The Democrats who control the Maryland legislature flexed their muscle on Thursday, easily overturning two high-profile vetoes issued by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) one day earlier. A third major bill is poised to experience a similar fate on Friday morning.
As a result, the state’s minimum wage will increase, over a period of years, to $15 an hour, and the responsibility for enforcing the state’s alcohol, tobacco and fuel laws will shift from the comptroller’s office to a new commission under the governor’s control.
The Senate alone voted to override Hogan’s veto of a measure giving local boards of education the power to set the school-year calendar. It’s a near certainty that the House will follow suit on Friday.
The three overrides reinforce the enduring reality of Maryland politics in the Hogan era — a majority of voters may love their governor, as polls repeatedly show, but they continue to give his rivals, the Democrats, considerable power in the state Senate and House of Delegates, where leaders are completely unafraid to work their will.
‘Fight for $15’
By votes of 32-15 in the Senate and 96-43 in the House, the General Assembly made good on a promise to progressive groups to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
A similar measure died a year ago, just before the election, prompting threats of retaliation against legislative leaders.
Echoing concerns expressed by the governor, Republican lawmakers predicted that businesses will flee the state to avoid having to boost pay for entry-level workers. At $10.10, Maryland’s current minimum wage already exceeds Virginia and Pennsylvania ($7.25) and Delaware ($8.75).
In Washington, D.C., it’s $13.25.
Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford) said the bill would “devastate” the economy in certain parts of the state.
“This bill is going to rock a certain section of the state. It’s going to rock the Eastern Shore, it’s going to rock the westernmost limits, the people outside the D.C. region,” Cassilly said.
Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti (R-Frederick and Carroll) called the measure, dubbed “The Fight for $15,” a “horrible bill.”
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) expressed regret that provisions shielding lower-cost-of-living parts of Maryland weren’t included.
“There’s no deference given to areas of the state that have begged us not to do this to them,” he said. “They have begged us for.. some type of carve-out, or some kind of compassion.”
But Democrats said that without a more robust minimum wage, many workers would continue to remain unable to get by.
“We didn’t do this on a whim,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), head of the Finance Committee. “We did it because the cost of living is so high for such basics as health care and prescription drugs.”
The measure’s chief House sponsor, Del. Diana M. Fennell (D-Prince George’s), said the bill will give 573,000 Marylanders a raise.
“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will help reduce both gender and racial pay gaps,” she said.
“We cannot leave these individuals behind… or tell them to suck it up and get a second job,” said Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles).
Hogan suggested that the legislature increase the minimum wage to $12.10, with exemptions for businesses in certain parts of the state. His proposal did not gain traction.
“We are obviously disappointed that the legislature completely ignored the governor’s reasonable compromise proposal to protect jobs and small businesses,” said Michael Ricci, the governor’s spokesman. “So much for olive branches.”
Progressive groups cheered the legislature’s actions.
“Today was a victory for working families,” said Ricarra Jones, head of the Fight for $15 Coalition.
The $15-an-hour minimum wage will fully kick in on Jan. 1, 2025, except for businesses with 14 employees or less, which won’t have to reach the full $15 until July 1, 2026.
Comptroller stripped of power to regulate alcohol, tobacco sales
The House voted 98-39 and the Senate voted 30-16 to shift the field enforcement of alcohol and tobacco and sales to a new commission.
It’s the second time in as many years that lawmakers stripped Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) of a key portion of his portfolio. Last year they removed school construction funding appeals from the Board of Public Works, where Franchot is one of three members.
House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) acknowledged that Franchot, an ally of Hogan, can be “an irritant,” but he insisted the measure was about public safety, not revenge.
He said that emergency room physicians and others offered compelling testimony about the ills of alcohol consumption, particularly the new wave of high alcohol content beverages marketing themselves as “craft” brews.
“The state of Maryland does not revolve around Peter V.R. Franchot,” Davis said during debate.
“The number of alcohol licenses in the state has tripled in the last 10 years and [the Comptroller’s office] hasn’t added a single field enforcement division employee,” said Del. Warren E. Miller (R-Howard and Carroll), the bill’s chief House sponsor.
Most Republicans voted to sustain the governor’s veto.
They said the bill was a solution in search of a problem and that the state should not be spending millions of dollars to set up a “new bureaucracy” — particularly, Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Western Maryland) said, as the state is scrambling to fund the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations reforming education spending.
“This is wasting taxpayers’ money that could be much better spent for our children, put toward education and many other things that we need, versus a political fight with our comptroller,” said Del. Susan W. Krebs (R-Carroll).
In an interview Thursday, Franchot said he doesn’t think the bill as written can be implemented.
“Now we have this punitive, poorly-written, poorly-drafted, poorly-thought-out piece of legislation that disrupts the stellar performance of an elite government agency in Maryland,” he said.
Franchot said the ultimate victims of the legislation will be the taxpayers — even though lawmakers meant to target him.
“We view it as part of the pattern of misconduct we see down here in Annapolis,” he said.
Local boards to regain school calendar powers
The Senate wasted little time overturning Hogan’s veto of a bill returning power to set school calendars to local boards of education.
An executive order he issued in 2016, at Franchot’s urging, required that public schools start their new year after Labor Day, a move that the tourist industry cheered.
But some school systems have struggled to meet the requirement that students receive at least 180 days of instruction under Hogan’s edict, particularly in years where inclement weather forces classes to be canceled.
So the General Assembly opted to give the 24 local boards the power to do as they wish.
Hogan vetoed that legislation on Wednesday.
On Thursday, after about 15 minutes of debate, the Senate voted 32-15 in favor of an override.
Senate Bill 128 also sets the ballot language voters will see if the issue is petitioned to referendum.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the chief sponsor of the bill, opposes the executive order, which he says was “done by fiat.”
The tight schedule has made it so school boards couldn’t have school years longer than 180 days if they wanted to while still taking regular holidays and breaks, he said.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Eastern Shore) urged colleagues to sustain the veto and noted strong popular support for a post-Labor Day school start across the state.
The House is expected to take up the governor’s veto on Friday. It passed the chamber on a vote of 95-45 two weeks ago, suggesting lawmakers will have little trouble overriding Hogan again.