This year’s Maryland General Assembly session looks workmanlike compared to two years ago when casino expansion collided with tax hikes and the legislature adjourned with the Senate and House at war, the governor condemning both chambers and the state stuck with a “Doomsday Budget.” It took secret negotiations and two special sessions to straighten out the mess.
Here are some of this year’s major highlights and low-lights:
In order to balance a $39 billion budget the legislature swiped $200 million from the state’s employee pension fund payment. And, despite Gov. Martin O’Malley’s insistence that during his tenure he’d cut $9 billion in spending, his last budget is $9 billion greater than his first.
First, lawmakers relaxed Maryland’s medical marijuana program by setting up a board to license growers and dispensaries and to let certain physicians prescribe medicinal pot. This controlled system resembles D.C.’s, not California’s, which is merely a subterfuge for legalization.
Next, to everyone’s surprise, the assembly decriminalized possession of 10 grams or less of pot. Two years ago the punishment was a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. A year ago it dropped to 90 days in jail. Now it’s a $100 citation with no record (much like a traffic ticket).
The governor, the House Speaker and the House Judiciary Committee chairman all opposed decriminalization. The House Judiciary Committee gutted the Senate’s decriminalization bill and turned it into a summer study. But when that measure reached the House floor a coalition of blacks and liberals, led by Del. Keiffer “reefer” Mitchell (D-Baltimore), switched it back to the Senate version by labeling it a civil rights bill due to disparate racial arrest rates. Realizing that they lacked the votes to stop decriminalization, the governor, the speaker and the chairman all caved.
Unfortunately, the House mutineers forgot to decriminalize marijuana paraphernalia (pipes, papers, bongs) which remain illegal. Brownies anyone? Equally puzzling, while decriminalizing pot, the same legislature simultaneously banned grain alcohol and refused to legalize raw milk because they are health hazards. Their proponents need to convert both items into civil rights issues.
This year’s “feel good” bill was wildly popular because employers, not taxpayers, pay for the wage increases that, over four years, will rise from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. Since they don’t have to pay for it, lawmakers and taxpayers were deaf to the pleas that some marginal businesses will close and some low-wage earners will lose jobs. Nor did they care about “pay scale ratcheting” — if a $7.25 per hour employee goes to $10.10, the wages of all the employees making more than $7.25 must go up proportionately.
Only when it came to light that state-reimbursed caretakers, who make $9.82 an hour helping the disabled, were caught in the “ratcheting” net, did lawmakers become alarmed. Their solution? Raise the caretaker’s state reimbursements to above $10.10 per hour.
This was the Maryland legislature at its worst. Currently, after a criminal suspect is booked, he goes before a commissioner (not a judge) who decides bail. The commissioner can release the suspect pending trial, release the suspect on bond (bail) pending trial or incarcerate the suspect until trial.
Within 24 hours the suspect’s bail status is reviewed by a judge who makes a final ruling. Up until now, indigent suspects only had a right to counsel at the second (judicial) bail hearing. But last year the Maryland Court of Appeals (Maryland’s top court) interpreted a state statute as requiring counsel at the initial bail hearing, as well.
Rather than abide by the court’s ruling, the legislature changed the statute. In response, the court ruled that, as a constitutional matter, counsel was required. But, again rather than abiding by the ruling, the legislature tried getting the court to reverse itself. When that failed, this year’s legislature had to face the problem.
Maryland’s progressive lawmakers routinely champion poor, minority, criminal defendants. That’s why they repealed the death penalty, restored voting rights to felons and supported banning prospective employers from access to criminal records. But providing legal counsel to these same, poor, minority defendants could cost the state upwards of $50 million a year. Apparently, that’s where fiscal concern trumps liberal compassion.
Instead of paying the tab, the Senate recommended replacing the commissioners with computers which, based on a nationwide database, can supposedly, forecast the suspect’s suitability for bail. But many lawmakers, recently burned by Maryland’s malfunctioning Obamacare exchange and Baltimore’s faulty traffic cameras, bridled at the Senate’s “robobail” proposal.
However, their solution was even more callous; reverse the court’s ruling by amending the state constitution. Finally, the legislature punted by taking $10 million out of the court’s budget and telling the court to solve the problem itself. So, look for a constitutional crisis followed by a special session in the middle of an election year.
Apparently Maryland’s legislature will only launch a full-scale probe into governmental incompetence and corruption when the governor is a Republican. Remember the outrage and subsequent prolonged investigations into the Ehrlich administration’s political hiring practices and state trooper surveillance of peace groups? Meanwhile, Maryland’s trashed $200 million white elephant Obamacare exchange doesn’t seem to rise to the same level of concern. In December, O’Malley pronounced the exchange functional. Now, the entire monstrosity is being scrapped.
Meanwhile, O’Malley is busy rearranging the goal posts and the scoreboard. Maryland’s initial Obamacare enrollment target was 180,000, then dropped to 150,000 then down to 70,000. The final tally was only 63,000 enrollees. Having failed to meet the shrunken target, O’Malley is fudging the numbers by combining the 63,000 Obamacare sign-ups with Medicaid’s new 232,000 enrollees.
“We’ve exceeded our overall goal of 260,000,” boasts O’Malley, mixing apples and oranges. Using O’Malley’s math, last year’s Washington Redskins (3 wins, 13 defeats) didn’t lose 81 percent of their games. If we simply add in the Redskin’s four preseason victories, they went 7 for 20 losing only 65 percent of their games. When you’re hiding from blame, who cares about the truth?
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.