Lucky 13?

The Maryland General Assembly has 13 days left in their session and plenty of work left to make these last two weeks, give or take, a hectic ride to the finish.

The good folks at MarylandReporter.com and I discussed what’s left on the legislative plate in their weekly podcast.

The state budget and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s legislative agenda are just some of the topics we kick around. Check it out.

Direct wine shipping languishes on the committee vine

An effort to allow wineries to ship their wines directly to consumers in Maryland was narrowly defeated in a Saturday afternoon committee vote.

One of the most discussed issues of the legislative session, direct wine shipping enjoyed wide support in the General Assembly. Indeed, its sponsors hail from both parties, represent districts across the state and comprise a majority of both the Senate and House of Delegates.

But it also had its share of powerful opponents, including alcohol lobbyists and the chair of a Senate health committee, who has not been shy in expressing her desire to let the bill languish this year.

The House Economic Matters Committee then became the bill’s only, if slim, hope. The committee voted 12-8 in favor of the bill Saturday afternoon, falling one vote shy of a majority.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, the Prince George’s County Democrat who heads the committee, said the General Assembly will likely elect to study the direct shipping issue for the remainder of the year and bring it up again in the 2011 legislative session.

To that end, the Senate has passed its version of the Winery Modernization Act, SB 858. The act is a compromise between wineries and the alcohol wholesalers, distributors and retailers that defines what wineries can and cannot do in Maryland. The bill does not allow for direct shipping, but was amended on the Senate floor to include a direct shipping study. An effort to amend the bill further to include the legalization of direct shipping nearly led to a nasty floor fight, but was ultimately abandoned in favor of the study.

Supporters of direct shipping hope the study of the practice in 37 jurisdictions that already allow residents to receive vino shipments will set the stage for a renewed effort next year.

Going behind the numbers on the unemployment problem

Every month, the state reports unemployment statistics and every month, at least lately, the message that accompanies those statistics follows a formula, something like “things have gotten worse, but they’ve gotten worse less quickly than they have before, so that’s a good thing.”

The numbers released by the state on Friday were made more interesting by the context provided by Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday.

O’Malley signed into law a $20 million tax credit program that will give businesses $5,000 for every unemployed Marylander they hire in 2010, up to $250,000 per business. The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation expects to start taking online applications for the credits next week.

Less than a day later, DLLR reported that the state’s unemployment rose to 7.7 percent in February, up from 7.5 percent in January. The number of unemployed Marylanders hit 227,524, up from 222,196 the month before.

If businesses decided to take advantage of all the available tax credits and hired 4,000 people immediately, that still would not bring the state’s unemployment situation from the February level down to the January level. That probably says more about the enormity of problem, rather than the scope of the solution.

“While there continue to be signs of improvement in the economy, we are still seeing significant pressure on the job market,” said Labor Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez in a written statement. “Both the unemployment rate and job creation statistics may continue to move erratically as the economy strives to move ahead.”

Maryland lost 68,300 jobs from Feb. 2009 to last month. Of those losses, 13,800 were lost between January and February.

Those figures also have big implications for the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which was the focus of another bill the governor signed Thursday. His overhaul of unemployment benefits will bring the bankrupt trust fund $126.8 million from the feds.

The fund has opened a line of credit with the U.S. Department of Labor to keep paying benefits and state officials hope the one-time infusion brought by the overhaul will keep the state from borrowing again this year. But that assumption is based on the employment situation improving this year. Persistent, high levels of unemployment would be bad news for the fund.

Job creation tax credit passes, will be signed today

The tax credit for businesses who hire unemployed Marylanders was passed out of the General Assembly Thursday morning and will make its way across Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk in the afternoon.

Businesses will receive $5,000 refundable credits for hires in 2010. Both the Senate and the House amended the bill, an O’Malley initiative, up from the original $3,000 credit, a change requested by the business community. The program will be capped at $20 million. Businesses will be eligible for up to $250,000 in credits. Here’s our story on the Senate’s changes.

The Senate passed the legislation 47-0 on Feb. 26 and the House passed it 134-6 on Monday. The Senate concurred Thursday with minor changes the House made to the legislation, sending it to the governor’s desk.

O’Malley will also sign into law his unemployment insurance reform bill and another measure that would restore manufacturer bonuses for car salespeople.

So close, but so far on direct wine shipping

The Maryland Senate flirted Tuesday with the idea of letting state residents receive shipments of wine direct from wineries, but ultimately let the proposal slip by the wayside.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, tried to amend the controversial direct shipping bill, which will likely not make it out of committee, on to another winery bill on the Senate floor.

The move would have upset an uneasy compromise reached last week between proponents of direct shipping – a majority of the 47 senators – and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the head of the health committee and a unwavering opponent of the bill. They agreed to amend a direct shipping study to Conway’s Winery Modernization Act, a bill that includes a slate of technical changes to winery law. (Here’s our latest story on the winery legislation in the General Assembly, and our longer overview.)

Zirkin’s gambit prompted nearly 30 minutes of debate on the Senate floor, with some direct shipping proponents urging him to give up his amendment so as not to scuttle the modernization bill, and others clamoring for a chance to put the idea to a full-Senate vote.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, said her office received more than 900 calls from direct shipping supporters this year.

“I must keep my word and I must support this, because apparently it’s the only way it will come before us,” Kelley said.

In the end, Zirkin acquiesced to those who asked him to withdraw his amendment – “I wish you had done that 25 minutes earlier,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller deadpanned – but not before Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick and Washington, tried to force a vote on the issue. He took the unusual step of resisting Zirkin’s attempt to withdraw his own amendment, calling for vote on the motion.

Mooney was defeated 42-4 and the modernization bill, including the direct shipping study, moved closer to final Senate approval. The bill appears to have support in the House of Delegates as well.

Unemployment insurance bill passes House

Updated @ 2:20 p.m.:

The House of Delegates passed an expansion of unemployment benefits Tuesday, the next-to-last step for legislation that will qualify the state’s bankrupt Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund for $126.8 million from the federal government.

The measure passed mostly along party lines (the vote was 101-33 in the chamber, but the final tally is still being calculated) without a word of debate. Next stop: Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk for his signature.

Original post:

The House of Delegates has given preliminary approval to compromise legislation that will alter unemployment benefits to secure $126.8 million for the state’s bankrupt Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

The bill survived a series of amendments proposed by Republican lawmakers during an often heated debate on the House floor Monday night. The House will soon take a final vote on the bill before it heads to the second floor of the State House for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature.

Continue reading

Senate nixes move to allow table games in Baltimore

A proposal to allow card games at a Baltimore slots parlor – assuming such a thing will one day exist – was shot down in the Senate Friday morning.

The motion was made by Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore City Democrat, as the legislature’s upper chamber was debating a bill introduced by a Prince George’s County senator that would allow card games like poker at the Rosecroft Raceway harness racing track. (Here’s our latest coverage.)

Sen. Anthony C. Muse, D-Prince George’s, said he introduced the bill as a “desperation move” to keep the racetrack from closing.

“They have a serious problem there [in Prince George's County], but we have a serious problem in Baltimore City, too,” said Della.

The city’s single slots license has been one of the many blemishes on the state’s gaming industry, which has struggled with local resistance to casino development, construction issues and a lack of qualified developers. The city license must be re-bid after the state gaming commission threw out a plan from a Canadian home-builder after he could not come up with the required fees and failed to submit an updated proposal.

Della’s amendment failed on a voice vote. A similar amendment from Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard and Carroll, was also turned down. Kittleman’s amendment would have allowed the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission to award card game licenses at five other sites around the state.

The Senate gave a preliminary OK to the bill, SB 1035, which has the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s and Calvert. But, if passed out of the Senate, the bill will face a much tougher road in the House. Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has said he is not interested in expanding gaming this year. And for the record, Gov. Martin O’Malley is also opposed to gaming expansion.

Survey: Anne Arundel voters split on slots petition

The broad coalition that is working to thwart plans to build a casino at the Arundel Mills shopping mall appears to have a strong base of support in Anne Arundel County — but then again, so do its opponents.

The Maryland Jockey Club and community groups have collected more than enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in November to allow county voters to decide whether to allow Baltimore-based developer Cordish Cos. to build the state’s largest slots parlor next to the mall.

Anne Arundel Community College released the results of a survey Friday that shows county residents of voting age are split on the potential referendum.

Of course, the whole thing could become moot in any number of ways. At least two lawsuits have been filed in connection to the petition drive. The Jockey Club, according to reports, has spent nearly $400,000 to collect the signatures. Read our most recent story here.

But the most interesting – at least to me – potential complication is the fact that Cordish is one of the bidders seeking to buy the parent company of the Jockey Club and bring the state’s biggest horse-racing tracks out of bankruptcy. One would imagine Cordish, as owner of the club, wouldn’t look too kindly on lawsuits it filed against his $320 million casino project.

The survey also asked county residents about the opinion Attorney General Doug Gansler recently issued on out-of-state, same-sex marriages. Nearly half of those surveyed, 48 percent, agreed with his stance that the state should recognize legal same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, while 44 percent disagreed. Del. Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, has said he will try to impeach Gansler on March 31 for issuing the opinion.

The survey covered 640 county residents over the age of 18 and has a 4 percent margin of error, according to the college.

Job creation tax credit amendents go down in the House

A series of amendments to the governor’s job creation tax credit proposal died Wednesday in the House of Delegates as the legislation moved closer to final approval.

The amendments ranged from a provision that would require the state to check the citizenship status of new workers to a carve-out that would have reserved half the tax credits for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

After the mostly party-line votes defeating the amendments, the House gave preliminary approval to the tax credit bill. The $20 million program would give $5,000 tax credits to businesses for each Marylander they hire off the unemployment rolls in 2010.

The Senate passed its own version last month with a 46-0 vote.

On Wednesday, Del. Patrick L. McDonough, R-Baltimore and Harford, proposed an amendment that would require the state to use the federal government’s e-verify system to ensure the employees hired under the tax credit program are legal residents.

“This amendment verifies that American jobs will be created and American jobs will be protected in the state of Maryland,” he said.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, the Montgomery County Democrat whose subcommittee handled the bill, said the amendment was unnecessary because the state’s business regulators use more stringent requirements in determining workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits.

House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, offered an amendment that would have thrown out the tax credits and instead lowered the corporate tax rate from 8.25 percent to 7.75 percent.

“This would provide an immediate boost to the businesses of Maryland,” Shank said. “When we try to compete for jobs, try to compete for Northrop Grumman, the corporate tax rate is an immediate deterrent.”

Barve argued the tax cut wouldn’t guarantee hiring and carried a heftier price tag of $50 million.

The final GOP gambit came from Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s. O’Donnell proposed setting aside half of the tax credits for businesses with fewer than 50 employees at the time they make the hires.

“We’re not talking about the Verizons or the Constellations or the Comcasts,” he said. “We’re talking about the little guys.”

Barve, in response, said the “little guys” at which the bill was targeted are the swollen ranks of unemployed Marylanders.  Imposing more restrictions on the tax credits could slow the hiring it is supposed to spur, he said.

Unemployment insurance bill gets committee nod

The House Economic Matters Committee approved the governor’s much amended unemployment insurance bill with a 17-5 vote, priming it for a trip to the House floor and moving it one step closer to passage.

The bill, SB 107, was the subject of nearly nonstop negotiations through the first half of the legislative session as lawmakers, governor’s representatives, business groups and labor interests crafted the long-awaited compromise.

It would increase unemployment benefits in some areas and decrease them in others to qualify the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund for $126.8 million from the federal government. The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation first tapped a federal line of credit in February to keep the trust fund afloat.

The legislation was the subject of little debate Tuesday and the vote fell largely along party lines.

“I think we’re adding more burdens to an already overburdened fund,” said Del. Warren E. Miller, R-Howard.

Here’s our most recent story on the Senate vote, and our earlier story on the compromise.