Legislative session ends in suspense for Southern Maryland -- Gazette.Net


With two strokes of his pen, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is soon expected to usher in two pieces of landmark legislation in Maryland. The possession of small amounts of marijuana will be decriminalized, and the state’s minimum wage will rise incrementally from the current federal $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by July 2018.

The Maryland General Assembly concluded its 90-day legislative session Monday night in Annapolis, but Southern Maryland legislators still don’t know if the governor will allow the region’s chief concern — a 13-month moratorium on the construction of wind turbines on the Eastern Shore that could interfere with radar at Naval Air Station Patuxent River— to become law.

The bill — which would allow time to complete a $2 million study on how to best mitigate the effects of a proposed Somerset County wind farm on the naval base’s radar testing — set off a standoff between O’Malley (D), a staunch supporter of wind energy, against the Democratically controlled statehouse, which passed the legislation with overwhelming majorities in both chambers. Eventually, it even pitted the governor against much of the state’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), who personally testified on a bill in Annapolis for the first time since he left the statehouse as Senate president in 1979.

“I think that is an indicator of how much the O’Malley administration has actually put Pax River at risk. We never should have gotten to this point,” Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) said. “We finally got the attention of the congressman and his advisors, and I give him credit for coming to our aid in this matter.”

O’Malley still is reviewing the legislation and has yet to make a decision, spokeswoman Nina Smith said Wednesday via email.

The region’s lawmakers are optimistic the governor will, if not sign the bill, at least take no action, allowing it to become law after 30 days.

“We would hope he doesn’t even consider vetoing it,” Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles) said.

After the bill breezed through the House of Delegates with a 112-22 vote, Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said during the Charles County Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast last month that the legislation faced “a tougher sell on the Senate side.”

But following Hoyer’s unprecedented testimony, receipt of a letter signed by Hoyer, U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and a flood of calls to state senators from their congressmen — including U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md., 1st), who represents Somerset County — supporting the bill, the Senate passed it Saturday, 31-16.

“Needless to say, that was the biggest piece of legislation for the delegation,” Middleton said. “I hope that the governor realizes that after all the debate, this is something that his entire congressional delegation and pretty substantial amount of the legislature thought was important, that this [project] be delayed.”

Sen. Roy Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles), who once represented the Eastern Shore in Congress, said he understands Somerset’s need for the economic output the wind project would generate, but it pales in comparison to the engine Pax River is for the entire state.

“To get them that little bit of help, do you really sacrifice 22,000 employees and a $7.5 billion asset to the state of Maryland? I think not,” Dyson said.

Outside of the moratorium, Southern Maryland lawmakers described the session as relatively low-key, with an increase in the minimum wage from the federal $7.25 per hour rate to $10.10 the keystone issue before a last-minute push to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana took center stage.

The legislature finished work on the $38.7 billion state budget Saturday without much controversy, leaving lawmakers free to debate and vote on bills during session’s final day.

“I think it was a pretty smoothly run session, free of any high drama, which is always a flood thing in an election year,” St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly said. “There weren’t any high stakes issues like in recent sessions with gay marriage or gun control.”

In recent sessions, the legislature has grappled and passed a number of O’Malley initiatives concerning same-sex marriage, gun control, wind energy, the death penalty and other progressive tallies needed for a prospective 2016 presidential run.

This year, the minimum wage stood as the governor’s major priority. After making several changes to O’Malley’s initial proposal, lawmakers approved the wage hike on the last day of session.

The full increase will be phased in more than 3½ years, with the first increase to $8 coming in January 2015, followed by increases to $8.25 in July 2015, $8.75 in July 2016, $9.25 in July 2017 and, finally, $10.10 in July 2018. O’Malley initially proposed to complete the increase to $10.10 by July 2016, and thereafter tie the minimum wage to inflation.

The bill won plaudits from President Barack Obama, who has encouraged states to increase their minimum wage to the $10.10 rate.

“The Maryland Legislature did the right thing for its workers today by increasing the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Maryland’s important action is a reminder that many states, cities and counties — as well as a majority of the American people — are way ahead of Washington on this crucial issue,” Obama said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “I applaud Governor O’Malley and the state legislature for leading by example and giving more Maryland workers the raise they deserve.”

The legislation keeps the minimum wage for tipped employees set at 50 percent of the federal rate, so they will continue to earn at least $3.63 per hour, rather than a base of $5.05 had they been kept in step with the state’s wage increase. Originally, O’Malley wanted tipped workers to make 70 percent of the state minimum wage, which would have eventually equaled $7.07 an hour.

Businesses also will be able to pay new workers younger than 20 a “training wage” set at 85 percent the state minimum wage for the first six months of their employment.

“We’ve done so much to harm small businesses over the last eight years, everything from increased taxes to increased fees, and this is one more, so if you take it by itself it might not be that bad, but if you take it with all the other things that have been heaped on them, it’s just another straw that’s eventually going to broke the camel’s back of small business in this state,” O’Donnell said.

Middleton made headlines last month after he promised to keep the wage bill — which had passed the House and went before the Senate Finance Committee, which Middleton chairs — from reaching the Senate floor until the administration first addressed the pay of disability workers, who at the time were making about $9.82 an hour, or 35 percent more than the current $7.25 minimum wage.

Middleton and O’Malley ultimately worked out a deal to keep the pay for caregivers at about 30 percent above the minimum wage via annual 3.5 percent raises through 2018. The deal necessitated the two-year extension of the phase-in period for the minimum wage increase.

“Obviously, we’re unbelievably grateful to Sen. Middleton, who’s just an extraordinary champion for people with developmental disabilities and their direct support staff. We couldn’t thank him and applaud him more,” said Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services.

It was the latest example of Middleton playing a key role in an O’Malley priority. In 2011 and 2012, Middleton’s committee twice stalled a bill incentivizing the establishment of an offshore wind farm 11 miles off the coast of Ocean City, effectively delaying its passage two years before it won approval in 2013. Middleton also held up passage of the so-called “septic bill” in 2012 while he and the administration worked on provisions ensuring local jurisdictions retained zoning authority.

“He was smart,” Eberly said of Middleton. “He knew there was no way the governor was not going to make a deal, and he decided this is what he was going to fight for, and he delivered.”

The legislature also passed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, limiting the penalty for those caught with 10 or less grams of marijuana to a civil fine rather than criminal penalties.

First-time offenders will be fined $100. The fine increases to $250 and $500 on the second and third offenses, respectively.

Eberly said the marijuana bill would end up being the “headline issue” of session due to the nature of its passage.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s, Calvert) initially tried to kill the bill by setting up a task force to study the issue but let the bill out of his committee under intense pressure from other key lawmakers.

An “uprising” against one of the legislature’s most powerful and senior members “just does not happen in Maryland politics, and it was an incredible thing to watch,” Eberly said. “It almost makes you eager to see what happens at the start next year. Do people start to say maybe it’s OK to buck leadership?”

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) voted against the marijuana bill due to the effect it could have in his district, where a number of employers associated with the military or national security require security clearances that forbid drug use.

“While I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments made, I feel that in a community like ours, I’m not comfortable with the message it sends to our young people who may be going after some high-paying jobs that require a clearance,” Bohanan said. “It is a huge deal when you go to get your clearance, and to a young person we’re signaling it’s OK now, it’s sort of like running a traffic light or a stop sign, and that’s fine at the time until you go many years later and you’re in line for a job that requires a clearance that you can’t get, so it’s still a very big deal in a community like ours.”

Other bills solely for St. Mary’s County passed through both houses of the General Assembly with little or no problem.

Some local officials will get a pay raise after this year’s election.

There will be alternatives to taking a home to tax sale for unpaid water and sewer bills.

The St. Mary’s County sheriff’s salary goes from $82,000 this year to $100,000 next year with adjustments thereafter. Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) is unopposed for a third straight term this fall.

The treasurer’s salary goes from $48,000 this year to $50,000 next year with increases after that. Treasurer Jannette Norris is retiring at the end of her fifth term this year. There are three candidates for the office this fall.

The St. Mary’s County commissioners get a slight raise in 2015. The president will make $43,430, up from $43,000, and the other four commissioners’ salary will be $38,380 next year, up from $38,000.

The judges of the orphans court will get $9,000 in 2015 instead of $7,500 a year.

The raises were recommended by a compensation review committee in 2012.

Residential customers in arrears with the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission could be granted a waiver or an extension of time, based on financial hardship, to catch up before the agency takes the home to the annual county tax sale.

A decision to go to tax sale can also be appealed to the county commissioners or their designee.

The bill was introduced after an elderly Hollywood, Md., couple were threatened with a MetCom tax sale last winter for unpaid sewer bills, a service Combs Toney, 88, never connected into in the first place.

State lawmakers also held a number of hearings early in session on the state’s online health care exchange, which launched with technical problems mirroring that of the federal Affordable Health Care Act exchange. The board overseeing the state exchange voted earlier this month to shift to software used by the more successful Connecticut exchange.

Lawmakers also agreed to increase the penalties for drivers that cause serious accidents while talking or texting on a cellphone and passed a bill overruling a 2012 court decision that singled out pit bulls as “inherently dangerous.” Now, owners of any dog breed could be held liable for an attack by their dog if they previously knew the animal to be dangerous.

Another bill reduced the standard for receiving a civil protective order to “a preponderance of the evidence” — Maryland had previously been the only state to require “clear and convincing evidence.”


Staff writer Jason Babcock contributed to this report.