Legislative leaders signaled support for several progressive causes on the first day of this year’s General Assembly session, suggesting that a boost in the minimum wage, a referendum on recreational marijuana and an effort to clamp down on rising drug prices are all likely winners this year.
Their embrace of these causes, and others, reflects a generational and political shift in the Maryland legislature – changes hastened by the results of the last election.
In 2018, advocates for a $15-an-hour minimum wage were furious when their cause went down to defeat. Now, as the new 90-day session gets rolling, they enjoy clear momentum.
“We’re going to improve the working-day wages for working men and working women, so that they can earn a living wage working in a state that has the highest income of any state in the Union,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said during an interview on the Marc Steiner podcast. “It’s the sixth most expensive place to live in the United States.”
In the same interview, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) disclosed that he and Miller plan to create a task force to consider a referendum on the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
“New Jersey just passed recreational marijuana, D.C. has recreational marijuana,” Busch said. “That’s the future. I think you’re going to see the country go to recreational marijuana and it’ll be much like overturning Prohibition.”
Miller echoed Busch’s general stance, but he said it would be better for the issue to be decided in the legislature. Miller said leaders are elected to study the issues and cast important votes, not punt controversial topics to the ballot box.
“This is a trillion-dollar industry,” said Miller. “It needs to be managed right.”
Miller expressed dissatisfaction with the state’s handling of medical marijuana. “Out-of-state firms are coming in, through fictitious legal agreements. They’re buying up the growers (and) they’re buying up the dispensaries, all while our head is in the sand on this issue.”
“We need to make sure it’s done correctly,” Miller said. “We need to look at other people’s mistakes before we move forward.”
House Majority Leader Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery) will be the House chair of the task force; the Senate chair has not been disclosed. If approved, the question would go before voters in 2020.
The two men also voiced support for a measure that would create a prescription drug advisory board that would decide whether the cost of medications is fair to consumers.
“The commission on pharmaceutical drugs will pass,” Busch said.
Said Miller: “Right now prescription drugs are out of control. So we’re going to look all the way down, from the manufacturers to the prescription benefits managers to retailers and how it gets to consumers, and how we can reduce those drug prices.”
Miller noted later in the day that his own “challenging” health situation has made him keenly aware of the price of prescription drugs.
“Hell, I’m at the pharmacy every other day myself. I know what the cost of drugs are.” [Please see related story.]
Preceding Miller and Busch on the Steiner show was Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who expressed a willingness to work with the General Assembly on a range of issues — including school construction, crime in Baltimore City, health care and others — as he did during his first term.
He voiced concern, however, that an increase in the minimum wage could cause some employers to move to neighboring states where labor costs are lower.
“If we jump it to $15, we will be twice as high as Virginia, that is (at) $7.25 (per hour). Now, does that put us in a competitive position? … There have been some reports that say we could lose as many as 100,000 jobs.”
Later in the day Wednesday, members of the Legislative Black Caucus gave a full-throated endorsement of the minimum wage hike, and said they had the votes to muscle the measure through. The LBC now has 56 members, the highest in its history — 11 in the Senate and 45 in the House.
“It takes 71 votes to get a bill passed here in the House. We have 45 members of the black caucus. You do the math,” caucus Chairman Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s) said. “I’ve said every bill that goes through this year should have the stamp of the Legislative Black Caucus on it.”
While Hogan expressed concern about a proposal to create a state mandate to purchase health coverage, he was more sympathetic on the proposal to rein in drug prices.
“Prescription drug costs are outrageous,” Hogan said. “We have to figure out a way to do something about that. But we’ve got to do it right. Last time they passed a [pharmaceuticals] bill that I said was unconstitutional. They passed it anyway. I was right. The courts struck it down and said it was unconstitutional.”
Hogan said he watched President Trump’s address on the government shutdown Tuesday, and the response from top Democrats, and he panned the entire night as “a bunch of nonsense,” adding, “None of it was helpful” to ending the stalemate.
“We need to do something about security at the border. But why are we punishing federal workers?
“I’m very concerned about the nature of politics today,” Hogan, a frequent Trump critic, continued.
“I’m concerned about the party that I belong to. And I’m concerned about politics in general. I’m concerned about Washington. I’m concerned about the tone of the debate. I’m really frustrated. And I think most people are, really.”
He agreed with a man quoted in The New York Times recently who said he longs for the day when people argue about football, not politics. The audience at the Calvert House watching the governor’s interview applauded.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.