Five things to watch as the 90-day session’s final week gets underway in Annapolis


A Maryland senator carries documents on the Senate chamber floor. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
March 30

This year’s legislative session in Maryland may have lacked the ambition of some recent ones, but there’s plenty for lawmakers to do during their final week of work before the scheduled April 7 adjournment.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s top session priority — raising the state’s minimum wage — is still hanging in the balance, as are bills to decriminalize marijuana, expand tax credits to lure films to Maryland and address a high-profile court ruling on bail proceedings.

And a conference committee will seek this week to resolve differences in the state budget — the one thing the state Constitution requires senators and delegates to take care of before leaving town.

With lawmakers eager to wrap up their work — and get on the campaign trail full-time in advance of the June primary — here’s a look at some of things to watch this week:

Will developments involving Maryland’s online health insurance exchange — and the politics surrounding it — overshadow the final week of the legislative session?

As The Post reported over the weekend, the state is set to shelve its glitch-ridden online exchange and borrow technology from Connecticut as it reboots.

That process will play out in several steps in coming days — with a press conference from O’Malley (D) expected on Wednesday — but the political jockeying isn’t waiting.

Among the items reaching the inbox of Maryland political reporters on Sunday was an advisory that Republican gubernatorial hopeful Larry Hogan is available to talk about the state’s “imminent decision” to abandon its “disastrous” Web site.

Among Hogan’s ideas for moving forward: ban Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who was tasked by O’Malley with implementing federal health care reforms — from “any further involvement with Maryland’s health exchange.” That might be a good GOP talking point, but it’s not going to happen.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democratic primary rival to Brown, announced that he will be holding an afternoon press conference Monday to talk about the state’s “failed health exchange” and share some proposals of his own.

Gansler’s press conference will take place on the final day of the first enrollment period for health plans made possible by the Affordable Care Act.

On Tuesday, the board that oversees Maryland’s exchange is expected to meet and vote to use technology from Connecticut, which has had one of the most successful exchanges in the country, and hire the contractor that built that system, Deloitte, according to two people familiar with the decision.

O’Malley is expected to address the press on Wednesday, according to administration officials. And on Thursday, there will be some legislative oversight, in Annapolis — and on Capitol Hill.

A Maryland legislative committee plans to get a briefing on the future of the exchange in the afternoon. Earlier in the day, Joshua M. Sharfstein, Maryland’s health secretary, is scheduled to be among those who testify before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The subcommittee is holding a hearing focused on “problem-filled state exchanges.”

What will O’Malley’s plan to raise the minimum wage look like once the Maryland Senate gets done with it?

After weeks of study and deliberation, the Senate Finance Committee is expected to put its imprint this week on O’Malley’s plan to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10.

The bill, which passed the House of Delegates earlier this month, has already been heavily amended by the House. Among other changes, delegates pushed back each of O’Malley’s three proposed wage bumps by six months, culminating in a minimum wage of $10.10 by January 2017. The Senate is likely to stretch the timetable out more.

Senators are also considering a “training wage” that would allow employers to pay $7.25 an hour for new workers and full-time students for their first six months.

The proposal is O'Malley's top legislative priority is his eighth and final 90-day session.

Which cards will be played next in the debate over the film tax credit?

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on Senate legislation that would increase the availability of tax credits for films shot in Maryland to $18.5 million.

The outcome could be crucial to the state’s ability to keep the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” in Maryland. But the House of Delegates — which is less enthused about the tax credit — is playing hardball.

Last week, the chamber passed a budget amendment that would allow the state to use its eminent domain powers to purchase, condemn or somehow seize sets, equipment and other property of a production that left the state.

The high-stakes debate has captured the attention of the national media, including “Good Morning America,” which ran a segment Sunday that featured an interview with the author of the amendment, Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery).

While the state is likely to continue offering a tax credit, the House has yet to tip its hand as to how generous it will be.

Will lawmakers seek to undo a court ruling on bail hearings?

The escalating debate over how to fix Maryland’s method of setting bail for criminal defendants – and whether the system is even really broken – is expected to occupy lawmakers again this week.

With time running out, the legislature has been trying to address concerns raised by the state’s highest court that too many people are unnecessarily locked up before trial, often because they lack adequate legal representation.

The Court of Appeals, in DeWolfe v. Richmond, held that all defendants are entitled to an attorney even at the earliest judicial proceedings—and that includes poor defendants who cannot afford legal counsel.

Leading lawmakers say the bill for such representation could be staggering, because the state would have to supply attorneys at duplicative bail hearings before District Court commissioners and judges.

This week the Senate is scheduled to debate final passage of a proposal by Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) to streamline the process by creating a new agency to screen arrestees. The approach is intended to eliminate one layer of bail review by replacing District Court commissioners with a new executive-branch department whose computerized analysis would determine which defendants could go and which posed flight risks or a threat of committing new offenses.

But others would like to see the General Assembly scrap the Court of Appeals rulings altogether. Among them is Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who is urging colleagues to pass a constitutional amendment nullifying the court rulings. His legislation is scheduled to be heard by the Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday.

Will efforts to decriminalize marijuana wither on the vine in the House Judiciary Committee?

In a session where several marijuana-related bills were introduced, this much seems clear: Outright legalization — as in Colorado — isn’t happening this year, but lawmakers seem determined to reach a compromise in the final week on legislation expanding the state’s unworkable medical marijuana law.

The bigger mystery concerns the fate of a bill that would subject those caught will small amounts of the drug only to civil penalties rather than the risk of jail time and a criminal record.

Legislation to do that — which comfortably passed the Senate — remains bottled up in House Judiciary, where the panel’s chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), is not on board.

Supporters believe they would have the support of a majority of delegates on the House floor, if the bill gets that far. But in the remaining week, there are no signs that the legislation is a priority for either House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) nor O’Malley, who rose to political prominence as a law-and-order mayor of Baltimore.

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