Five things to watch in Annapolis this week

March 9

With a key deadline for bills to move in the Maryland General Assembly rapidly approaching, this week promises to be one of the most busy of the 90-day session on the floors of the House and the Senate. Some major issues, including the state budget, should come into better focus, and election-year politics continues to loom large.

Here’s a look at some of what to expect as another week gets under way in Annapolis.

What bills will get left behind as the crossover deadline looms?

Expect a crush of bills moving from the House to the Senate, and vice versa, this week with the crossover deadline a week away.

Bills that haven’t passed out of at least one chamber by the close of business March 17 face an additional procedural hurdle that often spells their demise.

The crossover date was moved up a week this year by the Senate in an attempt to leave more time in the closing weeks of session to consider House bills. The House then made the same change.

In the General Assembly, nothing spurs action like a deadline. So expect votes on literally hundreds of bills in coming days. The House is already planning a rare Saturday session to handle the extra load.

And plenty remains to be done. In the House for example, several bills filed in response to last year’s scandal at the Baltimore jail still require action. And neither chamber has acted on any of the major marijuana bills — though that could soon change.

And then there is legislation like “Jake’s Law,” which would increase penalties for drivers who cause crashes while talking or texting on a handheld phone. Despite some high-profile attention, both the House and Senate versions remain start the week still stuck in committees.

Will the movement to decriminalize marijuana get a burst of momentum?

The full Senate this week will consider a bill to change the way Maryland views marijuana possession after the measure cleared the Judicial Proceedings Committee on an 8-to-3 vote last week.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), would reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil offense rather than a criminal matter. Possession of less than 10 grams would subject violators to only a $100 civil fine. Existing penalties would still apply for possession of larger amounts.

Several lawmakers have said decriminalization stands a better chance than full legalization, which the General Assembly is also considering. The real battle is expected in the House. The Senate passed a decriminalization bill last year that never made it to the governor.

What will the Senate do with the governor’s bill to raise the minimum wage?

With last week’s passage of a minimum wage bill in the House, the spotlight is now squarely focused on the Senate.

Word is that the Senate Finance Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the bill, has yet to pull together the votes to pass anything just yet. The House version would raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by 2017 -- six month later than proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

Senators are expected to take a hard look at whether $10.10 is too high for rural areas of the state and explore whether the state should set different floors for some counties than others.

The Finance Committee plans a series of work sessions on the issue, including one Monday afternoon.

Will Maryland’s health exchange see a rush of sign-ups before March 31?

There are three weeks left in the first open enrollment period for health insurance plans made possible by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Maryland’s online health insurance marketplace has been riddled with technological glitches since it opened, which has greatly hindered enrollment. But state officials are hopeful that in these final days things will change.

About 800,000 Marylanders — 14 percent of the state’s 5.8 million people — are uninsured.

Originally, Maryland aimed to sign up at least 150,000 Marylanders for qualified health insurance plans through the exchange. Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who is charged with implementing health-care reform in the state, said it could be at least 180,000.

State officials have since said that those goals were based on flawed data and a more reasonable expectation is 75,000 to 100,000. As of March 1, just more than 38,000 people had enrolled. Of those, 20,439 have paid their first premium.

Will a Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s gamble in the Washington media market pay off?

Last week, the two leading Democratic contenders for governor — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler — both launched their television advertising campaigns with 60-second spots that highlighted their biographies and achievements in office.

Only one of them — Gansler — shelled out the money to go up in the more expensive Washington media market. Brown stuck to the more traditional strategy in Maryland: buying time in Baltimore first. While Gansler is up in Baltimore, Brown’s ads are in heavier rotation there.

Brown also started airing a second, 30-second ad in the Baltimore market over the weekend.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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