It was a disappointment to liberal opinionators but the 2014 General Assembly proved surprisingly cautious and balanced in moving Maryland decidedly to the political left during its 90-day session that ended April 7.
Gov. Martin O’Malley, barely containing his national ambitions, took a hard-left turn in his legislative agenda. It was aimed at impressing liberal Democratic interest groups across the country.
But House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller wisely slowed the O’Malley Express and made sure Maryland didn’t get too far out in front of Democrats’ march to the far left.
Time and again, leaders in the House and Senate put a damper on overly ambitious liberal Democratic proposals. Here are a few examples:
–Minimum Wage. Yes, O’Malley is bragging that Maryland is leading the nation by passing a $10.10 minimum wage. But read the fine print.
The first wage boost next January is only seventy-five cents an hour. It won’t be till mid-2018 – over five years from now – when Maryland reaches O’Malley’s Nirvana, that $10.10 threshold.
This cautious approach is dictated by legitimate concerns that a rapid, 39 percent wage boost will hurt many small businesses and retail chains and could lead to layoffs, store closings or cutbacks in work hours.
Weakening the Bill
The final bill also exempts certain employers, adds a lower, trainee category, contains no automatic annual inflation boost and denies higher wages to tipped workers.
O’Malley can brag all he wants, yet the final version is a far cry from what he proposed. The new law does provide higher baseline wages for low-income workers, but it takes a decidedly conservative approach getting there.
–Dog Bites. Yes, lawmakers finally found comity on reversing a dreadfully misguided ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals that called one breed of dog, pit bulls (though it’s not really a breed) “inherently dangerous.”
Pit bull owners aren’t off the hook, though. Lawmakers added language making any and all dog owners legally responsible if their pet bites someone. That thoughtful, moderate step levels the field and strikes a blow for individual responsibility when good dogs do bad things.
–Decriminalizing Marijuana Possession. This move is being hailed as the first step toward fully legalizing marijuana. In truth, lawmakers aren’t opening the floodgates.
A $100 fine for a first offense is a hefty price to pay for getting caught with pot. A $250 fine for a second offense will put a crimp in most wallets, and a $500 fine for a third offense comes with possible mandatory drug counseling.
That’s quite a penalty for inhaling this carcinogenic weed.
Perhaps the bill will reduce jail overcrowding in large jurisdictions, as some predict, and allow police to focus on serious criminal offenses. Or it could mean a deluge of new pothead offenders. We’re in virgin territory that could well require a re-thinking of this move by the 2015 or 2016 legislature.
Medicinal Pot Smoking
–Medical Marijuana. This law could make it easier for seriously ill patients to get relief from their pain, anxiety and/or nausea. Academic medical centers refused to participate in the existing program for fear of endangering their massive federal research grants, so now legislative sponsors are trying a different approach through pre-approved physicians.
But drawing up the rules and regulations will be complicated and could take quite some time to complete – at least 18 months. Lawmakers continue their go-slow approach.
Creating a market for marijuana growers could easily spin out of control. Some physicians may abuse the privilege of prescribing this controlled substance. The law may have to be revised yet again in future years to make it effective.
Early School Start
–Pre-K Expansion. Yes, Maryland is enlarging its program to give pre-kindergarten education to underprivileged children. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is crowing about this grand achievement.
But wait a minute: Only 1,600 kids will be helped under this legislation. That’s a drop in a very large ocean.
At that pace, Brown will be collecting Social Security before all the needy kids in Maryland get into this worthwhile program. His claims of a great step forward ring hollow.
Shrinking the ‘Death Tax’
–Estate Tax Reduction. O’Malley could still veto this bill to impress ultra-liberal groups that idolize candidates who bash the rich. Keeping this punitive tax on the wealthy would appease the left wing of the party.
Still, there’s no denying wealthy Marylanders are moving to Florida and other states that tax but don’t punish a person’s heirs for inheriting great sums of money.
Both Miller and Busch recognized Maryland was losing many of its best and most committed civic leaders as result of this soak-the-rich policy. They pushed through changes that will make the state’s estate tax identical to federal limits – but only gradually over the next five years.
Senate President Mike Miller
It’s a nod to the business community from top lawmakers based on practical realities. It’s also a pullback from O’Malley’s perpetual business-bashing.
All of these measures indicate that the state’s legislature remains stubbornly moderate in tone, fearful of moving too quickly or too aggressively on social issues. Rarely do Maryland’s legislative leaders fully embrace the knee-jerk crusade du jour. They keep worrying about the unintended, negative consequences.
Cooler heads prevailed in Annapolis this session. Though the legislature is increasingly dominated by liberal Democrats, it’s a positive sign that caution remains an integral part of the Maryland General Assembly’s DNA.
Barry Rascovar can be reached at email@example.com. His blog address is politicalmaryland.com.