The General Assembly session ends Monday, and already lawmakers have sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk a number of important pieces of legislation, including a bill banning discrimination against transgender individuals, reforms to Baltimore's liquor board and new protections against domestic violence. But a few major issue remain to be decided during the next few days, including:
•Minimum wage. The most important item on Governor O'Malley's agenda has gotten steadily watered down. His goal of setting a minimum standard of $10.10 an hour remains intact, but a Senate committee has pushed back its implementation by two years, to the summer of 2018. That means less of an immediate boost to the economy from the new spending power from low-wage workers. The Senate committee has also introduced the idea of a training wage for teen-age workers during their first six months of employment, which would allow them to be paid 15 percent below the minimum.
Both chambers appear to be coalescing around a pair of House amendments that are also detrimental to the governor's proposal. One eliminates automatic adjustment of the minimum wage for inflation, meaning it will almost inevitably fall behind once again. The second freezes the base pay for tipped workers at its current level, $3.63 an hour. State law requires such workers to earn at least the minimum wage when tips are factored in, but enforcement is problematic, and national studies indicate widespread abuses.
Still, the worst thing to happen now would be for the bill to fail altogether. The House and Senate should pass it — and we can hope that a new governor and legislature will fix its defects next year.
•Bail reform. The Court of Appeals has put the General Assembly under a deadline to respond to its decision requiring that indigent defendants be provided with attorneys for their initial bail hearing before a court commissioner. The legislature has been struggling with this issue for years — in no small part because of a price tag estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.
The most promising approach — and one that would make the system fairer and more effective for everyone — is a bill that passed the Senate 37-9 on Monday night that would eliminate the court commissioner step altogether. Instead, arrestees would be evaluated using a computerized risk assessment tool that would determine their likelihood of posing a danger to the community or failing to appear at trial. Those deemed at low risk would be released automatically, and those who were deemed at higher risk would have a bail hearing before a judge. That removes subjectivity from the system and could ultimately result in fewer people being housed needlessly in jail (at taxpayer expense) before trial.
•Marijuana law. The idea of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana — an important step to address the racial inequities in enforcement — once again passed the Senate only to fail in the House. However, there remains a chance that the two chambers will work out a plan to make marijuana available to those who wish to use it for medicinal purposes.
Maryland's current medical marijuana law has been ineffective. Both chambers have adopted bills that would allow patients greater access to the drug, but they differ over how it would be distributed — either directly from licensed, regulated growers or through dispensaries. Compromise should be easily achievable, but the key is making sure Maryland sets effective limits on the size of the program so it does not immediately grow out of control, as has happened in other states.
•Distracted driving. "Jake's Law," a bill proposed in response to the distracted driving killing of 5-year-old Jake Owen of South Baltimore, has been approved by both chambers, but with some significant differences. The House version is better. Among other things, it covers all uses of hand-held cell phones, while the Senate deals only with texting while driving. (Under the Senate version, "Jake's Law" would not have applied to Jake's case.) And the Senate version also eliminates the requirement that drivers in fatal accidents to provide officers with the phone number and wireless carrier for their cell phones, a provision that does not invade privacy but gives law enforcement a tool it needs to determine whether a phone was being used improperly at the time of an accident.
•Wind energy. The legislature should kill a bill backed by Rep. Steny Hoyer and others that would block development of wind energy projects for 15 months within a 56-mile radius of the Patuxent River Naval air station. The measure is designed to address concerns that a proposed $200 million wind project for Somerset County could interfere with certain advanced radar testing at the facility. But the Navy is negotiating a deal with the developer to accommodate that concern, and it has other legal tools at its disposal to block development if necessary. The bottom line is that if this bill is rejected, the project can still be stopped later. If the bill is adopted, the delay will kill it forever.
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