Md. business coalition backs minimum wage hike

Four dozen business owners and executives signed on to a petition Tuesday urging the passage of legislation in Annapolis that would bump the state’s minimum wage to $9.75 an hour in 2013.

The statement read, in part: “With less buying power than it had in the 1950s and 60s, today’s minimum wage means poverty for working families and undermines our economy. A higher minimum wage makes good sense for our Maryland economy. It puts money in the hands of the people who will put it right back into local businesses.”

Read the full statement, from Business for Shared Prosperity, here.

“The minimum wage used to go up regularly with rising worker productivity,” Roger Rath, Senior Vice President of Janney Montgomery Scott in Towson, said in a written statement. “Now, productivity rises, and CEO pay goes up, but workers get left behind. That’s not just unfair, it’s bad economics.”

The effort is likely to be an unsuccessful one. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mac Middleton and House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck Davis said as much earlier this month.

They both said they respected the effort, but said it is just not a good time increase costs for businesses.

Here’s Middleton: “I think it heightened the awareness of the gap between the rich and poor.” But, he added, “I don’t see any appetite on the committee to pass the bill, myself included.”

The minimum wage bills, HB 988 and SB 716, would step the state’s minimum wage from the federally mandated $7.25 to $8.25 starting July 1. A year later, it would bump to $9 an hour, and in 2013, to $9.75. After that, it would be indexed to inflation.

The bill would also extend overtime rules to farm workers who work more than 48 hours in a week and raise minimum pay for employees who receive tips, from 50 percent of the minimum wage to 75 percent.

The proposal has faced stiff opposition from most other business groups worried about what they see as a fragile economic recovery.

“It is tough enough dealing with increased gas and inventory costs, but increasing the minimum wage will make the current tenuous situation far worse,” said Pat Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.

Bills fly with two weeks left

With the legislature’s annual session winding down, Gov. Martin O’Malley says the General Assembly’s “rhythm” is picking up.

O’Malley visited both chambers Friday for Maryland Day, and spoke of the work left to be done. Two of the governor’s top proposals — his wind energy bill and Invest Maryland — are still in legislative limbo, but he said he expects them to move in the final two weeks.

“This session got off to a slower start for reasons probably having to do with people coming off a tough election cycle and some tough bills that took a lot out of people,” O’Malley said after visiting the House of Delegates.

O’Malley said he was referring to the same-sex marriage bill, which passed the Senate with relative eases but died a long and public death in the House.

“I don’t want to pretend for a second that it wasn’t worth their consideration, but it did take a lot of energy,” said O’Malley, who had pledged earlier in the session to sign a same-sex marriage bill if the legislature sent it to his desk.

The House of Delegates is working to send some compromise legislation on the disclosure of a French railroad’s role in the Holocaust before a subsidiary can bid on a MARC train contract. The Senate has already passed a similar version of that bill, but you’ll have to read Monday’s dead tree edition of The Daily Record to get the scoop on that.

The House passed wine shipping legislation 135-1 during a Saturday morning session that would allow Marylanders to have vino shipped directly to their doorsteps. The Senate gave a preliminary OK to its version of the bill on Friday. The legislation carves out retailers, which means that only in- and out-of-state wineries would be able to ship to Maryland homes.

The House is also poised to move legislation that would limit the use of credit checks when companies hire workers. The Senate already passed the compromise legislation, which would still allow businesses to pull credit reports when hiring managers and people that would have fiduciary responsibilities.

The House also approved on Saturday a bill that would put an expiration date on 29 state tax credits and force lawmakers to study the credits’ effectiveness before voting on whether to reinstate them. That legislation now heads to the Senate, where business interests will no doubt attempt to block it. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce and others worry about the uncertainty the bill would inject into the tax credit programs.

And the House is also ready to vote a bill into the upper chamber that would create the framework for a public corporation that would oversee the health insurance exchange mandated by the federal health care overhaul.

“I believe that if we are a leader and if we are in the forefront of this, it will be a huge competitive advantage, an economic advantage for us,” O’Malley said. “We have to get that monkey of rising health care costs off the backs of our businesses or they can’t invest in job creation.”

On his other priorities, O’Malley said Invest Maryland “appears to be making progress.” That program would auction insurance premium tax credits in order to fill a $100 million venture capital fund that would be directed at early stage, high-tech companies.

He said he has met with many lawmakers recently to discuss that bill, and the wind power bill. He mentioned Sens. James N. Robey, James E. DeGrange Sr. and Edward J. Kasemeyer. All three are Democrats and key members of the Budget and Taxation Committee — Kasemeyer is the chairman and Robey and DeGrange both lead subcommittees. That committee is considering the Invest Maryland legislation.

On wind, O’Malley said he hopes an amended proposal will woo lawmakers to his side. He proposed to put a temporary cap on the costs to consumers of guaranteeing a market for 400 to 600 megawatts of electricity generated by offshore wind turbines.

“Creating a new, cleaner, greener energy future is not easy, especially in a deregulated energy market,” O’Malley said.

Md. House to likely restore some local highway aid

When the full House of Delegates takes up the fiscal 2012 budget tomorrow, one key provision for local governments and transportation advocates will be the proposed restoration of some $13.3 million in highway aid for local governments.

Counties would receive $5 million and municipalities, $8.3 million.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before local leaders enjoy the same support they did before the recession. Highway funds for Maryland’s cities, for instance, have been cut by the state to just $1.6 million this year, from a peak of $46.6 million in fiscal 2007.

Washington D.C. suburbs would benefit the most from the House plan, which raises the additional transportation funds by raising the vehicle titling fee from $50 to $100 and charging $50 for vanity plates, up from $25.

Here’s how the extra funding would be divvied up, by county:

Allegany $533,000

Anne Arundel $888,000

Baltimore City $0*

Baltimore County $754,000

Calvert $218,000

Caroline $228,000

Carroll $703,000

Cecil $345,000

Charles $309,000

Dorchester $263,000

Frederick $1,156,000

Garrett $237,000

Harford $652,000

Howard $283,000

Kent $128,000

Montgomery $1,985,000

Prince George’s $2,241,000

Queen Anne’s $155,000

St. Mary’s $167,000

Somerset $119,000

Talbot $283,000

Washington $718,000

Wicomico $509,000

Worcester $392,000

*Baltimore City’s highway aid has been cut less over the last three years than that directed to the state’s other 23 counties.

House committee to vote on transportation, other budget items

The House Appropriations Committee is set to vote on a full slate of budget tweaks and cuts tomorrow. Among the big ticket items they’ll take up is restoring $58.5 million to public school funding, the raid of $100 million in transportation funding proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley and what to do with teacher pension costs.

But there are plenty of small items on their plates, too, including a pair of transportation items that caught my eye Wednesday but didn’t make it into my business and transportation budget story in the dead tree edition Thursday.

The transportation subcommittee recommended on Wednesday that the Maryland Transportation Authority study potential changes to its toll structure as it prepares to raise tolls later this year.

The tweaks could include discounts for E-ZPass users with Maryland accounts, charging more during peak travel hours and less during down times and changing its toll facilities to all electronic collection.

The second item doesn’t have quite the potential to impact Maryland drivers. The subcommittee recommended MdTA cut money for employee recognition, events, and retreats. The authority is funded through tolls, so the money won’t go to schools or health care or other state priorities. It would be, however, about $140,000 more for roads.

The subcommittee recommended cutting $83,090 for employee recognition, $55,750 for employee events and $6000 for an annual off-site retreat.

Tax breaks for small businesses and individuals

Just in time for those due dates on your tax returns, Gov. Martin O’Malley is reminding small businesses they may be eligible for tax credits based on the health care they provide their workers.

Businesses that cover at least 50 percent of workers’ premiums, employ 25 or fewer who average $50,000 or less in annual salary may be eligible.

Individuals can visit the state’s Web Connector to see for which tax credits and services the qualify.

You get three extra days to file your taxes this year. They’re due April 18. The delay is due to Emancipation Day, which celebrates the freeing of slaves in Washington D.C. It falls on April 16, but because that falls on a Saturday, the holiday will be celebrated on April 15.

Md. lures HBO shoot with $3.5M incentive

HBO will shoot the film Game Change in Maryland this spring, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office announced Friday afternoon.

The film depicts the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, from the surprise pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin through his general election defeat at the hands of Barack Obama.

The state, which will dole out $3.5 million in tax incentives to bring the film here, expects the shoot to employ 160 on the production crew and include 1,800 local actors and extras. It’s a nice get for the state, which has seen neighbor Virginia up its outlays to the film industry and others in the last year.

One role you won’t be auditioning for, however, is that of Palin. HBO has cast Julianne Moore to play McCain’s running mate. (Looks like Palin isn’t too happy about the flick.)

“HBO produces the highest quality and most-acclaimed films and series on television,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said in  written statement. “The talent involved in Game Change once again proves their commitment to entertainment excellence. We are very pleased to welcome HBO back.”

He may be even more pleased that HBO isn’t bringing a certain show back with it.

O’Malley has been very critical of the way The Wire portrayed Baltimore’s ills. He told a crowd at the Naval Academy two years ago that he “can’t stand” The Wire.

“I tell you what: I can’t stand ‘The Wire,’” O’Malley said, according to the AP report. “I can’t stand ‘The Wire.’ I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an entire episode of it. I watched enough of it to know that it did not portray the full picture of what Baltimore is all about as a city.”

HBO recently wrapped up shooting the pilot for the series VEEP, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and has also filmed in Maryland Shot in the Heart, The Corner and Something the Lord Made.

“We’ve had great experiences filming in Maryland,” said HBO Films president Len Amato. “The state offers a strong local base of talented crew and actors, and we are very grateful for the generous cooperation og the governor and the [Maryland] Film Office.”

Game Change is  based on the book of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Funeral picketing bill in Md. Senate

Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, introduced a bill Wednesday that would force picketers farther away from funerals.

The legislation comes in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that grew from a  protest at a Marine’s funeral in Westminster. The court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has in recent years drawn much attention for its protests at military funerals.

From the AP…

The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Gladden’s bill, cosponsored by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, would force protesters to stand 500 feet away from funeral services. The current law gives funerals a 100-foot buffer.

Holocaust disclosure bill passes Senate committee

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee didn’t waste any time with the bill seeking disclosure of and an apology for the activities a potential MARC operator undertook during the Holocaust.

The bill, SB 479 and its House twin, HB 520, which together carry 45 sponsors, would require SNCF to disclose whether it has records relating to the deportation of people to concentration camps, where the records are kept, what property it has that was taken during the deportation and how it disposed of the property.

SNCF is the majority shareholder in Keolis America, which, through a subsidiary, is seeking the contract to operate a pair of MARC lines.

The Senate committee heard the bill Thursday evening and voted later that night. It passed 11-0.

Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore city, said such quick action on bills isn’t unusual in cases where there is little or no disagreement among committee members.

SNCF and Keolis “didn’t have an argument,” said Conway, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. “They didn’t answer any questions and when they did, they were conflicting.”

The House Health and Government Operations Committee held a hearing on the bill as well on Thursday, where executives from SNCF America and Keolis Rail Services America were battered by lawmakers unimpressed by their excuses.

Lawmakers eye defense funding

Faced with a $1.6 billion budget deficit, Maryland lawmakers are asking their federal counterparts to cut the defense budget and spread the wealth.

The letter, to be released Monday and signed by Sen. Jamie Raskin and Del. Sheila E. Hixson, both Montgomery County Democrats, said defense spending $1 trillion over the next decade without endangering U.S. troops.

The letter will be sent to the state’s congressional delegation, and is backed by 40 state lawmakers.

“The economic downturn has drained our state and local treasuries to dangerously low levels and is inflicting immense suffering on our people,” Raskin and Hixson write. “In the context of this crisis, the current unprecedented level of military spending constitutes a shocking misallocation of national resources. We ask you as our colleagues and our leaders in Washington to press for a dramatic shift in federal budget priorities.”

They continue, writing that the state’s budget straits have hampered job creation by forcing the furloughs of public employees, eroded funding for crumbling infrastructure maintenance and replacement, strained social services and reduced funds available for education.

They ask for defense spending to be reduced by at least 25 percent over the next five years.

“Savings can be invested in the crying social needs of the nation,” the letter states.

Md. lawmakers want old-school license plates

Pining for those good ol’ days when standard-issue Maryland license plates came in that stately black-on-white? Well, some lawmakers apparently are.

Four Baltimore City delegates, led by Kieffer J. Mitchell Jr., have sponsored a bill that would bring back the classic look. The only catch — drivers who want to slap the old school plates on their cars will have to shell out an extra fee to the Motor Vehicle Administration to get one.

The state began issuing the War of 1812 commemorative plates in June 2010, and will continue to do so through June 2015. The state is gearing up for the first event in its celebration of the 200th anniversary of the war this summer.

The bill would only let the MVA charge enough to cover the costs of producing the special plates.It’s not clear from the bill or legislative analysis what the fee would be, but it appears it wouldn’t amount to more than $15 or $20.

The administration assumes about 12,000 drivers will choose to take the white and black plates every year, and another 3,200 drivers will switch from the 1812 plates to the older versions in 2012. That year, they expect the program would bring in $189,400, or less than $13 per plate. Take out the drivers who switch, and it comes to about $16 per plate.