Policies and Politics The 90-Day Romp
From January through April, the Maryland General Assembly considers some 2,300 bills …
Here are seven that could change your life
by Debra George Siedt
Ninety days doesn’t seem too long for a honeymoon. During the 90-day annual session of the Maryland General Assembly, state lawmakers come together in Annapolis to consider nearly 2,300 bills. As in any honeymoon, legislators and the governor begin each session with high hopes. Then reality hits as votes are counted, debates rankle and vetoes loom. During all the agenda-pushing and closed-door meetings, it’s difficult to remember that these decisions affect us, because the session seems so, well, political.
It’s not until later in the year — when we pay extra to register our cars and boats; each time we flush our toilets — that we feel changes voted on, by then, months ago.
In past sessions, the legislature has considered proposals to import drugs from Canada, legalize slots, ban gay marriages, allow gay marriages, cap tuition at state universities and ban smoking in all public places. All those proposals died either in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate or at the hands of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.
Once again this year, the General Assembly and Ehrlich grapple to reach compromise on bills — from minimum wage to the species of oyster living in the Bay — that could change the quality of our lives and our ecosystem. No one’s placing bets, but if history repeats itself, compromise may prove elusive.
At the halfway mark, February 25, 956 bills had been filed in the Senate and 1,526 in the House — with little resolution. “We’re sitting up here with our feet up, eating bonbons and drinking wine,” said one senate staffer.
Can You Live on $5.15 an Hour?
For most Marylanders, living on $5.15 per hour seems impossible, especially with soaring home and gasoline prices and interest rates creeping up as well.
Yet some 28,000 Marylanders earn minimum wage.
This year, the General Assembly will decide whether the federal minimum wage of $5.15 is or isn’t enough for Marylanders. Senate Bill 89 would raise the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour and from $2.38 to $3.38 per hour for tipped employees.
The national minimum wage of $5.15 is set by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Congress raises the rate occasionally to cover inflation and other cost of living expenses, but the last hike came in 1997.
Rather than accept an annual salary of $10,712 for some of their residents, several states have enacted legislation to raise their minimum wage. Washington State has the highest minimum wage, $7.35 per hour, followed by Oregon, Alaska and Connecticut. Maryland’s neighbors, the District of Columbia and Delaware, also have higher minimum wages, $6.60 and $6.15. In the District, the minimum wage automatically increases to $1 above the federal rate; in Delaware, the raise is tied to inflation.
Maryland follows minimum wage standards that exempt commissioned sales employees, farm workers and salaried employees. If the General Assembly passes SB 889, some 55,000 workers would be affected: 28,000 who earn minimum wage or less and another 27,000 who earn between $5.16 and $6.14 per hour.
Senate President Mike Miller, sponsor of the bill, said the legislation is long overdue and offers incentive for working minimum wage jobs.
“The problem is not a shortage of jobs, but that jobs don’t pay enough,” said Sean Dobson, deputy director of Progressive Maryland. “We’re pleased that Senate President Miller and Chairman [of Economic Matters Committee, Dereck E.] Davis want to work with us to raise the minimum wage up from a disgraceful $5.15 per hour.”
Progressive Maryland — which describes itself as a grassroots organization lobbying for working families — last year supported a so-called “living wage” bill that would set the minimum hourly wage at $10.50 for certain state contracts, mostly construction and maintenance projects. Gov. Ehrlich kept his promise to veto the bill; then, in January, the legislature narrowly missed the amount of votes needed to override the veto. Rather than repeat that battle, Progressive Maryland this year asked the legislature to support a more meager increase in a bill that would benefit more Marylanders.
The minimum wage bill “is still well short of living wage, but a step in the right direction,” said Dobson.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, however, opposes the bill, saying it would place a burden on small businesses and create a ripple effect in the business community.
“We just think the minimum wage bill sends a terrible message about Maryland’s business climate,” said William Burns, director of communications for the Chamber. “The message is that private wages won’t be set by the competitive market, but by the government.”
The Chamber argues that very few people in Maryland, approximately two percent of the population, earn minimum wage and that most of those are young or are not primary wage earners. The business community claims it will have to respond by raising prices, decreasing benefits or cutting jobs.
“Wages don’t exist in a bubble,” Burns said. “In the end, the chamber fears it will force businesses into difficult decisions.”
The fiscal note, a summary of the bill’s potential impact that must be read by the legislators before they make a decision, concluded that small businesses would be impacted by having to raise their prices, which could result in decreased sales.
Progressive Maryland isn’t convinced.
“We have 70 years of experience with the federal minimum wage,” Dobson said. “Every time, people at the corporate level have said, ‘It will ruin us.’ How many times do we have to go through this charade?”
Gov. Ehrlich, who was elected on a pro-business platform, has aligned with the Chamber on previous business-related bills, including the living wage. As is customary, the governor will not state his formal position on the bill until and if it passes both chambers. But there’s already speculating he will veto it.
“It will pass, but it depends on what the governor wants to do,” Dobson said. “If he wants to commit political suicide, that’s his business.”
The governor’s office said that although he has not taken a formal position, he’s “not inclined to support it.” “The governor is very concerned about bills that could have an impact on the business community,” said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.
Not so many years ago, you could light up a cigarette virtually anywhere, including hospitals, airplanes and trains. Soon the only safe place for smokers to take a drag may be their living rooms. In 1995, smoking was banned in all workplaces with the exception of hospitality industries. This year, anti-smoking alliances have formed again to try to ban smoking in all indoor public places in Maryland, a move that has the bar and restaurant industry fuming.
House Bill 428, the Clean Indoor Act, has failed in the General Assembly several times. Now, with a smoking ban in effect in Montgomery County, anti-smoking alliances are hoping to breathe new life into the bill. Under the provisions of the bill, smoking would be banned in all indoor areas open to the public, including places of employment. Anne Arundel County Del. Barbara Frush, sponsor of the bill, said the only opposition to the bill is the restaurant industry — a group that, she chides, isn’t mindful of its employees.
“We have never had a bill that has gotten so much support from the general public,” said Frush. “The [restaurant] industry never touches on the people who work there. It’s all about the bottom line.”
About 85 percent of Marylanders don’t smoke, according to state statistics. Gov. Ehrlich opposed the bill last year and has taken a similar position on the bill this year, arguing that it’s about “adults making adult decisions,” according to a spokesperson.
Will the Gov. Swallow a Legislated Oyster?
The Bay was a hot topic of discussion last session when Gov. Ehrlich introduced legislation that imposed the flush tax on all Marylanders to generate some $400 million annually. Because of the $2.50 per month surcharge on water users and a $30 yearly charge on septic users, the Bay may soon be feeling better. That’s a good thing because environmental legislation this year is taking a backseat to slots and medical malpractice.
The governor’s 2005 legislative agenda does not include any environmental bills.
“There’s no particular reason why,” said spokeswoman DeLeaver. “I don’t think the governor is attempting to establish a legacy in one area of initiative, but is attempting to propose a moderate well-rounded package.”
This year, Gov. Ehrlich’s Child First agenda is being touted as bi-partisan with the appeal of last year’s Bay restoration efforts.
Other legislators have introduced environmental bills this session, but the bills may not go down well with the governor.
Anne Arundel County Del. Barbara Frush is sponsoring a bill that would set up conditions for introducing non-native oysters into the Bay.
“We have those who would like to dump the Asian oysters into the Bay with the hope that they will work and be wonderful, and that may be the case,” said Frush. “But we don’t have enough information to be sure of that.”
Under the bill, Maryland Department of Natural Resources must first evaluate introducing the oysters, then write a study and finally issue a decision.
“This bill ensures that we are taking the proper care in putting those oysters into the Bay,” said Frush.
Gov. Ehrlich, however, maintains that “science will rule the day,” insisting he will introduce the non-native oysters if science has proven them to be beneficial to the Bay.
“As of last year, a number of bills have been introduced that will limit gubernatorial power,” said DeLeaver. “This is one of those.”
Insider Trading in Maryland Land
Who can’t help but let a little power go to their heads when opportunity knocks? The legislature, however, is determined not to let Gov. Ehrlich get heady.
Ever since the governor attempted to sell prime real estate in St. Mary’s County to a wealthy land developer, Democratic legislators have promised to stop insider deals from happening with state-owned land. Under current provisions, state Comptroller William Donald Schafer, Gov. Ehrlich and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp — acting together as Maryland’s Board of Public Works — approve sales of state-owned land. The House and Senate have filed five bills that would limit the state’s power to sell land; one of the bills would require legislative approval of any land sold.
“There is nothing wrong with the method the state uses to dispose of lands,” DeLeaver said. “The governor has concerns that the Legislature is questioning the integrity of the Board of Public Works.”
Crossing to the Other Side
Nothing divides Maryland more painfully than a trip across the Bay Bridge. With repairs expected to continue for at least another year, one Anne Arundel County delegate is attempting to ease the growing problem of traffic congestion.
Del. David Boschert is sponsoring a bill that would set up commuter buses from Kent Island to Annapolis while the Bay Bridge is being renovated. Commuters could then catch a bus to D.C or a shuttle to downtown Annapolis.
“It’s a disservice to motorists who have to come over,” said Boschert of opposition to the bill.
One obstacle to a commuter bus is money, but Boschert points out that the state has already spent hundreds of thousand of dollars fixing bridge problems.
“If you can find money to fix a bridge that originally was fixed, then there’s money for buses,” Boschert said.
Delaware (substitute New Jersey or West Virginia), Here We Come!
Marylanders may retire that slogan as the House moves closer to passing a bill to legalize slot machines. The Senate has passed a slots bill for the third year in a row, but in 2003 and 2004, slots died in a House committee. Now, however, it seems a compromise has been struck. The governor’s bill this year made it through the House Ways and Means Committee, although heavily amended from the one Ehrlich proposed, with the number of machines cut and limited to four spots. The full House passed the bill by the slimmest of margins on February 25.
“It’s too early in the game to predict what the endgame will be,” DeLeaver said. “We’re pleased that the slots bill has some type of life.”
Both House and Senate versions move on to conference committee, where a final version will be crafted. Leading in, there doesn’t seem much room to compromise. House Speaker Michael Busch has said his chamber won’t budge.
Support for slots has been split, with nearly 50 percent of Marylanders approving of them, according to Gonzales polls. Opposition, most recently from state religious leaders, has also been high. In February, leaders from the religious community announced that they will dedicate the first two weeks in March to preaching an anti-slots message to their congregations. They also asked that congregations of every faith “address the issues and dangers of increased government sponsored gambling.”
Who’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Why, Superman, of course. Who doesn’t think of Christopher Reeve as the caped superhero? Before his death last year, Reeve also championed another cause: stem-cell research. Reeve, who was paralyzed after a fall from a horse, eventually was able to move his fingers again. He believed deliverance from paralysis depended on stem-cell research and campaigned for increased funding for the cause.
This year, that cause has reached Maryland’s General Assembly.
Stem-cell research involves extracting stem cells, typically from fertilized embryos or eggs. The fertilized egg dies after the stem cells are harvested. Thus stem-cell research has created a controversy that has been compared to abortion in its divisiveness. Once the cells are harvested, scientists can potentially create therapies for a variety of illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and even cancer. President George W. Bush has limited federal funding for stem- cell research to existing cell lines, which would require no further harvesting of embryos. But states, most recently California, have taken steps to fund their own research. Maryland may be next.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, of Baltimore County, has introduced a bill that would dedicate $25 million in state funds to stem-cell research. The bill would prohibit cloning and would establish a commission to oversee the research. Gov. Ehrlich, however, has said that he would be inclined to follow the federal government’s lead in limiting the research to existing stem cells.
Opposed groups, including the Maryland Catholic Conference and the Maryland Right to Life, point to a poll conducted in January that found nearly 70 percent of voters do not support state funding for stem-cell research with embryos.
Our World Will Change
The legislature could also decide on other key issues, including revising its December medical malpractice initiative, capping state university tuition, preventing identity theft and preventing price gouging when the next natural disaster hits.
Whether or not the General Assembly comprises this year to reach agreement on these and hundreds of other bills will probably remain a guessing game until closer to April, right before session adjourns. Months or years into the future, we may or may not remember why we get — or write — larger paychecks, get called out for lighting a cigarette to go with a beer or stay home in Maryland to play slots.
|Let’s Just Study It a Little Longer …
Before spending $2,500, let alone several hundred-thousands of dollars, you’d want to know what you’re getting for that hard-earned cash. The Maryland General Assembly is no different. Each bill that is considered by the law-making body costs a few thousand dollars by the time it is drafted, debated and ultimately voted up or down. Once the bill is passed, the provisions could cost taxpayers money.
Thus it behooves the legislature to study the issues thoroughly before a proposal becomes law. One way the House and Senate study issues is by setting up task forces, study groups that may consider an issue for a year or longer and then draft a report with recommendations to the legislature.
“It’s usually a case-by-case issue,” said Anne Arundel County Del. David G. Boschert. “Just to have one to study, say, the evolution of a rabbit would not be worth it.”
The size and scope of a task force depends on the proposed bill. Usually it’s a bipartisan group of legislators and stakeholders. The group meets once or twice a month to listen to experts on background information and possible solutions.
In 2003, a task force studied the feasibility of licensing boaters. For six months, the group studied the licensing and how it would affect tourism and economic development. The eight-member task force consisted of stakeholder representatives, including one from the Department of Natural Resources and one from the Motor Vehicle Administration.
The cost of establishing a task force varies depending on how big the group is, how often it meets and what its goals are. Some task forces are considered “nothing more than a way to get together and have fun,” according to Boschert. Others consider more serious proposals, like his bill to study locations for veterans homes.
This year’s Legislature is considering at least 20 task-force bills to study —
- Pay-for-performance system for Maryland teachers
- Dearth of minority-owned businesses
- Electronic health records
- Implementing holocaust, genocide, human rights and tolerance education
- Establishing a Maryland Women’s Veterans Memorial
- Billing practices of public service companies
- Broadband communication in underserved rural areas
- Decentralized vehicle emission inspection program
- Periodic vehicle safety inspections
- Indoor air quality in educational institutions
- Lyme disease
- Retiree healthcare funding options and alternative retirement system options
- General aviation issues
- Identity theft
- Administrative compensation for birth-related neurological injury
With all the hubbub surrounding slots the last few years in Maryland, many may have missed a suggestion that might be more fun than triple cherries: nude sunbathing. The American Association for Nude Recreation has been at work for years to drum up support from legislators to legalize nude sunbathing on Assateague Island on the Eastern Shore. People have been enjoying the sun sans suits for years, the organization states.
“We’re still in the educational process,” said Carolyn Hawkins, spokeswoman for the association. “So far we haven’t been successful, but we don’t give up that easily.”
No bill has been introduced this session to legalize nude sunbathing on the island, but support has grown by two percent this year, according to association data, bringing support for nudity to 50 percent of all Marylanders — while support for slots is a point lower at 49 percent.
“Apparently, Marylanders would prefer to lose more than just their shirts,” said association lobbyist Don Murphy at a news release.
This year it’s been up to other causes to sponsor the usual “silly bills.”
House Minority Leader George Edwards — a 22-year Republican member from the mountains of Western Maryland — fumed last year when “city folk” tried to limit black bear hunting in his county. This year, he introduced a bill to populate the state with black bears.
In retaliation, Anne Arundel County Del. Barbara Frush introduced a bill to ban all black bear hunting in the state, a bill she admits was submitted to make a point.
“This delegate [Edwards] was trying to say you people from the city have no right to tell us what to do,” Frush said. “It was more of a smart aleck way of doing it. I don’t expect it to go anywhere. It’s just a silly bill.”
Still, Frush said, I have a bill in to stop the bear hunt in Maryland, period.”
Can you name the state nickname, the state song, the state fish, the state sport (be careful, there are two of them now) or the state bird?
If you said Old Line State, “Maryland, My Maryland,” rockfish, jousting or lacrosse and the oriole, you’d know what many people forgot after eighth grade.
Just as lacrosse was added last year as the state’s official competitive sport, a bill this year could add a second state bird to the mix: the raven.
For the past eight years, Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County rep, has visited local elementary schools on a Statehouse to Schoolhouse Tour. Each year, Zirkin assembles fourth- and fifth-grade students to debate issues from state sports to cell phones to lower age for drivers. This year, Zirkin noticed that more and more students were suggesting that the raven be one of Maryland’s state birds, so he introduced a bill. On March 9, Zirkin’s bird bill will be heard in Annapolis; he plans to have students from local elementary schools testify in support of the bill.
“We’re going to get as many of them as we can down to present the case themselves,” said a spokesman.
Many delegates wait until an election year to introduce so-called “do-nothing bills,” according to Anne Arundel County Del. David G. Boschert. With each bill costing at least $2,500, Boschert said casual introductions are “not so silly.” That’s a high price for a lawmaker’s election-year visibility. Still, next year — an election year — may bring more legislative risibility.
This year, on the other hand, is being billed “a serious 90 days.”