In Annapolis, offering more sugar to sugar daddies

Some Democrats in Maryland — the wealthiest state in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — balk at raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour while advocating tax cuts for millionaires.

It's not enough that the rich have had it sweet for three decades, accumulating wealth at obnoxiously high levels while the middle class and working poor have seen their earnings, adjusted for the cost of living, remain stagnant.

It's not enough that Congress cut taxes for the wealthy, even as the nation carried out two hugely expensive and long wars.

It's not enough that the wealthiest can hire brilliant accountants and estate planners to assist them in avoiding as much tax liability as possible.

It's not enough that the corporate class has the power and influence to maintain its political and financial advantages.

Now leaders in Annapolis want to give the rich — and, more specifically, their heirs — more relief. There's a proposal in the General Assembly to raise the state exemption on estate taxes from $1 million to closer to the federal limit of $5.35 million, phased in over four years.

You'd expect Republicans, who are always bellyaching about taxes, to back relief for the rich; they're convinced that the wealthy are the job creators and, unless we're nice to them, they won't keep their businesses here and make campaign donations.

But Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch, both Democrats, support this fine idea, too. In fact, they are leading the way.

And Miller favors the estate tax cut while grousing about the proposal to increase the minimum wage.

The state's and the nation's minimum wage is $7.25 an hour — laughable with the cost of energy, food and housing in 2014. Miller says taking the minimum to $10.10 an hour by 2016 is "much too high of a jump."

How does he know that?

Why does he say that?

And "too high" for whom?

I asked Miller these questions a couple of times; he hasn't responded. But he's been frowning a lot about this in Annapolis, telling reporters there that $10.10 is going to be a "tough sell" and criticizing Montgomery and Prince Georges counties for already setting course toward a minimum wage of $11.50 an hour by 2017.

"Personally, I think what Prince George's and Montgomery County have done is a tremendous disservice to their state and their community," Miller said.

I'm sure the fast-food, retail and service employees in Prince George's and Montgomery don't feel that way.

I wouldn't mind the conservative Miller's predictable grousing about raising the minimum if he were not supporting raising the exemption for the estate tax.

Are we supposed to see this as a trade-off? The working poor can have a raise as long as we give some sugar to the sugar daddies?

Is that what's going on?

You could argue that we've always had income inequality in this country. There have been poor people; there have been rich people.

The difference is the in-between. The in-between used to be a much larger than it is today, with a healthy sense of class ascendancy. We have arrived at an age of wide disparity, after roughly three decades in which the bulk of income went mostly to the top percentiles of earners. Numerous studies have examined and confirmed this. The latest comes from Stanford University's Center on Poverty and Inequality, a nonpartisan, federally funded center that tracks how we're doing in closing the gap and reducing poverty.

The short answer: We're not.

The Stanford report says that, despite some positive trends in the economy, we have a "broadly deteriorating poverty and inequality landscape."

The Census Bureau found about 46 million Americans in poverty in its last survey.

"The primary reason that poverty remains high is that the benefits of economic growth are no longer shared by almost all workers, as they were in the quarter century after the end of World War II," the Stanford report says. "In recent decades, it has been difficult for many workers, especially those with no more than a high school degree ... to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty."

While the unemployment rate has fallen, thousands of Americans apparently have stopped looking for work, so the recovery might be weaker than jobs reports indicate. There's also a huge question about the kind of jobs being created: Do they pay livable, sustainable wages?

"There is no disagreement about what is happening in the recovery period," the Stanford study says. "Since mid-2009, all measures show that inequality is rising. The share of income of the top 1 percent had rebounded by 2012; it nearly returned to the high levels from before the Great Recession."

If Miller and other Democrats want to argue how much Maryland's minimum wage should be, fine. But please don't tell us we have to give another tax advantage to millionaires in order to get a raise for minimum wage workers in the wealthiest state in the country.

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