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Issues For The 2014 General Assembly Session, Harbor Point, Unemployment Benefits, & MD Schools

The 2014 General Assembly session is now underway; issues up for debate will include MD’s online health exchange, the minimum wage, marijuana, pre-K education, transportation funding, and many others. Plus: Harbor Point, unemployment benefits, MD schools, and much more.

General Assembly Reports: The 2014 General Assembly session got underway in Annapolis yesterday; WYPR’s Christopher Connelly was there, and filed this report. Meanwhile, WYPR Senior News Analyst Fraser Smith comments on the usual can-do atmosphere that marked the session’s start in his weekly essay.

General Assembly Issues: Online Exchange Governor Martin O’Malley will formally unveil his agenda later this month… but the Washington Post reports that he’s already calling on lawmakers to act “as soon as possible” on emergency legislation that would allow retroactive health insurance for people who couldn’t buy coverage through the state’s troubled exchange website last year. Republican Delegate Kathy Szeliga says one of her projects this session is an audit of how the exchange was paid for.

General Assembly Issues: Minimum Wage Governor Martin O’Malley says raising Maryland’s minimum wage is a priority, but hasn’t yet said what he wants the rate to be. The Baltimore Sun reports that O’Malley HAS said that he wants the minimum wage to be connected to be inflation… a call echoed by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake yesterday, who noted that if the federal minimum had kept up with inflation, it would be just under $11 an hour. Rawlings-Blake said raising the wage would give 472-thousand Marylanders a much needed bump in pay, telling WYPR: “Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wage than Maryland even though our state is one of the highest cost of living.” Many Republicans in the General Assembly are opposed to a higher minimum wage, but as the GOP has a minority in both chambers of the legislature, it faces an uphill battle in preventing an increase from taking place.

General Assembly Issues: Marijuana The legal status of marijuana will also be a hot topic in the General Assembly this year.  Governor Martin O’Malley says he’s opposed to legalizing marijuana for recreational use, calling it a “gateway” to more dangerous behavior. Lawmakers did legalize medicinal marijuana last year, but the program can’t be operational for another two years, at the earliest. There’s more here from the Daily Record and here from the Baltimore Sun.

General Assembly Issues: Pre-Kindergarten Education Lawmakers will also consider bills that would expand pre-kindergarten education; the Washington Post reports that O’Malley is likely to back a proposal by Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown that would expand pre-k to four year olds around the state by the year 2018. Brown is running to succeed O’Malley in the governor’s post.

General Assembly Issues: Transportation Funding Mayor Rawlings-Blake is calling for lawmakers to restore funding to pay for local transportation projects.  The city and counties receive a portion of gas tax and vehicle registration fees from the state called Highway User Revenue. That fund has been cut in recent years to balance the state budget. Rawlings-Blake says the cost of transportation needs cannot continue to be borne by residents.

General Assembly Issues: Fracking The session started with a protest over hydraulic fracking – or fracking – with activists calling for a moratorium on the practice in Maryland. The Baltimore Sun has more here.

General Assembly Issues: Various Other issues before the legislature include the state’s bail hearing system, the legal status of pit bulls, the law governing stormwater remediation fees – called the rain tax by critics – and, of course, the state’s budget. Lawmakers will also look to make reforms to the state’s corrections system, in the wake of a smuggling scandal last year at the Baltimore City Detention Center. A special legislative commission has suggested that the jail be replaced, but the Washington Post reports that Governor O’Malley seems disinclined to fund such a project in his upcoming budget. O’Malley says that the half-billion-dollar-plus project should be a priority for the next governor.

First Prison Sentence For Jail Sandal: A former guard at the Baltimore City Detention Center is going to prison for smuggling drugs for a gang. It’s the first prison time sentence related to the scandal. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein says the guard got three-and-a-half years plus two years of probation. Rosenstein said he hopes the sentence sends a message to other corrections officers who misuse their positions. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun.

Harbor Point: Baltimore’s Board of Estimates has taken a step towards allowing the sale of tax increment financing bonds, or TIFs, that’ll be used as collateral to pay for the Harbor Point development. City Comptroller Joan Pratt was the only vote against authorizing an agreement between Baltimore Development Corporation and Beatty Development for the first phase of TIF Bonds. Pratt says she didn’t get many of the key documents until last Thursday and says she was forbidden by M&T Bank, the construction lender, to look at an appraisal of the deal. According to Pratt, the bank said the appraisal was confidential. The Comptroller told WYPR: “It’s very significant because without the appraisal we’re not be able to determine the income stream and the equity so I’m not sure if the project is sound.” The $36-million in bonds are expected to go on the market in the next several weeks; but they will be purchased by Beatty who will in turn use the bonds as collateral against the construction loan with M&T. There’s more here from the Daily Record.

O’Malley Calls For Extension Of Unemployment Benefits: Governor Martin O'Malley has written a letter that's been signed by 13 other Democratic governors, urging Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits. The Washington Post reports that O'Malley told reporters in Annapolis yesterday that the nation's economy will be hurt if unemployment benefits are not extended. The legislation would restore benefits averaging $256 weekly to the estimated one-point-three million long-term jobless Americans who were cut off on December 28th; about 25-thousand Marylanders lost benefits on that date. The Baltimore Sun notes that lawmakers in the US Senate are continuing to debate the issue.

MD Public Schools No Longer #1 (But No Schools Are): Maryland’s public school system has been ranked #1 in the nation by “Education Week” for the last five years – but this year, it’s not. That’s not because some other state was ranked higher – but because the newspaper has decided to stop ranking states against each other. This year, “Education Week” revised its rankings in three of its six categories for school success. Maryland remains the only state in the nation to have a “B” grade or better in all six of those categories. State Schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery said she has no plans to remove the signs from her office proclaiming Maryland best in education – she tells the Baltimore Sun that the state’s schools are still listed among the very top of schools in the country.

Pantelides Fires Mallinoff: Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides has fired city manager Michael Mallinoff, who served in the post since 2010. The Annapolis Capital reports that the city manager’s post is second only in power to that of the Mayor. Mallinoff’s dismissal is the second in a week; on Monday, Mayor Pantelides fired Planning Director Jon Arason.