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Maryland General Assembly 2014 Session Update

A little over three weeks remain in the Maryland General Assembly’s 2014 legislative session.  Here’s a look at what’s been passed, and what the legislature is working on.

The Budget

On Thursday, the Senate approved Governor O’Malley’s fiscal year 2013 budget.  While the Senate trimmed some from O’Malley’s proposal, state spending increases by nearly $2 billion topping out at $39 billion.   State spending has increased $10 billion since O’Malley took office.

The Senate covered a large deficit mostly through cutting $200 million in general fund payments to the state pension system.

Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley argued that the budget spends too much and offered several amendments including an across-the board 1 percent spending cut and withholding $500,000 from the Maryland Health Exchange’s budget until completion of legislative audit of the botched roll out.   All of Brinkley’s amendments were defeated.  The budget passed by a vote of 41-6, with Brinkley voting for the measure.

Both higher education and K-12 education see a significant bump in spending along with medical assistance and welfare.

The Senate also passed by a vote of 42-4 the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act or BRFA.  The BRFA is the legislation that changes statutory language, which allows fund raids, cost shifting and other budget gimmicks.

The budget now moves to the House of Delegates.

Minimum Wage

The House of Delegates passed an increase in the minimum wage.  The bill implements a three-step increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 in 2017.

Beginning July 1, 2015 the minimum hourly rate would rise to $8.20 per hour then rises to $9.12 beginning July 2016, then finally to $10.10 in July 2017.   The House also approved an amendment to exempt Six Flags amusement park and mandated that tipped employees be paid $3.63 an hour and employers must make up the difference if the employee does not earn up to the minimum wage.   The House also stripped out O’Malley’s plan to index the minimum wage to inflation.

The Senate will now take up the bill.

Obamacare

The General Assembly approved and O’Malley signed into law a retroactive patch for those unable to sign up for insurance on the state’s troubled Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.  The law expands enrollment in the Maryland Health Insurance plan, an older program designed to assist those who could not find insurance due to preexisting conditions.

The troubled Maryland Health Exchange has fallen woefully short of its initial goals, and endured high profile embarrassments such as its 1-800 call center support telephone number directing hundreds of calls to a Seattle pottery company.

And now state officials are signaling they may abandon the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange entirely for the system used by Connecticut.

Even though state officials are dragging their heels on an investigation into the botched roll out in an effort to protect the administration’s point man Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, who just happens to be running for governor, federal investigators are launching their own inquiry into what went wrong.  Recently revealed documents show state officials knew of serious problems a year ahead of the October, 1 launch.

Rain Tax

There will be no repeal of the rain tax, this year as several repeal bills were killed in committee.  Five repeal bills were filed, three in the House, two in the Senate, all were killed in committee.

Some bills were filed to exempt certain counties from the rain tax. Delegate Steve Schuh, (R-Anne Arundel), who is running for Anne Arundel County Executive, filed a bill to exempt Anne Arundel County.  Schuh voted for the rain tax in 2012.  Frederick and Carroll County legislators also filed bills seeking to exempt their counties from the rain tax.  Carroll County reached a deal with the state to earmark revenues each year for storm water management from current tax rates.

Other bills to remediate the rain tax fees are languishing in committee.

Speed Cameras

The House passed HB 929 The Speed Monitoring Systems Reform Act of 2014.  The bill purportedly reforms abuses in speed camera systems, by further defining the definition of a school zone, requiring local jurisdictions to appoint an ombudsman to handle public complaints of erroneous tickets, allow jurisdictions to charge contractors for error rates over 5 percent, terminate contracts with vendors that violate the law or have excessive error rates, and tightens the prohibition on so called bounty systems where contractors are paid on a per ticket basis.

Ron Ely of the Maryland Drivers Alliance, which has pushed to eliminate speed cameras, said, “the legislature can call this bill whatever they wish, but it is not “reform”.  It is just an exercise in polishing poop.”  Ely said the bill contains only the things local governments agreed would not significantly change their existing speed camera operations.  “It’s loaded with weasel words and loopholes,” Ely said.

The bill does not adequately address the problem of errors, and that amendments to address them were rejected out of hand, Ely said.   According to Maryland Drivers Alliance analysis, the bill does not end the bounty system but in fact grandfathers in existing contracts that contain bounty systems.  Ely also criticized the 5 percent error rate saying it would make issuing 15,000 erroneous tickets acceptable in jurisdictions like Montgomery County.

Transparency

Some transparency bills Watchdog Wire Maryland identified are advancing.

HB 658, Del Jill Carter’s (D-Baltimore) bill to create a State Public Information Act Compliance Board to receive and resolve appeals arising from complaints about denials or excessive fees for public information requests by custodians of records, moved out of committee.

HB 53, sponsored by Del. Cathy Vitale (R-Anne Arundel), which clarifies the language of the Maryland Public Information Act ensuring that government agencies provide copies of documents to authorized requestors and allows the courts to enjoin those agencies from withholding documents and holds them liable for damages if they willfully failed to provide documents.  The bill passed the House 131-0.

HB 1086, sponsored by Del. Herb McMillan (R-Anne Arundel) which requires businesses receiving at least $50,000 in state subsidies to file disclosure reports on how the money was spend and how many jobs they created.  The bill passed the House 132-0.

HB 481, sponsored by Del. Warren Miller (R-Howard County), would create an independent Office of Inspector General. The OIG would be tasked with investigating the performance and management of state agencies, including waste, mismanagement, misconduct, abuse, fraud, and corruption.  The Inspector General would have subpoena powers.   The bill has not received a vote in committee.

HB 632, sponsored by Del. Joseline Penya-Melnyk, (D-Prince George’s), would have required more add more disclosure information for the Maryland Funding Accountability and Transparency website.  In addition to the agency, payment amount and vedor, the bill would require disclosure of the business owner, budget program code, procurement method, and specific contract information.

Marijuana

SB 364, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), which would decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts, passed the Senate on second reader.  However, the Senate postponed debate on the final vote, and it must be passed by the crossover deadline of March 17 or it cannot be considered by the House of Delegates.

Mark Newgent

Mark Newgent is a contributing editor to Red Maryland, the premiere blog of conservative politics in the Free State, voted one of the best state political blogs by the Washington Post two years in a row. His writing has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Examiner, National Review Online, and more. Twitter: @MarkNewgent

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Government Transparency, Healthcare, Must Read, Open Government, Public Employee Pensions, Taxes, Transparency
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