Md. legislative session overshadowed by election year politics


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. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Maryland lawmakers will return to Annapolis on Wednesday primed for debates on raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana and dozens of other divisive issues. But in an election year in which most of them 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.

In the increasingly bitter governor’s race, the two leading Democratic candidates have spent weeks sparring over the security of a state-run jail, Maryland’s online health insurance exchange and proposals designed to curb domestic violence — issues that are expected to play big roles in the session.

All four declared candidates for attorney general this year are sitting Democratic legislators, and each plans to push a package of bills that reflects the candidate’s priorities for higher office.

With so many members of the House seeking other positions — seven delegates are running for statewide office and at least 10 are trying to move to the Senate — House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) expects that many of them “will be focused on how they’re going to try to set themselves apart to gain momentum for the election.”

“They’re going to have one eye on the General Assembly session,” Busch said, “and one eye on running for office.”

Posturing during an election year is part of the culture in Annapolis. But there’s reason to expect far more this year because the primaries have been moved up from September to June, just 21 / months after the legislative session ends.

With all 188 seats in the General Assembly on the ballot in November, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) is girding for the political infighting. “It’s going to be a bit of cat-and-mouse play all session long,” he said. “It will be a question of whose bills get passed and whose don’t and for what reason. To deny that politics play a role in what bills get passed is ridiculous.”

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.

The 2014 session will also be the last of O’Malley’s eight-year tenure. In recent years, he has pushed bills to legalize same-sex marriage, abolish the death penalty, adopt some of the nation's toughest gun-control rules, and raise the gas tax to fund transportation projects. Lawmakers are not expecting anything so sweeping this year.

“I think he’s going to coast,” Miller said.

Although they disagreed with Miller on that point, O’Malley aides acknowledged that there are not a lot of high-profile bills left on the governor’s agenda, which will be formally announced after the session starts.

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.

That issue is likely to serve as political fodder throughout the session. Gansler has been heavily critical of the role Brown played in implementing the federal health-care law in Maryland, and Democratic leaders are bracing for Republicans to try to score political points on the issue during hearings.

Republicans, the minority in both chambers, aren’t likely to pass many of their priorities this year. But they are using the session to bolster their election year prospects by introducing bills they think will play well back home, including legislation to reduce income taxes and give counties the option to withdraw from the national Common Core education standards initiative.

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.

A wrinkle has emerged with the recent passage of local bills in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties that established minimum wages in those jurisdictions of $11.50 by 2017.

Busch said a case can be made for having a uniform wage across the state, even if that means rolling back what has been done in Montgomery and Prince George’s. But here again, he said he thinks election year politics will come into play. It’s hard, he said, to expect lawmakers who represent those jurisdictions to vote to impose a wage less than what their county councils have approved.

Brown is planning to push legislation this year that would begin to phase in a universal pre-kindergarten program that he has touted on the campaign trail. (Gansler and Mizeur have competing plans.)

Brown also said he will support legislation that allows judges to impose stiffer penalties on those who commit acts of domestic violence in front of a child. A similar bill failed in the legislature last year despite testimony and lobbying by Gansler on its behalf.

“The lieutenant governor didn’t lift a finger on that bill last year,” Gansler said. “He found religion on this issue on the doorstep of an election.”

Brown bristled at that characterization, saying he had become heavily involved in legislation to combat domestic violence after the 2008 murder of a cousin by her estranged boyfriend. Each year since then, Brown said, he has consulted with anti­domestic-violence advocates on how he could be most helpful. This session, they pointed him to this bill, he said.

“They said: ‘We need your help to get this done. We cannot have another year where we don’t succeed,’ ” said Brown, a former delegate from Prince George’s.

Gansler is planning to push bills this year that would make it easier for former offenders to get jobs upon leaving prison and to increase the required percentage of electricity that Maryland’s suppliers must provide from renewable energy sources.

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. Miller, the Senate president, voiced his support last week for regulated marijuana sales, but House leaders remain wary.

Mizeur said she will sponsor a backup bill that would limit the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana to a modest fine.

Republicans running for governor include one member of the legislature: Del. Ronald A. George (Anne Arundel), who said he plans to press several government-reform issues this session.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, another GOP hopeful, has tapped Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (Talbot) as his running mate. Craig has been pushing the legislature to repeal a 2012 law that requires Baltimore and nine counties to impose fees on businesses and residences to pay for improving control of storm-water runoff.

The GOP field also includes Charles Lollar, a Charles County businessman; and Larry Hogan, the leader of the grass-roots group Change Maryland, who plans to kick off his campaign this month.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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