Underwhelmed by the Maryland General Assembly

I declare myself underwhelmed by the "accomplishments" of the 2014 Maryland General Assembly — a minimum wage increase so gradual it will have no effect on the standard of living for the working poor, a $431 million tax break for the heirs of millionaires, marijuana "decriminalization" that is hardly that, a paltry $4.3 million for pre-kindergarten education, and a broken promise on fully funding public employee pensions.

I hate to be the party pooper, but what's all the celebrating and confetti about? That it's over for another year? That long-dead Marylanders had the wise foresight to limit the Maryland legislative session to just 90 days?

And why all the smiles from the governor? What's he excited about?

His call for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016, touted as the major accomplishment of the session, ends up being much like Martin O'Malley: sounds good, looks good, but ultimately pretty thin.

Maryland won't hit the $10.10 an hour minimum — that's $21,000 a year for a full-time worker — until 2018. If Maryland Democrats did not outnumber Republicans 2-1, if elected Democrats did not outnumber elected Republicans in the General Assembly by overwhelming margins, if the governor was not a Democrat, I would say getting to $10.10 by 2018 was pretty good — the result of compromise in a state with a thriving two-party system.

But in a state dominated by Democrats, it's no big deal.

The minimum wage increase comes with exemptions for certain seasonal employers — exactly the kind likely to be paid a minimum wage — and no increase for tipped workers; their minimum stays at $3.63 per hour. So, throw in the four-year implementation and it's a wash. It's about as close as you can get to a defeat for the working poor.

And yet, the governor declares victory and President Barack Obama praises his leadership.

Because of its political makeup, Maryland should be the most progressive state in the country — the bluest among the blue — but it's not. Last year, O'Malley crowed about passing tough gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. But, after all the tinkering of the measure on assault-style rifles, gaping holes in the law allowed gun dealers to sell thousands of firearms — more in the first nine months of 2013 than in the two previous years combined.

We have too many middling politicians, too many Democrats-in-name-only, plugging along, taking baby steps, looking over their shoulders and covering their bottoms.

As for marijuana decriminalization: again, sounds good, looks good, but ultimately pretty thin. Instead of facing possible jail time, adults caught with less than 10 grams of pot will now get a citation that carries a fine.

Good, but 10 grams? You don't get to call such a modest step "decriminalization."

While some in the legislature will call this a major achievement, I say, "Meh."

What we have here is more timidity from a Democratic-dominated legislature that should be in the forefront of efforts to replace the costly war on drugs with a comprehensive, holistic approach to the addiction that drives the market.

The last governor to propose that kind of thing was a Republican, Bob Ehrlich.

O'Malley, on the other hand, has always been a hawk on crime and punishment. When he was mayor of Baltimore, he gave us ArrestFest, with hundreds of thousands of people taken off the streets, many of them for minor crimes like marijuana possession.

There were so many arrests that the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit, alleging widespread abuse of police powers. In 2010, the same year O'Malley won a second term as governor, the city settled the suit for $870,000. At the time, the Baltimore Police Department agreed to reject zero-tolerance policies and establish new ways to handle small-potato crimes.

Still, O'Malley scoffed at the ACLU and NAACP as "ideologues of the left." Last September, he linked an increase in shootings in Baltimore to a decline in arrests.

As governor, he called drug dealing a "violent crime" and vetoed a bill that would have given judges more discretion in sentencing low-level, nonviolent drug dealers, the kind who typically sell drugs to pay for their own habits.

That's been the O'Malley tune for a long time.

Now, some giggles: He says he's going to sign the marijuana decriminalization bill.

"I now think," he said Monday, "that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police, and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health."

He's just getting this message now? From that statement, you'd think O'Malley had not spoken to a cop, prosecutor, judge or anyone with a logical mind over the last 20 years.

And you have to wonder how many people might have been spared arrests and jail time back when O'Malley was mayor, had he seen the light then.


Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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