Raising the minimum wage in Maryland will be the top issue for leading Democrats when state lawmakers return to Annapolis on Wednesday to embark on their annual legislative session.
Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to champion the idea in his final year in office. Democrats across the country are pushing for states to raise wages in the absence of federal action, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Bush say a majority of Maryland lawmakers will vote for an increase from the current $7.25 an hour.
But key details about how high and how quickly the wage would rise have yet to be decided.
"It's going to be the top issue debated in Annapolis this session," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, the Prince George's Democrat who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee, where the discussion is expected to begin. "The sides have clearly formed on this."
Within days of the session's start, lawmakers are expected to begin hearings on what went wrong with Maryland's $107 million online health insurance exchange, which had one of the worst rollouts in the nation. O'Malley announced Friday that he would seek emergency legislation to provide retroactive coverage to people who tried to enroll but were stymied by technical glitches.
And state lawmakers expect a fight over whether to change a law requiring stormwater fees that are designed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay but are derided by critics as a "rain tax."
Lawmakers must close a roughly $500 million budget gap, but O'Malley aides say that can be done without any tax or fee increases.
The 434th Maryland General Assembly session is expected to be relatively calm in comparison with last year's, when lawmakers delivered every item on O'Malley's legislative agenda, including repeal of the death penalty and passage of a sweeping gun-control law.
But the session also comes in an election year when, for the first time in recent memory, the campaign season overlaps with lawmaking. The state's primary election is in June, not September as in the recent past.
Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said election-year sessions tend to be heavy on politics and light on legislative achievements. This time, the filing deadline is in February, and several sitting lawmakers have announced plans to run for higher office or to challenge one another. A highly contested Democratic primary race for governor has been underway for months.
"I suspect there will be a fair amount of posturing on a variety of issues," Norris said.
Among the issues up for discussion are legalizing marijuana, expanding pre-kindergarten programs and replacing Baltimore's jail.
The campaign to increase the minimum wage has begun. O'Malley, Miller, Busch, all three Democratic candidates for governor and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake are among those who have expressed support for raising the pay of Maryland's lowest-earning workers.
The General Assembly voted once before to increase the wage $1 above the federal level, back in 2005 when Congress had left the rate unchanged for a decade. The current $7.25 has been in effect since 2009, but 21 states and the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage. Some states have minimums that go up automatically when the cost of living rises.
Such an index is expected to be a sticking in point in Maryland, where Montgomery and Prince George's counties have voted to increase their local minimum wages to $11.50 by 2017.
Miller and Busch said cost-of-living differences across the state make it unlikely that the $11.50 rate would be adopted statewide. "That same wage may not be the appropriate minimum wage in different areas of the state," Busch said in an interview, suggesting a compromise would be to increase the wage statewide and let jurisdictions increase it more if they choose.
Miller, who also supports that approach, said the $10.10 per hour rate proposed by congressional Democrats and backed by President Barack Obama is "much too high of a jump." While Miller sees broad consensus on raising the minimum wage in Maryland, he says his chamber is "all over the place" on the details.
Republicans, outnumbered by large Democratic majorities in both chambers, plan to fight the wage increase and have their own legislative agenda, including a pitch to cut income tax rates by 10 percent.
"By just growing the government a little slower, we could provide tax relief for all Marylanders," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County.
Republicans have pre-filed bills in both chambers to repeal all or parts of the 2012 legislation mandating that Baltimore and the nine largest counties impose stormwater fees.
"The whole thing, it's wrong," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, the Republican leader. "People are disgusted by it."
Nine jurisdictions adopted the fees this summer, with one levying only a penny and others, including Baltimore, charging some large institutions thousands of dollars to help pay for projects to prevent dirty stormwater from running into the Chesapeake Bay.
While Republicans want to repeal the fee, some powerful Democrats, including Miller, have suggested changing the law to exempt churches, universities and charitable organizations. Any changes would face stiff opposition from Democrats in the House, including Busch and Del. Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore, who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee.
McIntosh said the law was designed to give the city and counties latitude in how and how much to charge, and the state needs to give them time to iron out the kinks. "Some counties have had better ideas than others," she said. "We shouldn't be micromanaging."
Lawmakers are also expected to consider proposals suggested by a panel of state lawmakers after more than two dozen guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center were indicted in a smuggling and corruption scandal. Miller says the state needs to start acting on at least one of the suggestions: knocking down and rebuilding the Civil War-era facility, a project that would cost more than a half-billion dollars.
"You need money for planning and design, and I'm sure we can come up with something for that," Miller said. "We need to get started. The building's been in existence for a century. On our watch, the beginning of the end needs to occur."
Other state lawmakers are looking to capitalize on growing public support for relaxation of marijuana laws.
Del. Curt Anderson of Baltimore and Sen. Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County, both Democrats and chairs of their respective delegations, plan to file a bill that would legalize and tax marijuana like alcohol — similar to the Colorado law that took effect Jan. 1.
While top legislative leaders do not expect the proposal to pass, its broadening support and election-year push could signal the beginning of a new debate in Maryland. Last year the Maryland Senate passed a bill that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug, but the proposal died in the House Judiciary Committee.
Miller, who supports legalizing and taxing marijuana, said he didn't think the proposal would get past the Judiciary Committee chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. of Prince George's County, "but I think the issue needs to be put forth and debated, and I think we need to hear from the public on that."
O'Malley, who only recently backed the state's limited medical marijuana law, is not expected to support legalization. Busch said it's too soon for Maryland to "go down the path that Colorado has taken."
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.