ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Martin O’Malley welcomed members of the House and Senate back to the State House on Wednesday to kick off the 434th legislative session, which will bring issues including minimum wage increase, the so-called “rain tax” and the legalization of marijuana to the forefront.

O’Malley called on lawmakers to engage in a bipartisan effort to make Maryland the most recent of the states — currently 20, plus Washington, D.C. — to raise its minimum wage above the federal level.

“I think whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, we all agree that when people work hard and play by the rules they should be able to move their families forward,” O’Malley told members of the House of Delegates.

The state’s current minimum wage stands equal with the federal level at $7.25 an hour, but state Democrats are working to raise it, despite Republican opposition.

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. said the state is “going to raise the minimum wage” to help people who are struggling financially, but it will also try to find ways to give breaks to business owners.

Republicans aren’t so optimistic about the benefits of the legislation.

“This policy decision would put Maryland employers at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware,” said Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick. “If it’s to be changed, it should be done at the federal level so you don’t have that jurisdiction differential.”

Sen. Stephen Hershey Jr., R-Queen Anne’s, also said that raising the minimum wage would “lead to job loss” and “bring an undue burden to the operational cost of businesses.”

In response to Republican opposition, Miller said that the current wage doesn’t cut it in areas where the cost of living is high, such as Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties.

“The ‘haves’ don’t understand how tough the ‘have-nots’ have it at this point in time,” Miller said. “They don’t understand the cost of tennis shoes, for example.”

The stormwater management fee, passed by the General Assembly in 2013 to help fund cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, is likely to be among the most highly contested issues of the session. A repeal of the law sits atop the agenda of Republicans, who have nicknamed the fee the “rain tax.”

Hershey, one opponent of the tax, called the fee “another unnecessary burden” for Maryland businesses.

“We really need to focus on bringing businesses into Maryland and not continuing to put regulations that are making Maryland unattractive,” Hershey said.

Brinkley added that he’s not not optimistic for an “outright repeal,” but still wants to see some type of change to the legislation.

Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, House Environmental Matters Committee chairwoman, will sit once again at the forefront of lawmakers fighting to keep the stormwater law in tact.

“We have … 4 years of incredible expansion of protections for our local stream and waterways and the bay, and we want to keep those in place,” McIntosh said.

While Miller is a proponent of the tax, he still agrees that it is not yet perfect.

“It’s designed to keep the dog feces and the fertilizer on lawns out of our creeks and streams and tributaries which feed into the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “It needs to be modified. The effect on non-profits is too onerous, but it’s needed.”

The issues of marijuana legalization or decriminalization is also expected to return to the table this session after lawmakers passed a bill last year legalizing the drug for medical purposes.

Gubernatorial candidate Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery County, is running on the platform of legalizing, regulating and taxing the distribution of marijuana and using the revenue toward early childhood education. Mizeur said she hopes lawmakers will make advancements toward legalization this session, but realizes it may take time.

“At a minimum, we need to walk out of this session with a decriminalization proposal to make sure that people stop going to jail for small amounts of possession,” Mizeur said.

Mizeur pointed to what she said have been “shifting” views on the issue recently, including Miller coming out in support of legalization last week.

But during Wednesday’s “Annapolis Summit” radio broadcast of the Marc Steiner show, O’Malley said he is against legalization or decriminalization of marijuana.

“I’m not much in favor of it … because I’ve seen what drug addiction has done to the people of our state,” O’Malley said during the show. “I also know that this drug, and it’s use — it’s abuse — can be a gateway to even more harmful behavior.”

Sarah Tincher and Megan Brockett

Capital News Service