’s two largest jurisdictions.
That leaves two options, both of which have supporters: a uniform minimum wage for the state that would preempt the local bills in Montgomery and Prince George’s; or legislation that sets a floor statewide but allows localities to adopt higher minimum wages.
2. Whether hearings on an emergency health insurance bill will turn into an all-out gripe session on the state’s online health insurance exchange.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is promising an emergency bill that would provide an alternate means of insurance for those who were unable to navigate the state’s glitch-prone online exchange prior to Jan. 1. The legislation seems certain to pass early in the session. The question is whether hearings on the legislation will become a forum to explore all that has gone wrong during the rollout — a prospect that could be a drag on the gubernatorial campaign of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who has overseen federal health care reform in the state.
3. How the new House Republican leadership team will perform.
This will be the first session in which House Republicans are led by Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) and Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County). Republicans, the minority in both chambers in Annapolis, have long seemed conflicted by competing desires to be constructive and to be critical. The tone set early on by Kipke and Szeliga will be telling.
The duo is not only trying to position their caucus for the 90-day session. They are also angling to improve the standing of Republicans in an election year made more challenging by a redistricting process overseen by Democrats.
4. What impact the Feb. 25 filing deadline will have on the session.
The final session of a four-year term always feels more political than others. But this one has a new wrinkle: With a June primary date, the entire political calendar has been accelerated, including the filing deadline.
About half-way through session, lawmakers will know for sure who they’re facing in their primaries and can adjust their in-session politics accordingly.
5. Whether the movement to legalize marijuana will gain traction in Maryland.
With sales now legal in Colorado and a series of national polls showing majority support for legalization, supporters in Maryland are feeling emboldened.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) says he knows where the issue is headed (eventually), but House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Gov. Martin O’Malley hardly seem enthusiastic about legalization.
6. How much of an impact the new lobbying firm of Perry, White, Ross & Jacobson will have.
The firm includes Tim Perry (a former Miller chief of staff), Josh White (a former campaign manager and governor’s office staffer for Gov. Martin O’Malley), Justin Ross (a former state delegate who knows how to count votes) and Jonas Jacobson (a former state environmental official). Its formation reflects the emergence of a younger generation finding its way into the Annapolis lobbying corps.
7. Whether Democrats will cut taxes in an election year.
Democrats in control in Annapolis have passed a series of major tax increases during the last seven years to help balance recession-battered budgets. With elections looming, there are a handful of proposals being pushed to offset some of the burden. Miller, for example, is talking about reducing the estate tax or the inheritance tax. O’Malley, who is not on the ballot this year, sounded less than enthused about the prospect of tax relief, however, when asked about it by reporters this week.
8. Whether Republicans will make headway on repealing the “rain tax.”
GOP lawmakers are seeking a repeal of a 2012 law that requires Baltimore and nine counties to impose fees on businesses and residences to pay for improving control of pollution-filled storm-water runoff. While an all-out repeal seems unlikely, some leading Democrats, including Miller, have said the program is flawed and should be open to revisions.
9. Who gets credit on popular bills.
Many politically ambitious Democrats are eager to claim ownership of any minimum-wage increase that makes it to the governor.
Meanwhile, both Gansler and Brown have said it will be a top priority to pass legislation that enhances penalties for people who commit acts of domestic violence in front of a child.
And two candidates for attorney general — Dels. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery) and Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) — have both pledged to support bills outlawing “revenge porn,” the posting on the Internet of compromising pictures of an ex-lover.
Who emerges from these battles could be telling.
10. Whether Maryland will get a state sandwich.
Some lawmakers plan to take another run this year at getting the soft-shell crab sandwich enshrined as the state’s official sandwich.
Miller is co-sponsoring the bill this year, which should give the measure some more heft.