Redistricting, Minimum Wage & TV Debates

A Weekly Roundup

By Barry Rascovar

March 7 — TODAY’S House of Delegates session will mark the halfway point for a bill raising Maryland’s minimum wage in phases from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017 — nearly 40 percent.

Recent minimum wage protest

Recent minimum wage protest

Without question, the O’Malley administration’s bill will pass. The votes are there. But it’s not exactly the bill Gov. Martin O’Malley presented in January.

There’s no automatic inflation clause. Amusement park workers are exempted (largely to accommodate Six Flags in chairman Dereck Davis’ Prince George’s County). Implementation is delayed six months to ease the transition for businesses.

Senate Action Next

Most of the changes are sensible, but more may be coming in the Senate, where there is a little more skepticism about the advisability of such a major increase in business expenses during the weakest economic recovery in memory.

Rural counties in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore may need special attention. Living expenses are a lot less there. A 40-percent hike in wages for many small, rural businesses might prove counter-productive. Ocean City’s minimum-wage summer help is primarily college students, not adults raising a family.

Too Much in a Weak Recovery?

The bill’s three-year phase-in may be too aggressive during this exceptionally mild recovery. It might be wise to adopt a more gradual rise.

But one way or another, an increase in Maryland’s minimum wage is coming — and is necessary.

It’s now a matter of how willing lawmakers are to heed warnings by business that O’Malley’s original bill  could have unintended consequences.

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ON THE OTHER END of the economic spectrum, Senate and House leaders (but not O’Malley) are pushing a bill to lower Maryland’s estate tax. This is overdue.

Wealthy Marylanders are switching their residences to avoid this state tax. Some of Maryland’s most respected business leaders are among them. The tax makes no sense, especially when surrounding states are benefiting.

A gradual return to the days when Maryland’s estate tax matched the federal levy seemed likely to pass until revised estimates on Thursday showed a new quarter-billion-dollar hole in O’Malley’s budget. That may force lawmakers to delay implementation of the phase-in.

O’Malley has not been part of the estate-tax movement. It doesn’t fit into his presidential playbook.

Instead, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch are leading the charge. They’ve finally recognized the need to start reforming parts of Maryland’s unbalanced tax laws. They’ve figures out that chasing wealthy Marylanders out of the state is a terrible strategy.

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A SIDELIGHT of the minimum wage debate this week was an attempt by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur to go beyond O’Malley’s bill and raise the standard to $11.37 an hour by 2023.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

Mizeur’s amendment bombed.

She got just eight votes, including her own.

That indicates the narrowness of Mizeur’s ultra-liberal appeal, even in a liberal General Assembly. It does not bode well for her statewide campaign.

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A HANDFUL of bills in the General Assembly seek to reform Maryland’s politicized redistricting process. They aren’t going anywhere.

That’s too bad, because turning redistricting over exclusively to those in power has gotten out of hand.

The current maps are undemocratic and a disservice to voters. Maryland’s congressional maps, for instance, are appalling. No effort is made to create compact districts or keep communities together.

MD's gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Yet until the Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals change their tunes on redistricting, legislative reforms are meaningless.

The highest federal court has washed its hands of redistricting, claiming it is purely a political matter. So much for ensuring fairness and sane congressional districts.

Interference By Appeals Court

The state’s highest court, meanwhile, has become too deeply involved in redistricting, imposing archaic thinking in drawing legislative boundaries.

As a result, cross-jurisdictional districts that follow neighborhood growth patterns are virtually forbidden. Rigid adherence to county and city lines trumps everything, even when citizens pay no heed to those boundaries in their daily lives.

What a mess. Redistricting, as currently practiced, is giving representative democracy a bad name.

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TELEVISED DEBATES in the race for governor have been set. All three of them.

Don’t expect much.

The candidates will be well rehearsed, especially the front-runner, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who needs careful scripting.

Televised Political Debates

Don’t expect one of these in MD’s 2014 TV debates.

But the real laugher will be the lone televised debate among lieutenant governor candidates.

These hopefuls aren’t elected on their own: They are the conjoined twins of gubernatorial candidates. So on TV, they will mimic positions taken by their far-more important running mates.

No Assigned Duties

That’s because their own views don’t count.

Under the state’s constitution, the lieutenant governor has no designated powers. He (or she) is there in case the governor drops dead or comes down with a disabling disease.

So if you happen to miss the scintillating debate among wannabe lieutenant governors, don’t fret.

Tuning in would be a waste of your time.

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