A sampling of the region's editorial pages and blogs.
It’s election year. Every aspect of the 2014 Maryland General Assembly session, which convened Wednesday, hinges on that all-important fact. The chief aim (the sole aim?) of every state lawmaker is to either get re-elected or to get elected to the next-highest office. Only the lame ducks aren’t laser-focused on career enhancement.
Adding to the anxiety is this year’s early primary election date, June 24, just 10 weeks after the session adjourns. Whose idea was it to put an election so close to income tax-filing day? Incumbents worry that there’s not enough time for voters to forgive or forget.
And the $300 million budget surplus that incumbents built into last year’s budget so there’d be plenty of election-year loot to spread around is gone. Instead, this year’s state spending, as usual, exceeds projected revenues, a $500 million deficit downer.
But Gov. O’Malley and the Dems have a solution — put it on the credit card. Just borrow an additional $75 million annually for the next five years and let the next governor worry about Maryland’s skyrocketing debt service, the largest increase of all budget categories, climbing from $233 million in 2015 to $557 million in 2019. Call it Detroit financing.
Another solution to the lack of state money is to spend somebody else’s money. That’s why state lawmakers are falling over themselves to raise the state’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage. The state won’t have to pay the new increases; employers will.
Incumbents have taken a lot of heat for passing the infamous “rain tax,” one of the dumbest laws ever enacted. But after all the posturing is over, the powerful environmental lobby will prevent its repeal. At most, it might be delayed until after the election, but, more likely, it will be softened for nonprofits and religious properties.
Some unfinished business includes resolving a mindless court decision that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous.” Common law says owners and landlords aren’t liable unless an animal has shown prior viciousness (the “one bite” rule). The court’s decision creates liability chaos. Also, pit bulls are not a distinct breed. And how about crossbreeds? A legislative correction is in the works.
Another court decision, that criminal defendants must have counsel (public defenders) at bail hearings before a commissioner, could cost the state more than $30 million a year. Legislative leaders have decided to kick that can down the road until next year.
Statehouse incumbents also must apply cosmetic surgery to a couple of state scandals that are embarrassing their gubernatorial favorite, Anthony Brown.
First, there’s the Black Guerrilla Family federal bust at the state-run Baltimore city jail, where corrupt guards were helping an inmate gang run the joint, including conjugal visits with the female guards. After O’Malley pronounced the scandal “a positive development,” a legislative task force decided who’s to blame ... the building! That’s right, the solution is a new $533 million jail. Seriously.
The task force also recommended new disciplinary rules for the guards, but if you believe state lawmakers are going to stand up to the public employee unions in an election year, I’ve got some Lehman Brothers stock I’d like to sell you. Heck, O’Malley and the Dems enacted the 2010 “Corrections Officers Bill of Rights,” which, as the feds observed, results in “no effective punishment” for corrupt guards. So, instead of placing blame, we’ll build a new jail.
Speaking of placing blame, who takes the fall for Maryland’s $150 million Obamacare website fiasco? Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was in charge but, when the website crashed in October, the party line was, “We’re focused on fixing it, we’ll place blame later.” Well, “later” is here. But you’re about to see one of the greatest magic acts in state history. Somehow, the blame will fall on the bureaucrats, on the contractors or on anyone else except Brown, who’s been endorsed by the legislature’s leadership, by O’Malley and by most Democratic incumbents.
Finally, here’s my nominee for this session’s wild card sleeper issue, legalizing marijuana, which could get legs for these reasons:
One, most incumbents are Dems whose re-election depends on winning their Dem primary in their Dem districts, where pot is popular. A 2012 Gonzales poll on medical marijuana showed 63 percent of Maryland’s likely voters in favor, but 70 percent of Dems.
Two, for blacks and liberals it’s a civil rights issue; legalization would end so-called racial bias in pot convictions.
Three, Senate President Mike Miller is in favor because he wants the pot tax revenue, the same reason why he backed slots and casinos.
Four, Del. Heather Mizeur’s only chance for winning the governor’s race is her legalizing pot pledge, so she’ll be pot’s Joan of Arc in this year’s session.
Five, House Speaker Mike Busch and O’Malley are opposed but Busch is famous for caving in (i.e., slots and casinos), and O’Malley’s veto might act as a perverse incentive for lawmakers who want to vote for legalization without it actually happening. Likewise, lame-duck lawmakers, immune from re-election pressure, may cast surprising votes.
To make it more palatable, recreational pot may be recast as decriminalization or as unrestricted medical marijuana (like California). But, whatever they call it, 2014 may be the year when the Free State becomes the Weed State.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.