As his final legislative session got underway Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley pressed his top priority, raising the minimum wage, and said he would help his preferred successor get a head start on a campaign promise: a major expansion of pre-kindergarten education.
O’Malley (D) is expected to propose funding the first year of a multiyear plan by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) to implement universal pre-kindergarten in Maryland. The first year’s installment would be “modest,” by Brown’s own description, but would probably give him a boost in a highly competitive Democratic primary to succeed O’Malley.
O’Malley also made clear during a morning radio interview Tuesday that supporters of legalizing marijuana should not expect his assistance during the 90-day session. O’Malley, who has embraced an array of liberal initiatives during his seven years in office, called recreational use of marijuana “a gateway to even more harmful behavior.”
The preview of the governor’s agenda, which will be formally unveiled this month, came on an opening day in Annapolis dominated by good cheer, ceremony and receptions. For a day at least, the introduction of family members and welcome-back tweets from the lawmakers largely took precedence over divisive policy issues and the election-year politicking that is expected to preoccupy the session.
Some of that could emerge as soon as Thursday, however, with the expected introduction of an O’Malley-backed bill to provide an alternative for Marylanders who were unable to obtain health insurance by Jan. 1 through the state’s glitch-plagued online exchange.
O’Malley told reporters that he would like to see the emergency legislation passed “as soon as possible,” a sentiment echoed by Democratic legislative leaders. They have expressed growing frustration with the slow pace of enrollment in the state exchange, created under the federal health-care law.
Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), another leading candidate for governor, sent out a mass e-mail to supporters saying the public deserves “answers about why thousands of people who desperately need health insurance remain unable to buy it on the state’s broken exchange.”
Brown has taken a leadership role in implementing the federal health-care program in Maryland, and Gansler has largely blamed him for the exchange’s shortcomings.
The trouble with the exchange’s Web site, which crashed on the first day and has continued to be problematic, is one of two prominent issues whose airing during the session will call attention to embarrassments for O’Malley during the past year.
Lawmakers are also preparing to tackle bills meant to address a scandal at a state-run jail in Baltimore. An investigation produced federal indictments of more than two dozen guards alleged to have aided a dangerous prison gang in a smuggling and racketeering scheme.
O’Malley said Wednesday that his administration is continuing to work on reforms to prevent similar episodes. But he suggested that he is unlikely to provide funding in his upcoming budget for a central recommendation of a special legislative commission: a 10-year, $533 million project to replace the jail complex.
“It’s not the sort of project that’s going to get done in the next 11 months,” O’Malley said, adding that it should be a priority for the next governor.
O’Malley acknowledged to reporters that his agenda for the coming session is not as ambitious as those in recent years. In the past two years alone, lawmakers, at his urging, have approved same-sex marriage, repealed the death penalty, passed one of the most extensive gun-control plans in the country and raised taxes on gasoline to fund new transportation projects, among other initiatives.
Both on the radio and in a brief appearance before the House of Delegates on Wednesday, O’Malley pitched the idea of raising the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
“I think, whether Democrats or Republicans, we all agree that when people work hard and play by the rules, they should be able to move their families forward,” he told delegates.
O’Malley said the minimum-wage plan is being refined, and he did not provide the amount he will advocate . A group backed by labor unions has been pressing to raise the statewide minimum to $10.10 an hour by 2016, with future increases pegged to inflation.
O’Malley told reporters that he supports the idea of automatic increases. He also voiced support for the recent actions by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to raise the minimum wage in their jurisdictions to $11.50 an hour by 2017.
Some state lawmakers are arguing that the legislature should impose a uniform minimum across the state, even if that means rolling back the standard in Montgomery and Prince George’s.
O’Malley lamented that Maryland had not raised its minimum wage since 2006, and he said 21 states now have higher standards.
“Maryland has typically been a leader and in the forefront on this,” O’Malley said.
In an interview Wednesday, Brown said he expects O’Malley’s budget proposal to include about $4 million to launch a pre-kindergarten expansion. Brown said he also expects the governor to sponsor legislation needed to implement the program.
As a candidate, Brown has proposed making pre-kindergarten education available by 2018 to any Maryland family that wants to enroll a 4-year-old. The estimated cost to the state is expected to be about $138 million a year.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), another Democratic candidate for governor, has proposed a more ambitious pre-kindergarten expansion. She said O’Malley’s action would be a step in the right direction, but she criticized the administration for “foot dragging” on the issue.