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April 12, 2004

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 15

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 15

Déjà vu, all over again.

April 8, 2004 - Here we are poised to enter the final few days of the General Assembly Session for 2004. This same time last year, I was busy writing about slots and taxes. Guess what?

This past week has been a flurry of activity between three people, the Speaker of the House (Mike Busch), the President of the Senate (Mike Miller), and the Governor of Maryland (Bob Ehrlich). We legislators, all 187 of us, spend over $38,000 every single day we're in session, yet the toughest and most complex negotiations are occurring between these three men.

I can't escape the image of the sailor, concentrating on painting the ship's deck so studiously that he ends up applying the paint in such a way as to leave himself no way to exit the deck without walking through paint.

Governor Ehrlich has aggressively advocated the use of slot machines to close the revenue gap in Maryland's budget. Speaker Busch has likewise enthusiastically argued for tax increases as the method of raising necessary revenue.

President Miller, in the position of swingman, agrees with the Governor on slots and agrees with the Speaker that some revenue increase other than slots is necessary.

Picture the Governor with the slots paintbrush, and Speaker Busch with the taxes paintbrush. President Miller would be the paint crew foreman. The Maryland ship of state, sadly needing a new coat of paint, finds the two competing painters at the fore and stern, with Miller planted firmly amidships.

Where this leads remains to be determined. The problem with the rift over revenue is that everything else suffers.

April 10, 2004 - My strategy for this column was to write a few smaller reports in one article. My hope was that things would change so much that the evolution of policy would emerge on the pages of The Tentacle.

Well, so much for my hope! As of this morning, Governor Ehrlich and President Miller have both been quoted as having "given up" on a slots bill this year. There is a back-story here, stuff that you haven't read anywhere else.

Travel with me back to last session, about this same time. Miller, Busch, and Ehrlich (sounds like a Baltimore law firm) were scrambling to find a budget compromise. Time was running out, and the House and Senate were miles apart.

In Mike Miller's office in the State House, the three most powerful people put their heads together. According to someone who was in the room (you can speculate as to where I got my intelligence), the Speaker agreed that if the Governor would yield on the shift of property tax revenue, he would allow an up and down vote on slots.

Sounds innocent enough, huh? Think about it, though. The effect of the Governor's agreement on the property tax shift resulted in an INCREASE in the tax rate. This is the same Governor who ran against tax increases as a way to operate our state government.

My source, which I consider to be very credible, said that Speaker Busch willingly agreed to the slots vote compromise. When they left the meeting, Mr. Busch simply failed to live up to his commitment.

This helps put the current situation into the proper context. Why would Governor Ehrlich and Senator Miller EVER agree to any form of compromise with Delegate Busch, knowing that he does not live up to the agreements he had previously made?

I have a new found respect for Senate President Miller. I always viewed him as a cagey, seasoned veteran of the legislative wars. His ability to position himself and his chamber as the center of the compromise universe is a testament to his substantial political savvy.

Speaker Busch appears to be suffering under the weight of a divided government. Traditionally, Speaker Busch could count on some common ground with his Senate counterpart. Not on this, though.

Today's next to the final day agenda includes a bill to make $10.50 per hour the required wage rate on state contracts. The bill is called the Living Wage Bill, and the new wage rate would apply only to state contracts in excess of $100,000.

Current state procurement practice allows a wage rate of $6.20 per hour for custodial services and $9.00 per hour for landscaping services. Raising the rates to $10.50 per hour, while it sounds very human and accommodating to lower wage workers, creates serious problems for the state budget (already in crisis), and small and minority owned businesses.

The Minority Contractors Association is actively working against the bill. Their well-founded fear is that only big companies will be able to bid on state contracts, because they can offset their higher wage workers with lower paid people working on private contracts.

Republican members on the Economic Matters Committee tried to amend the bill to apply to state employees. The logic with the amendment was that if the Democrats were serious in wanting to provide for a living wage, then that wage rate should apply to both state workers as well as state contractors. Is it fair for a state worker to toil alongside a contractor, knowing that the contractor is making more merely as a function of who they work for?

Surprise! The committee leadership resisted the amendment. The fact is that the Democrats are not really serious about living wages. What they really want to do is use this bill to define Governor Ehrlich for the 2006 election cycle. Given the serious nature of the policy consequences of this vote, Governor Ehrlich would look like a heartless, uncaring leader if he were to follow through with a veto threat.

I expect this bill to pass the House over the objections of members concerned with how we pay for it, and concerned over the serious implications to small and minority-owned businesses.

As for slots and taxes, I expect that we'll end this session with a balanced budget, and facing a major revenue shortfall in FY 2006.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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