Sine Die 2014 Legislative Session Wrap Up

The Maryland General Assembly concluded it’s 2014 legislative session at midnight last night.  Here’s what happened over the last 90 days.
Late last week a House and Senate conference committee hashed out their differences on Governor O’Malley’s $39 billion budget.  The two chambers closed a large deficit mostly through cutting $200 million in general fund payments to the state pension system.  Fulfilling their only constitutional requirement, the House passed the final budget by a vote of 98-37, and the Senate approved it by a vote of 40-7.
Under this budget, state spending increases by nearly $2 billion for next year, and $10 billion total since Governor O’Malley took office.
Minimum Wage
Legislators gave O’Malley a huge victory by approving a gradual increase in the state’s minimum wage, his top legislative priority for this session.  The state’s minimum wage will rise to $10.10 per hour by 2018.  Beginning on January 1, 2015 the minimum wage will increase to $8 per hour and increases incrementally to $10.10. 
The law also provides for a lower training wage for younger workers, contains a pay hike for those who provide care for the developmentally disabled, and a special carve out for amusement parks.  Dubbed the “Six Flags” provision, because the large theme park in Prince George’s County is the primary beneficiary, allows amusement sets the minimum pay for amusement park employees at 85 percent of the minimum wage.   Lawmakers did not index the minimum wage to inflation and allows counties to set their own minimum wages higher than the state minimum.
In a statement O’Malley praised lawmakers “for giving so many Maryland families the raise they deserve.”
However, unless those lawmakers are the business owners expending more of their earnings on payroll, they didn’t “give” anything to anyone. 
A Senate bill that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana appeared dead in the House Judiciary Committee, where the chairman Joseph Vallario had amended it to a study commission.  However, the House Black Caucus and other supporters convinced Vallario he could not keep the bill as he amended it, and it advance to the full house where it passed 78-55.  The bill, which O’Malley has said he will sign, makes possession of less than 10 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense with fines ranging from $100 for a first offense to $500 for subsequent offenses.
House of Cards Tax Credit
In the waning minutes of the session, House and Senate conferees could not come to an agreement on expanding the state subsidy for film makers, in particular the producers of the Netflix series House of Cards.  The conferees could not come to an agreement on where the money for the subsidies would come from and a provision that would have allowed the state to recoup some of the subsidy if film producers moved out of state.
Rain Tax
The rain tax survived the session, as all repeal bills were killed in committee, as did bills to exempt certain counties.  An amendment to the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act submitted by Sen. Ed DeGrange (D-Anne Arundel) would have allowed the 10 counties affected by the tax to use a portion of county property tax revenue to pay for storm water remediation.  The House and Senate budget conference committee ultimately rejected that plan in the final budget plan.
However, a separate provision in the BRFA allows Carroll and Frederick counties to use their property tax revenue to pay for storm water remediation.
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 the state has abandoned 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.
State auditors reviewed documents related to the exchange provided by the O’Malley administration.  However the auditors noted that their review was not a thorough audit and that many of the documents provided were redacted.  In particular they reported that due to the incompleteness of the documentation provided they could not accurately determine responsibility for decisions made by the exchange. 
Common Core
The General Assembly approved legislation supported by the state teacher’s union addressing their concerns with implementation of Common Core.  However, bills favored by parents that would have repealed implementation of Common Core or allowed for parental consent for data collection were killed.

Estate Tax

The legislature recoupled the state’s estate tax with that of the federal government. The bill will gradually raise the current $1 million estate tax exemption threshold to $5.25 million over a period of five years.
Speed Cameras
The legislature 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.
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, was amended to a study 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, and the Senate 47-0.
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, but failed to get a hearing in the Senate.
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 died 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.  The bill died in committee

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