Maryland General Assembly gives final OK to Democrats' sick leave bill

The General Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to a landmark bill that would extend paid sick leave to almost 700,000 Maryland workers, setting up a potential clash with Gov. Larry Hogan, who has threatened to veto the measure.

The House of Delegates approved the Senate version of the Democratic legislation by a veto-proof margin, sending it to the Republican governor.

A Hogan veto would set up an override vote as one of the first items of business when the legislature reconvenes in an election year next January. Hogan promised last month to veto the bill, which he derided as "a partisan attempt to put points on the board to use against me in a campaign in 2018."

Asked about the bill at an event in Baltimore Wednesday afternoon, Hogan was more equivocal.

"We're dealing with the 27 bills they sent us," he said. "They're going to send us another thousand. We'll have until May to talk about all those."

The legislation, five years in the making, would require businesses with 15 or more full-time employees to let their workers earn at least five days of sick time a year.

Hogan had proposed a rival bill that would have applied to businesses that employ 50 or more workers in a single location. Democrats rejected that approach, saying businesses that large typically already provide employees with paid sick leave.

The governor's bill would have offered tax credits for smaller businesses to offer such a benefit. Democrats said Hogan never explained how he would pay for the $60 million annual cost of the credit.

Republicans warned that the bill sponsored by Democrats would hurt small businesses and cause them to close their doors or move out of state.

The House voted 87-53 to approve the legislation. GOP delegates voted as a bloc against the bill. Three Democrats joined them. Another was absent Wednesday. It takes 85 votes in the House to override a veto.

As the vote approached, about two dozen supporters of the legislation lined the fence along Lawyers Mall, the route delegates use on the way to the State House. They waved signs and chanted on the warm, sunny morning as they had all through the winter months.

"This is a really exciting day for us," said Crystal Hall, a leadership organizer with United Workers. "We've been here rain, sleet and snow. We've been here because workers need it."

Not everyone was as excited as Hall. Republican lawmakers passed by the demonstrators stone-faced.

"Report they all took off sick today to be here," said Sen. Wayne Norman, a Harford County Republican.

Many Democratic lawmakers greeted the demonstrators, shaking hands and exchanging high-fives and hugs.

Receiving the most enthusiastic greeting was Del. Luke Clippinger, the bill's House sponsor.

"I think we're going to have a very good product that has been the result of good negotiation," the Baltimore Democrat said. "The burdens of illness should not be compounded by the problems of poverty.

The Senate passed the bill Monday, after amending it to reduce some burdens on businesses.

Where the House had proposed seven days of leave, the Senate changed that to five. The Senate also changed the average number of hours an employee needs to work per week to qualify from eight to 12, and extended the minimum number of days on the payroll to qualify from 90 to 106, a concession to employers who hire workers for seasonal jobs, such as those in Ocean City in the summer.

Similar legislation passed the House last year but got hung up in the Senate Finance Committee.

That panel's chairman, Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, convened a work group including businesses and advocates last summer. The group helped hammer out a more acceptable version of the bill.

With the Democrats' proposal gaining momentum, Hogan weighed in late last year with what he billed as a "common sense" alternative. The measure won praise from Republican lawmakers, but business groups did not line up to support it.

Seven states and the District of Columbia require most employers to provide their workers with sick leave.

During Wednesday's debate, House Minority Leader Nic Kipke urged colleagues to reject the Democrats' measure. He warned it would impose undue burdens on small businesses.

"We believe some businesses might end up not being able to survive," the Anne Arundel County Republican warned.

Del. Mark N. Fisher, a Calvert County Republican, charged that the bill "establishes a new entitlement in the state of Maryland and has someone else pay for it."

But Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the House committee that helped craft the bill, noted that lawmakers continue to receive their taxpayer-funded salaries when they are sick.

The Prince George's County Democrat told opponents that if they're feeling ill, they shouldn't come to him asking for favors in scheduling so they can go home early.

"When you enjoy certain privileges, think about your neighbors," he said.

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti said she received more than 300 phone calls and 128 letters or emails from constituents asking her to support the bill.

"I did not receive one — not one — letter, phone call or email asking me to oppose this bill," the Harford County Democrat said.

Mike O'Halloran, Maryland director of the National Federation of Indepdendent Business, lamented that "the legislature chose not to listen to the pleas from Maryland's job creators."

O'Halloran urged Hogan to follow through on his previous veto commitment.

"We have no doubt that the governor will adhere to that promise and veto the bill to avoid the harsh economic side effects that allowing it to become law would create," he said in a statement.

Clippinger urged the governor to drop his objections and allow the bill to became law.

"If he doesn't, we'll see him next year and override his veto," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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