Md. Voters Get to Choose a New Lawyer: What does an attorney general really do?

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With about 750 employees, and nearly two-thirds of them attorneys, the Office of the Attorney General is considered the largest law firm in the state.

Only three men have held the position over the last 35 years. Voters will pick a new one this year, as Attorney General Doug Gansler runs for governor.

The office provides counsel to virtually all state agencies and all three branches of state government — legislative, executive and the judiciary. The attorney general is also charged with being the “people’s lawyer,” which includes enforcing consumer protection and civil rights laws.

The OAG duties include enforcing Medicaid fraud, environmental crime, securities and investment fraud and antitrust laws, as well as overseeing all criminal court cases at the appellate level.

Guardian of the law

“You are the guardian of the law,” said Eleanor Carey, a deputy attorney general under Stephen Sachs, who served as attorney general from 1979 to 1987. “The AG both represents the state and advises state agencies, but his or her main duty is to the people of the state.”

Making the state obey the law was one of the key slogans of the Sachs campaign.

The OAG’s written opinions are legally binding on state agencies, though not on the courts, and can often settle disputes among government agencies. The office advises the legislature and the governor on whether laws are constitutional and can be passed and signed into law.

The attorney general also argues on behalf of the state at the federal level and before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Representing state agencies

“Three quarters or more of what we do is representing state agencies as clients,” said Deputy Attorney General J. B. Howard. “There are 450 lawyers spread across 60 units. Most of what the attorney general does in managing the office involves conferring with his two deputies on office oversight issues.”

Howard said the principal counsels of the agencies bring any issues to the deputy attorneys general that the attorney general might be asked about, and the AG will be briefed on it.

“With regard to our role in the mortgage foreclosure settlement with the major banks, for example, the attorney general would himself decide what position we want to take and what kind of relief for homeowners we want to bring back.”

Pursuing policy interests: Domestic violence

The attorney general also may have their own set of policy interests which they are able to pursue using their bully pulpit, said AARP Maryland Executive Director Hank Greenberg. Greenberg worked for Sachs and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, who served for 20 years from 1987 to 2007.
Former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran

Domestic abuse was on the rise in the early 1990′s and Curran had an important role in shaping national policy, Greenberg said.

“I was concerned about family violence,” said Curran, “We assembled a group of people in and outside the [attorney general's] office and tried to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.”

Curran and his team, which included Carolyn Quattrocki, now executive director for the governor’s Office of Health Care Reform, soon learned that out-of-state court orders for domestic abuse victims couldn’t be enforced in Maryland.

“So we had the law changed,” said Curran.

During that time, Curran also had his office post notices in “beauty parlors,” informing women whom they could talk to about domestic abuse.

“I felt privileged,” Curran said. “Our office was the spokesperson on the issue of family violence.”

Curran also argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, Maryland v. Craig, which had been appealed from the Maryland Court of Appeals. The high court ruled in favor of Maryland — alleged child sex abuse victims could testify by way of closed circuit television, rather than in the presence of their alleged offender.

During Curran’s term 14 or 15 cases went to the Supreme Court, he said.

Antitrust enforcement, redistricting and civil rights

Sachs said during his term as attorney general, his team went after barber shops for violating antitrust laws.

“The barbers were controlled by the people that ran the barber shops,” Sachs said. “You couldn’t get to be a barber or master barber unless you went to their schools.”

Sachs also audited elections on the Eastern Shore where redistricting had created a disadvantage for African American voters. And he stopped the practice of “warehousing” developmentally disabled citizens into institutions for the insane who, he said, could clearly be integrated into normal society.

“For local elections, we found the districts were rigged up so that African Americans, even though they had a significant portion of the population, were only eligible – because of redistricting – to elect a relatively minor number of people,” Sachs said. “It was in violation of federal law, and we made them change that.”

Sachs also initiated a volunteer recruitment program to hear grievances from residents for eventual mediation, Curran said. “We continued it and expanded it into a health unit when an insurance company would deny coverage on a medical procedure.”

In 2008, Gansler spearheaded a settlement against rental car companies that were charging excessive refueling charges.

“We threatened an enforcement action against the rental car companies and got a settlement putting constraints on what they could charge for refueling charges,” Howard said. “The attorney general wanted to use the power of the office to fix a problem that struck him as unfair and probably unlawful.”

Hiring new attorneys

Gansler also started a new practice of conducting final interviews for all new attorneys hired to the office, Howard said. Before Gansler came on board the attorney general wouldn’t meet with prospective hires. Now Gansler conducts the final interview, along with his two deputies, and personally extends the offer to join the office.

“That was quite time consuming for him, but it mattered a lot to him because he cared about making sure we brought in the best people under his watch.”

Currently Gansler is reaching out to e-cigarette manufacturers questioning the companies’ marketing practices to teens and children and asking what is being done to address the recent uptick in CDC reported poisonings. Gansler cited a recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study showing a spike in calls to CDC related to problems with e-cigarette refill cartridges. Fifty-percent of the calls involved children under the age of five.

Relationships with the governor

Prior to Sachs, the attorney general ran on a ticket with the governor and comptroller.

“It used to be the attorney general was beholden to the governor because they used to run together,” Carey said.

“Sachs really stopped that,” Carey recalled. “The theory was the AG is really supposed to be independent. The AG needs that independence because there are times when you have to tell state agencies, no the law doesn’t permit you to do that.”

Sometimes conflicts do arise and every once in a while there is an exception, Curran said.

Curran said Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked him not to join an anti-trust lawsuit against insurance companies.

“We joined it,” Curran said. “It was a national issue. We went to court and we didn’t win. Then on appeal we won.

In another situation, “[Gov.] Bob Ehrlich didn’t want us to do something, but it is our responsibility. We did it and we won.”

“The Office of the Attorney General is the governor’s lawyer and also the people’s lawyer,” Curran said. “You have to do what is right.”

Endorsements

Both Sachs and Curran have endorsed Montgomery County Sen. Brian Frosh for attorney general in the 2014 election.

Sachs said he didn’t think Frosh’s opponents were qualified to be attorney general.

“I don’t think Jon Cardin is qualified for the office, especially alongside Brian Frosh. Brian Frosh is enormously qualified.”

Of Prince Georges County Del. Aisha Braveboy, Sachs said, “I would say the same with Del. Braveboy, with a footnote – at least not yet!”

Cardin has been endorsed by his uncle, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, by former Gov. Marvin Mandel, and by a number of fellow members of the House of Delegates.

“Jon has made a name for himself in Annapolis the past 12 years and I am confident that he will make an excellent attorney general,” said Sen. Cardin in a testimonial he will reaffirm at a news conference Monday. “He is dedicated to strengthening our state in every way and I know he will do wonderful things for Maryland.”

By Glynis Kazanjian
Maryland Reporter

Minority Contractor Loses Bid to Build Harriet Tubman Center

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A Dorchester County tourist attraction dedicated to preserving the legacy of Harriet Tubman on the Eastern Shore has drawn ire from a minority group contractor whose bid for the project was turned down.

Contractor Gilford Corporation, which is owned by an African-American, found its bid rejected because it failed to meet standards of a federal program designed to assist minority businesses. Gov. Martin O’Malley described this as “an irony on top of irony,” at the Wednesday Board of Public Works meeting.

Gilford submitted the lowest bid of $12.7 million to construct the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park Visitor Center in Dorchester County, $1.2 million lower than the winning bid.

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 2.19.33 PMThe park, adjacent to the Blackwater National Refuge, will contain an exhibit of Tubman’s life as a conductor of the Underground railroad — Tubman grew up as a slave in Dorchester County. She helped other slaves from the Eastern Shore flee to freedom in the North.

Because the state partially funded the project with federal grants, all hopefuls needed to comply with regulations set by the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, which stipulate 30% of the sub-contractors hired must be minority businesses.

The Beltsville-based Gilford failed to meet this mark, and requested a waiver of the DBE requirement, which the Department of General Services rejected because Gilford did not demonstrate they had made a good-faith effort to seek or hire minority sub-contractors, DGS Secretary Alvin Collins said.

“We have to look at responsible bids, meaning the person … who follows rules and all the policies,” Collins said.

Comptroller Peter Franchot said he “reluctantly” voted in favor of the contract because a representative from Gilford was not present at the Board of Public Works meeting.

Winning bid more than $1 million over Gilford’s The state instead awarded the contract to W.M. Schlosser Construction Co. of Hyattsville for $13.9 million. The Board of Public works unanimously approved the contract at Wednesday’s meeting. The visitor center was funded by an $8.5 million federal Transportation Enhancement Program, $3.5 million in state money, a $1.1 million grant from the National Park Service and two grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, totaling roughly $836,000.

Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. in Cambridge also placed a $14.3 million bid for the center.
Zenita Wickham Hurley, special secretary of minority affairs, said the circumstances were “unfortunate.”

“I agree with everyone who said the fact we had to reject a minority bidder for not complying with a program put in place to help them … is the worst kind of irony,” she said. “But the facts are the program is very clear.”

The state estimates the project to be finished by early 2016.

By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

Analysis: New Poll Confirms No One Cares About Race for MD Governor

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The inaugural Maryland Poll from St. Mary’s College of Maryland surveyed the political landscape heading into the 2014 primary election and found that most Marylanders have absolutely no preference when it comes to the candidates for governor.

The poll is in line with prior polls for Gonzales Research, The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Post. Much like those polls, the Maryland Poll finds a very unsettled race for the GOP nomination and a Democratic race where the favorite, the sitting two term lieutenant governor, is being beaten by “No Preference” by a 2 to 1 margin.

The 2014 primary is two months away and yet most voters appear to have no firm commitments to the candidates.

No firm commitments

Specifically, the poll finds Anthony Brown with 27% support, followed by Douglas Gansler at 11% and Heather Mizeur at 8%. But fully 54% expressed no preference.

In a three-way race, Brown is close to the 34% that would be sufficient to win a closely matched election. But much like the other candidates, he has been unable to expand his base of support even after a year of campaigning and advertising.
Gansler has been hammering away at Brown on the issue of Maryland’s failed health exchange, but with 11% support the issue does not appear to be helping him.

Mizeur has been generating a lot of coverage and interest of late owing to her unapologetically progressive campaign. She has embraced a living wage, physician-assisted suicide, a moratorium on fracking, legalization of marijuana, and host of other progressive wish list items. Yet she’s made no noticeable progress in winning over potential voters.

Brown’s to lose

The Democratic primary remains Brown’s to lose and it’s likely that the upcoming debates will present the final opportunities for either Gansler or Mizeur to change that reality.

Interestingly, Gansler seems to have shifted his strategy. Early on, he presented himself as a centrist, pro-business Democrat. Recently, he has de-emphasized those qualities and instead focused on more progressive policy issues. This was a mistake.

In a three way race with two candidates already chasing the progressive vote, the smart move is to target the voters that the other two are ignoring. Gansler needs to pivot back to the center. His only path to victory requires Brown and Mizeur to split the progressive vote while Gansler goes for the moderate and conservative Democrats still in the party.

GOP’s disastrous situation

On the Republican side the poll finds a disastrous situation for the state’s permanent minority party.

More than two-thirds of Maryland Republican voters have no preference. Larry Hogan claims the support of 16%, followed by David Craig at 7.8%. Neither Ron George nor Charles Lollar were able to crack 4%.

Maryland is a very tough nut for Republicans to crack. Democrats enjoy a 2 to 1 voter registration advantage and Republicans are rarely ever able to overcome the Democrats’ advantages in the state’s population centers.

For a Republican to win, the nominee would need several things to break his or her way.

  • The Democratic party must be divided after the primary. That could certainly happen this year.
  • The Democratic electorate must lack passion for the party’s nominee. That could certainly happen this year.
  • It must be a good year for Republicans nationally (like in 1994, 2002, or 2010). That could certainly happen this year.

Beyond those three ingredients, a Republican candidate also needs a unified and passionate Republican party and an electorate frustrated with the direction of the state. Neither of those two ingredients are present.

Not enough dissatisfaction

With regard to the direction of the state: Though the poll found a plurality of 46% agreeing that the state is going in the wrong direction, another 41% said it was going in the right direction. That margin is not sufficient for a Republican to overcome the Democrats’ built in advantages.

Keep in mind, Bob Ehrlich had an approval rating above 50% when he lost the 2006 election by 6 percentage points.

A clear majority of poll respondents supported increasing the minimum wage and reported that the Affordable Care Act either helped their families or had no effect on them, a slim majority supported decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, and pluralities supported affirmative action, the fracking moratorium and gun control.

In a particularly interesting finding, the survey asked respondents how they were registered and then later asked what party they consider themselves to be a member of. The voter registration numbers essentially match state records – 53% Democrat, 28% Republican, and 18.5%

Independent or other.

When asked how they see themselves, the breakdown was 44% Democrat, 25% Republican, and 31% Independent or other. The breakdown shows that there is an opportunity for the GOP in the state, but only if the party can broaden its appeal and only if party activists accept that the party cannot win without attracting Independent voters.

No frontrunners in GOP

Several months ago, as I was arguing that David Craig represented the GOP’s best chance at reclaiming the governor’s mansion, many Republican activists challenged my assertion. Both privately and via social media these activists suggested a much stronger candidate existed and would soon enter the race and energize the party. They were referring to Larry Hogan.

Well, Hogan’s in the race and he is the “frontrunner.” But in a race where 64% of potential primary voters have no preference, there are no frontrunners. Hogan has not lit the fire that many were expecting.

Likewise, Craig has not run the experienced, well managed campaign that I was expecting. Craig sought to shore up the GOP base by taking a distinct right turn (thereby harming his ability to win in November) and Hogan has adopted a play it safe strategy by skipping forum after forum (thereby harming his credibility).

And no GOP candidate has any real success raising money. All four candidates combined could barely reach $1 million – meanwhile, Gansler and Brown are each sitting on multiple millions.

As things stand today, it’s hard to see the GOP reclaiming the keys to Government House.

By Todd Eberly
For MarylandReporter.com

Todd Eberly is associate professor of political science and Coordinator of Public Policy Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He is currently on sabbatical writing a book, and had no involvement in the new poll.

Democrats Reject a Vote On Their Own Pay, Raises Will Be Automatic

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Cathy vitale at podium

Del. Cathy Vital

A Republican attempt to force legislators to vote on their own pay-raise was defeated in the House of Delegates Tuesday, with Democrats overwhelmingly rejecting the move.

Introduced by Del. Cathy Vitale, R-Anne Arundel, the motion asked the House to suspend the rules so that a resolution to reject a proposed salary raise for legislators elected this fall could be considered on the House floor. An almost identical resolution has been sitting in the House Rules Committee without a vote since its hearing in late February.

Under the Maryland constitution salary raises for legislators are recommended by an outside commission every four years. If the legislature does nothing to stop or lower the pay hike by next Monday, the raise goes into effect.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Vitale said. “There was an earlier introduction of a resolution to address the salary, pension and pay packet of the General Assembly. That resolution is sitting in the Rules Committee. It did not come out of Rules, it did not get referred to a committee. The choice you are going to make on the suspension of the rules really is whether or not you want to be heard on this issue.”

Vitale introduced the motion under a provision in the House rule book which states that the rules may be suspended to consider a bill without referring it to a committee if a copy of the bill or resolution is distributed to the desk of each member. In order for the rules to be suspended at least two-thirds of the 141-member House must vote in the affirmative.

Majority leader calls it bad precedent

Many delegates spoke against the motion, arguing that it was a bad precedent to set.

Del. Kumar Barve

Del. Kumar Barve

“I intend to handle this motion the way we would handle any other motion,” House Majority Leader Kumar Barve said. “It is true there have been instances where bills have been directly referred to committees, but you need 94 votes to do it, and in those specific instances it might have made sense. But I don’t ever remember seeing a bill considered by this body without it first being considered in committee. Period. In 24 years I’ve never seen it.”

Many delegates, however, argued that the unique nature of the situation made it necessary for an exception to the regular order.

“It has been suggested that this motion should be treated like any other motion,” Del. Herbert McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, said. “Well guess what? It’s not like any other bill because it’s about your pay. It’s about how much you get paid, and that’s what makes this bill different.

“This just underscores the perception that many people have that legislators simply want to feather their nest,” McMillan said. “They’re not even willing to bring their pay wages up to a vote in the light of day. And that’s wrong.”

In the end, however, the motion came nowhere near garnering the 85 votes it would need to pass, and was voted down 48-87.

Six Democrats joined 41 Republicans in voting for the resolution. The Democrats were Dels. Pam Beidle, Anne Arundel; Mary-Dulany James, Harford; Kevin Kelly, Allegany; Heather Mizeur, Montgomery; David Rudolph, Cecil; Ted Sophocleus, Anne Arundel; and Johnny Wood, St. Mary’s.

This will be the first pay hike for legislators in eight years. Their salaries will go up $1,707 every year for four years, raising their total annual salary from $43,500 to $50,330.

By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Margaret@MarylandReporter.com

Read more: http://marylandreporter.com/2014/04/01/house-rejects-attempt-to-force-vote-on-legislative-pay-raise/#ixzz2xmfD6o1E
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Senate Votes 20% Pay Raise for Top State Officials

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The Senate voted Tuesday to provide a 20% salary increase over the next four years to the attorney general, comptroller, state treasurer and secretary of state.

The attorney general, comptroller and treasurer each earn $125,000 annually. The secretary of state makes $87,500 annually.

Under the bill, which Senate members approved 36-10, the attorney general, comptroller and treasurer would earn $149,500 in 2018, and the secretary of state would earn $109,500.

In years past, the General Assembly has rejected salary bumps for the state officers, despite consistent recommendations from the Governor’s Salary Commission.

Based on the resolution of the commission, lawmakers have already allowed the next governor to get a 20% raise to $180,000 by doing nothing to stop it in the first 45 days of the current session.

Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley, R-Frederick, voted in favor of the measure, though he said he would have preferred to also vote on the salary hike the legislature is due to receive.

“We were hoping to put some amendment on this to address legislative salaries … We’re still exploring some other options,” Brinkley said prior to the vote. “I want to go ahead and encourage the passage of this bill, but we still think there ought to be a vote on the Senate floor for any type of salary increase.”

The House of Delegates must still act on the measure.

By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

jeremy@marylandreporter.com

Read more: http://marylandreporter.com/2014/04/01/senate-votes-20-pay-raise-for-top-state-officials/#ixzz2xmcw6ne2
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Conservation Groups, Counties Fighting Proposed Cap on Open Space Funding

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Partners for Open Space prepared this infographic to oppose the diversion of open space funds.

Partners for Open Space prepared this infographic to oppose the diversion of open space funds.

Environmental and land conservation advocates, along with county officials across the state, are gearing up to fight a Senate Budget Committee proposal to limit Program Open Space funding to $100 million a year.

The Maryland Association of Counties said the cap on open space funding would result in “devastating” cuts of as much as $263 million over the next five years.

“These reductions … would affect the State’s and local government’s ability to preserve open space, shorelines, and waterways while providing recreational opportunities,” MACo’s blog told local officials, urging them to contact their senators and delegates.

Program Open Space is funded by 1/2% tax on all real estate transfers, but this dedicated pot of money has been repeatedly raided to fund other programs.

Extra money for stormwater remediation

Sen. James Ed DeGrange called for any money the transfer tax generates over $100 million to help with stormwater remediation. He said it should go to the State Highway Administration as part of its Watershed Implementation Plans.

The state has in effect been replacing cash with loans by diverting over the years much of the open space money from the transfer tax to the general fund, and replacing it with bond funds.

DeGrange, who serves on the state’s Capital Debt Affordability Committee, said, “We’re concerned about getting close to our limit” for bond debt.

By capping the amount spent on open space programs, the Senate committee would reduce the amount of bond debt the state would use to replace the open space money diverted for other programs.

Any extra money would go to fix polluted stormwater runoff from state highways, rather than for buying or maintaining state and local parks and recreation areas.

Open space money can not only be used to acquire farmland and forest, but it also goes toward development and rehabilitation of recreational facilities built on open space.

Unmet needs

“The funds are urgently needed,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland, one of the Partners for Open Space, a coalition of environmental, conservation and recreation groups.

According to a fact sheet from the Partners for Open Space, $1 billion has been diverted from the transfer tax for open space over the four-decade life of the program.

Some of those unmet needs include:

  • 148 family farms which are waiting to sell the state development rights to their farmland
  • $1.7 billion in local park and recreation projects,
  • and $178 million in what the partners call “high quality ecological, recreational, public access, coastal resilience and community connections projects” in the pipeline.

“It’s not a slush fund to be used by the Senate for other purposes,” Schmidt-Perkins said.

She said the House Appropriations Committee in the past has sided with the Program Open Space advocates in resisting attempts by the Senate to divert the money.

“Yes, we’ll see this in conference,” when the House and Senate attempt to resolve any differences on the state operating and capital budget.

By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com

Read more: >

If Legislators Don’t Vote, They Get a 16% Pay Raise

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If legislators do nothing to stop it in the next 19 days, members of the Maryland General Assembly elected this fall — including probably two-thirds of the current members — will get a 16% raise over the next four years, bringing their annual salaries to $50,330. They currently make $43,500 for what is technically a part-time job.

Lawmakers have already allowed the next governor to get a 20% raise to $180,000 by doing nothing to stop it in the first 45 days of the current session.

The lawmakers have not had a raise in eight years; the governor’s salary has been $150,000 for nine years.

The raises come through the decisions of two separate salary commissions created in the Maryland constitution that requires outside bodies to recommend changes in salaries, pensions and expenses for the top elected officials. If the legislature does not lower or reject them, they go into effect automatically — without any senator or delegate having to take a vote on their own pay or that of the governor.

Republican resolutions reject pay hike

The only potential roadblock to next year’s pay hikes are resolutions introduced by all 12 Republican senators and 38 of the 43 Republicans in the House of Delegates.

Both resolutions sit in the Rules Committee of each house, committees dominated by the Democratic leadership where most resolutions are sent to die.

The Senate Rules Committee has not even had a hearing on the resolution late-filed on Feb. 27 and the House has had two brief hearings where only two delegates spoke in favor of rejecting the pay hikes.

“I just think salary increases should be based on some goals, like unemployment figures,” said Del. Wade Kach, the lead sponsor who is a 40-year House veteran running for the Baltimore County Council.

On Dec. 16, the General Assembly Compensation Commission recommended the pay hike based on the cost of living increases for the past eight years and likely COLAs in the next four years. Kach said at the very least the increase based on projected inflation should be cut.

May be no opportunity for a vote

“As time goes by, the chances of [the resolution] passing are diminished,” Kach said. “If it’s put in a drawer in Rules, we won’t have an opportunity to vote it up or down.”

Rules Committee Chair Anne Healey pointed out that, “We hardly ever do resolutions at all,” and wouldn’t predict whether the committee would take a vote.

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, one of five Republicans on the 24-member committee, said, “We’re going to try to see what we can do to get it out.”

One possible move is to petition it out of the Rules Committee, but that would require the signature of 47 members — meaning some Democrats would need to sign on.

Here is the report of the General Assembly Compensation Commission. It includes history of pay increases, comparisons with other Maryland officials and other states, and reports on use of expense accounts.

In 2010, the legislature rejected a recommended pay increases that would have been based on reducing the unemployment rate.

Here is the report of the Governor’s Salary Commission, and the story about its recommendations.   

Original story>

By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Higher Wages for State-Funded Construction Pass Senate, House

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Construction workers by RICarr on Flickr Creative Commons

Construction workers by RICarr on Flickr Creative Commons

Workers on many local school construction projects would be paid at a higher rate under a prevailing wage bill approved Tuesday by the Maryland Senate.

The bill would increase overall construction costs by as much as 5%, estimates the state Department of Legislative Services.

Republican legislators were critical of SB 232, sponsored by Baltimore County Democrat Norman Stone. The bill passed 32-15 and requires that local governments pay the prevailing wage if the state has contributed 25% of funding or more to a school construction project.

Any other public work project valued at $500,000 or higher will be built by workers paid at prevailing wage if the state has subsidized 50% of the project, which is current state law.

Prevailing wage intended to promote fair compensation

The measure, along with prevailing wage requirements as a whole, is pro-union and meant to ensure construction workers are paid adequately. The state Commissioner of Labor and Industry determines the fair prevailing wage.

The bill would likely only affect 10 of Maryland’s 23 counties — those with school boards which accept roughly 50% from the state to fund school construction projects. The Department of Legislative Services estimated that overall construction costs would rise as much as 5%.

Construction Photo by RICarr on Flickr Creative Commons

Construction Photo by RICarr on Flickr Creative Commons

The areas likely impacted would be Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Carroll, Garrett, Kent, Montgomery, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Worcester counties.

Republicans question higher project costs as result of bill

Republican Sens. Allan Kittleman of Howard County and Stephen Hershey Jr. of the Upper Shore were particularly critical of the legislation, citing high labor costs for prevailing wage workers.

Kittleman, a member of the Task Force to Study the Applicability of the Maryland

Prevailing Wage Law, called it unfair that the local governments would need to scrape together money themselves to supplement the higher pay for the workers.

Kittleman’s task force has investigated the issue of prevailing wage laws for more than a year, but has yet to conclude whether projects associated with prevailing wages cost more in the long-term.

“By adopting this legislation, we’re going to make it harder for our local school systems to build more schools,” Kittleman said. “We’re going to make it harder to have better quality in those schools and I just think it doesn’t make sense to encourage our school systems to pay more.”

Hershey also raised concerns about the cost.

“I’ve been in construction management for many years,” Hershey said. “And with prevailing wage – union-rate jobs — they cost more up front.”

Varies by county

Prevailing wage rates vary by county and type of worker. For instance, an electrician in Montgomery County would be paid $40 an hour under prevailing wage, while in Carroll County an electrician is paid $35.10 an hour. All prevailing wage positions pertain to construction or other workers, such as bricklayers, painters or plumbers.

While legislators are considering raising the minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 an hour from $7.25, a common or unskilled construction laborer in Anne Arundel County would make $15.47 an hour according to prevailing wage state guidelines. In Frederick County, the same laborer might make $18.67 an hour, or $12.70 in Queen Anne’s County.

The bill supersedes local laws exempting certain projects from prevailing wages. In Montgomery County, for instance, the law states that school projects are exempted from prevailing wage requirements. But all counties would be subject to the stipulations of the bill, according to Sen. Thomas Mac Middleton, D-Charles County and chair of the prevailing wage task force.

All projects within the University System of Maryland and private nonprofit higher education institutions are also exempt from the bill.

Proponent argues prevailing wage would promote skilled workers

Middleton called on the legislature to look past the costs on paper.

“With prevailing wage, you get more skilled workers and if you don’t get skilled workers you get the job training component vs. the non prevailing wage where you just don’t have that. Besides the dollar value, you have to look at … the millions of dollars the state of Maryland has just dropped in job training,” Middleton said.

The House version of the bill, HB 727, passed 90-46 Monday, with some Democrats joining near unanimous opposition by Republicans in both chambers.

By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

Jeremy@MarylandReporter.com

Senate Rejects GOP Cuts to $39 Billion Budget, Miller Gripes About Environmental ‘Whackos’

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With minimal debate, the Maryland Senate rejected a half dozen Republican attempts to further trim Gov. Martin O’Malley’s $39 billion budget Wednesday, and gave preliminary approval to the spending plan that will be sent to the House this week.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee ultimately cut $492 million from the current budget and O’Malley’s proposal for next year, partly to make up for lowered revenue estimates in both years.

The overall fiscal 2015 budget will spend $1.7 billion more than last year, a 4.5% increase. Some of the biggest gains are in spending on medical assistance and welfare, with federal dollars funding most of those gains.

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 2.55.58 PMBudget Committee Chairman Ed Kasemeyer called it a “lean budget.”

“The committee worked very hard to protect programs and services, to honor the recently ratified collective bargaining agreement, and to leave a fund balance [surplus] of at least $100 million in addition to 5% in the rainy day fund,” Kasemeyer said.

Much of the budget cuts came from a $200 million reduction in extra pension contributions that were originally intended to be $300 million each year.

 1% across-the-board cut proposed

Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley proposed an additional across-the-board reduction of 1% in the general fund, saving another $162 million. State agencies “should be able to function properly” with 99% of what they requested.

“The current crisis that we’re in was manufactured by the governor,” Brinkley said. “He wasn’t willing to make the tough calls.”

Kasemeyer said the committee had discussed across-the-board cuts, but determined “that’s a meat-clever approach.”

Brinkley’s amendment failed 12-34 in a straight party-line vote.

The Senate also rejected attempts to cut funding for stem cell research and for state-paid abortions based on the mental health of the mother. Republicans said the state had paid for 49,485 abortions since the year 2000 based on the “mental health” provision of state law for Medicaid-funded abortions.

The anti-abortion item picked up a few Democratic votes, but failed 16-29, as did an attempt to cut funding for stem cell research, and proposal to withhold money to fix the Health Benefit Exchange website.

Miller decries use of bay fund votes by environmentalists

mike miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, sought to prevent any further diversion of money from the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund.

“People support the bay overwhelmingly,” said Simonaire. “People want us to clean the bay.”

He said $125 million had been diverted to other programs over the past five years.

His amendment to prevent that was rejected 12-33. Senate President Mike Miller warned that such votes have been used by environmental groups to lower the rating of senators who basically support the environment.

“That’s how these whackos work,” Miller griped, clearly annoyed. He eventually calmed down, calling them “uncalled for remarks.”

“This is about the elections,” he said.

March 13, 2014 at 7:43 am

By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com