Maryland lawmakers are poised to raise the minimum wage and decriminalize marijuana today as this year's General Assembly's session cruises to a close at midnight.
Both measures are on the verge of passage, barring unforeseen last-minute snags, because of compromises forged in the final week.
The wage bill, Gov. Martin O'Malley's top legislative priority in his final year, would gradually increase the hourly minimum pay for hundreds of thousands of workers from the current $7.25 to $10.10 by July 2018. The marijuana bill would convert possession of small amounts of the drug from a criminal offense to a civil one, though with escalating fines for repeat infractions.
Other issues still to be resolved include trying again to make marijuana available for medical treatment, increasing penalties for texting or using cellphones while driving, and boosting tax breaks for film and TV productions in the state.
Legislative leaders are nevertheless predicting a relaxed "sine die," or finish, to the 90-day session, which to date has been remarkably free of the rancor and political gamesmanship that have made for drama-filled, hectic final hours in some previous years.
"All the tough stuff is out of the way," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "As a consequence, we're going to go into sine die with almost no major items to deal with."
Lawmakers already have granted most items on the governor's agenda, among them expanding pre-kindergarten education, tightening laws dealing with domestic violence and designating new state wilderness areas. They've also passed measures to reduce taxes on the estates of Maryland's wealthier individuals, ban discrimination against transgender people and allow more scrutiny of Baltimore's liquor board.
A few issues that failed in prior years broke through this time with hard-won compromises, notably bills dealing with dog-bite liability and electing Baltimore County's school board.
Other causes that failed to move through normal legislative channels got tucked into the $38.9 billion state budget, such as a delay sought by farmers in the implementation of new regulations limiting the use of animal manure as fertilizer.
Not every bill sent to the governor's desk for signature becomes law, however. It remains to be seen, for instance, whether O'Malley will sign a bill he opposed that could kill a $200 million wind energy project on the Eastern Shore because southern Maryland lawmakers fear it might harm prospects for keeping a prized naval air base in their region.
"The governor plans on reviewing the bill, then he will make a decision," Nina Smith, his press secretary, said.
With the legislature's sole legal obligation — passing a state budget — completed on Saturday, House Speaker Michael E. Busch predicted there could still be "little battles back and forth" among lawmakers on the final day, mostly over issues of local or regional interest.
Bills that still have a way to go include one that would make "revenge porn" a felony, imposing steep penalties for posting compromising pictures of an ex-lover on the Internet, and another that would increase criminal penalties for hazing at schools, colleges and universities.
Among the measures affecting Baltimore still pending as of Sunday evening is a late-filed attempt to help homeowners facing loss of their property over unpaid rent on the ground beneath their houses. During the session, the Maryland Court of Appeals nullified the heart of an earlier legislative reform, declaring it violated the rights of "ground-rent" owners to seize and sell homes when tenants don't pay.
One major — and potentially costly — question is whether lawmakers can come together at the last minute about how to fix problems with the state's bail system, which the Court of Appeals has declared unconstitutional. The high court said all criminal defendants have the right to legal representation soon after arrest as they seek to be released from jail before trial. But hiring public defenders for poor suspects could cost the state $55 million a year, which lawmakers consider exorbitant.
The two chambers are deeply divided over how else to deal with the court's ruling. As a backstop, legislative leaders and O'Malley agreed last week to budget $10 million for the courts to hire private lawyers on a case by case basis to represent indigent defendants in bail proceedings. But few think that's a viable long-term solution.
Busch suggested there may be one last try today to find common ground on a more comprehensive change in the bail system.
"We're passing a bill over [to the Senate]," he said Saturday. "Whether they decide to use that ultimately as a vehicle or not, that might be a discussion between the governor and two presiding officers."
Miller said this legislative session seems to have gone more smoothly than some previous ones in part because there were fewer hot-button social issues on the agenda.
"No abortion, no busing, no capital punishment, no gay marriage," he said. "This has been an interesting session, but in terms of people in the galleries wanting to throw darts at us, this has been a very polite session."
The Senate president also suggested many lawmakers may have had divided attentions. The end of the legislative session marks the start of campaigning for elections in June and November, which could determine whether they'll be back next year.
But 42 delegates and seven senators have already declared they're either retiring or running for other offices.
Most senior among them is Sen. Norman R. Stone, a Dundalk Democrat who's calling it quits after logging 52 years in Annapolis — the longest legislative career in Maryland history. Since 1963, he has represented the people of southeastern Baltimore County — four years in the House of Delegates and 48 in the state Senate.
It promises to be a day of mixed emotions for those about to depart, especially the veterans. Though lawmakers' terms don't officially end until January 2015, some are already preparing, even if a bit wistfully.
"I'm throwing a lot of my paperwork away," said Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, a Carroll County Republican leaving after 20 years.