Raising Maryland’s minimum wage will headline a long list of issues to be debated during the 2014 session of the Maryland General Assembly.
For 90 days, beginning Jan. 8, Maryland state lawmakers, officials, special interest groups, lobbyists and other stakeholders will gather for the annual conclave at the state capital in Annapolis
“It will be very hectic,” said Maryland political expert Paul Herrnson, former director of the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship.
And with the mid-term elections drawing near, this session’s political overtones will bear sharper edges, several political experts agreed. For example, Democratic contenders in the heated three-way tug-o-war for the governor’s seat—Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur—all plan to be heavily involved in the session, offering or supporting competing bills to advance their own agendas and raise their profiles.
“The big thing here is [that] it is an election year and members of the legislature would be looking to take popular positions to look good in front of their constituents,” Herrnson said. “A lot of bills will be introduced not to get them passed, but for political reasons,…to make a statement.”
Baltimore Democrat Sen. Lisa Gladden agreed, but added that those lawmakers who are retiring will be looking to make statements of their own.
“Because this is the last of a four-year term, a lot of people are going to be a lot bolder,” she said. “You’re going to see a lot of courage because a lot of people aren’t coming back.”
In the next three months, lawmakers will draft, introduce, hold hearings on, revise and vote on hundreds of pieces of legislation. In last year’s regular session, for example, legislators introduced a total of 2,610 bills and eight joint resolutions and passed 766, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
This year, beyond the normal budget negotiations, raising the state’s minimum wage above the federal rate of $7.25 will top the list of concerns in the Democrat-controlled legislature.
“The governor intends to focus on building consensus around raising the minimum wage,” said Nina Smith, press secretary for Gov. Martin O’Malley, about his agenda.
While most Democrats—including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch—seem to support the move, the challenge lies in agreeing on the details, such as the value of the raise.
Gladden said draft legislation suggests a rate of $10.10 an hour. But another bill introduced by Del. Keith Haynes (D-Baltimore) calls for a rate of $12.50, and Gladden said an even higher rate may better serve Maryland workers.
“When I was a teenager $10.10 would seem like a lot,” she said. “[But] it is not a lot of money when you have kids and have rent to pay and you have to make ends meet.”
The governor and other lawmakers will also focus their immediate efforts on mitigating the impact of the troubled rollout of the state’s health insurance exchange.
For the hundreds, or even thousands, of Marylanders who were blocked from securing an insurance plan through the glitch-prone exchange website, Maryland Health Connection, before the Jan. 1 deadline, the proposed emergency legislation would provide a “temporary bridge to coverage,” through the expansion of the Maryland Health Insurance Plan (MHIP), a separate state-run program, Smith said.
Marijuana legalization will also be a hot-button issue. Last year, Del. Curt Anderson’s bill to legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol and Sen. Bobby Zirkin’s legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana both failed in 2013. However, advocates are confident that progress will be made this year.
“Support for removing any sort of marijuana prohibition has been growing rapidly,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “More Americans than ever before realize prohibition has failed and are looking for a different approach.”
A November 2013 poll commissioned by MPP and the ACLU of Maryland found that 72 percent of Maryland voters support legalizing marijuana for medical treatment; 68 percent support decriminalizing possession of small amounts and 53 percent favor taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol.
Tvert said the benefits of lifting the ban should influence legislators’ decisions.
“Regulating the sale of marijuana takes the product out of the underground market and puts it behind the counters of legitimate tax-paying businesses,” he said. “If legislators take an objective look at the evidence and choose to represent their constituents, then they will pass the legislation.”
While Black lawmakers will likely be very involved in debating these marquee issues, the Legislative Black Caucus also has its own priorities, said Del. Aisha Braveboy (D-Prince George’s), the Black Caucus chair.
The first is ensuring that HBCUs receive parity in investment—programs, full-time faculty, financial aid, facilities, etc.—“to ensure that HBCUs are competitive and on par with other state universities,” she said.
Another involves ameliorating the disparate representation of African Americans in the Maryland State Police through targeted recruitment in minority communities through specific media outlets, like the AFRO, and other approaches.
The Black Caucus will also push for legislation to expunge the records of those who committed misdemeanor nonviolent offenses and have served their time.
And, the Black legislators will also call for an investigation into the way banks are maintaining and marketing foreclosed property, she said. A recent study by the National Fair Housing Alliance found that some banks seem to be artificially decreasing the values of properties in certain communities due to lack of maintenance and care.
Black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately impacted since they were targeted by sub-prime lenders and thus were more likely to go into foreclosure in the recent housing crisis.
“It impacts not just the owner who has been foreclosed on, but the surrounding homeowners,” Braveboy said. When property values go down, she added, home equities decrease, so “what this really does is strip homeowners of their wealth.”