5 things to watch as the week gets under way in Annapolis

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to deliver his final State of the State address on Thursday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

For what was expected to be a slow Maryland legislative session, this week is shaping up as another busy one in and around Annapolis.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is scheduled to formally roll out his legislative package and deliver his eighth and final State of the State address. Questions continue to swirl around the state’s troubled online health insurance exchange. And there’s going to be a new candidate in the Republican primary for governor.

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Here’s a guide for what to watch this week:

Will O’Malley look forward — or back — in his final State of the State speech?

Governors traditionally use the addresses to a joint session of the General Assembly to pitch their agenda for the session. But even by O’Malley’s own admission, his agenda this time around isn’t as ambitious as it has been in recent years.

O’Malley, it would seem, also has his legacy and his future on his mind. He is term-limited and must step down as governor in January 2015, and O’Malley is weighing a 2016 presidential bid.

When he steps up on the dais in the House chamber at noon Thursday, his speech is likely to include plenty about what’s happened during the past seven years and well as what might happen in the coming one.

Will there be any surprises in O’Malley’s legislative package?

The governor is scheduled to formally put forward a list of bills sponsored by his office on Monday, a few days ahead of his speech.

O’Malley has already said that raising the minimum wage will be his top priority and that he is pushing legislation to launch a phased-in universal pre-kindergarten program that his preferred successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), has been touting on the campaign trail.

O’Malley has also already introduced an emergency bill related to the state’s health exchange, and he is expected to include in his package some bills sought by Brown on domestic violence, including one that would allow enhanced penalties for acts committed in front of a child.

O’Malley also announced a package of initiatives on Friday to address issues related to the scandal that became public last year at the state-run jail in Baltimore.

Those bills would stiffen penalties on smuggling cell phones into jails and prisons, expand use of polygraphs to prison personnel and roll back some provisions in a Correctional Officers Bill of Rights’ that should make it easier to take disciplinary action against guards who conspire with inmates.

So what else does that leave? Aides have signaled not to expect much. O’Malley’s bills are expected to be formally introduced when the legislature convenes Monday at 8 p.m.

How many Marylanders will sign up for retroactive health insurance through a private company before the deadline Tuesday at 5 p.m.?

Maryland officials estimate that around 4,000 residents have logged onto the state’s online health insurance marketplace, encountered problems on the dysfunctional site and were left uninsured as 2014 began.

To help these people out, the four private insurance companies participating in the exchange have agreed to offer coverage that’s retroactive to Jan. 1, as long as residents sign up by Tuesday at 5 p.m. and pay premiums for the first two months.

Brown has said that he’s confident this new option will help the thousands of people who might need coverage this month and greatly alleviate the need for the state to offer its own retroactive health insurance. Exchange staffers were charged last week with calling or e-mailing the thousands of known people who might need retroactive coverage to get them signed up.

But the sign-up window is a tight one, and it’s unclear how many people will bother to pay for a full month of insurance when the month is nearly over if they have not already racked up medical bills.

Will a state insurance program be ready to accept retroactive patients starting on Wednesday, the day after the private program ends?

Before the private companies agreed to directly provide retroactive insurance, the O’Malley administration proposed expanding enrollment in the state-run Maryland Health Insurance Plan, a decade-old program that normally covers high-risk individuals who had trouble getting coverage elsewhere.

Those enrolled would have to pay a premium, which is usually slightly higher than market rates, and would have to leave once accepted to a permanent plan.

Brown has said he only expects a few hundred people will need this option, but that it’s a needed “backstop” or “safety net.”

Lawmakers had aimed to quickly pass the legislation. But following last week’s announcement of the private companies offering retroactive insurance, their pace slowed. The legislation is now expected to be approved this week.

Will Republicans rally around Larry Hogan’s bid for governor?

Hogan, a Cabinet secretary under former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), is getting a late start in a race in which some of his competitors have been running since summer. But last week’s reports of anemic fundraising by other GOP hopefuls seem to provide a prime opening.

Hogan plans to announce his bid Tuesday night at Mike’s Crab House, just outside Annapolis.

He has emerged in recent years as a leading critic of the O’Malley administration as leader of Change Maryland, a group he founded that boasts close to 75,000 fans on Facebook. The coming months will show whether he can capitalize on that base of support.

Others competing in the June GOP primary include Harford County Executive David R. Craig (R) , Del. Ronald A. George (R-Anne Arundel) and Charles County businessman Charles Lollar.

 
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