ANNAPOLIS — The House Economic Matters Committee proved to be a tough crowd for one Maryland senator Tuesday.
Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, found himself sitting before a committee many believe are eager to kill his bill to delay the state’s new paid sick leave law. Behind him, angry supporters of the new law were fighting to make sure no delay occurs.
Middleton attempted to soften the mood with humor.
“You know the saying, Mr. Chairman: If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen?” Middleton said to Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s and chair of the House Economic Matters Committee. “Well, I’ll tell you it’s a kitchen back there in the audience. I’m anxious to get outside where it’s a bit cooler.”
Middleton’s attempt at humor was not without a large dose of truth.
Almost exactly a year ago, Middleton joined Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City and sponsor of the House version of the bill, in donning a green cape and mask to pose as super heroes of the working sick. Now many supporters were wondering if the Senate chairman, who was the lead sponsor of the Senate bill last year, had become a villain by sponsoring legislation that would delay the leave law fought for over the last six years.
The state’s mandatory paid sick leave law took effect on Sunday. Middleton’s legislation would delay full implementation of the law until July 1.
The Senate passed with the 29 needed to make the bill emergency legislation meaning it could go into effect immediately upon passage in the House and the governor’s signature.
The bill headed to the House, where even Middleton expressed concern that the House wouldn’t even take up the bill.
The House Economic Committee could vote on the bill any time after the hearing. Some members of the committee acknowledged that many lawmakers who passed the paid sick leave law out of committee last year are eager to dispose of this attempt at a delay sooner rather than later.
Middleton needed less than four minutes to state his case. The delay was necessary because many small businesses weren’t prepared, he said. The state, because of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s now-overriden veto, had not developed regulations to guide businesses of 15 or more employees on implementing the law and avoiding stiff penalties.
“Mine is just a sympathetic attempt to address a big concern in the business community, just to give them more time to get this right,” said Middleton. “And it is important to get it right.”
Middleton said business owners in his district “don’t understand this (law) and they hate it.”
And when he was done, the room fell silent.
“We don’t have any questions for the senator, do we,” said Davis looking around the room. “I didn’t think so, sir.”
Business groups also testified, calling on Davis to support the delay saying they needed more time.
“If we’re being blunt here, it sounds like everyone was expecting the veto would be sustained and no one would have to do anything,” said Davis. “Again, if we’re being blunt, for three years, whenever there’s been this kind of debate over these types of issues, no veto has been sustained. So, to put all your eggs in one basket and assume this is going to be the time that it happens, that’s deleterious.”
But those groups, including the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland Retail Association told Davis they had in fact alerted thousands of their members of the impending change in the law and urged preparedness.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
But Davis said businesses are to blame for squandering the time they should have spent preparing to comply with the law.
“If the horse chooses not to drink and he’s thirsty, that’s on the horse,” said Davis.