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The “State Of The City,” MD’s Minimum Wage, Marijuana, Storm Water Fees, & A Winter Storm Watch

P. Kenneth Burns

We examine Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “State of the City” speech, plus: MD’s minimum wage, speed cameras, marijuana decriminalization, a contract vote for a longshoremen’s union, the costs of MD’s health insurance exchange, storm water fees, and the Winter Storm Watch set for Wednesday night through Thursday night.

Potential For A Winter Storm Later This Week: The National Weather Service has put most of Maryland under a Winter Storm Watch from Wednesday evening through Thursday evening. Forecasters say there’s a possibility of five or more inches of snow and sleet with this storm.

Crime Takes Center Stage in State of the City Address: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake delivered her fourth State of the City address yesterday. Central to that speech was violent crime – and efforts to reduce it. The Mayor says she will continue to implement a consultant’s report for the police department that was released last year. That includes the implementation of a program called “Operation Ceasefire.” WYPR’s Kenneth Burns reports. The Mayor also announced plans to create year-round “Youth Connection Centers”, where juveniles would be taken if caught violating the city’s curfew; the first center is expected to open by the summer, and there’s more here from the Baltimore Sun. And the Mayor is also proposing the expansion of a tax credit, aimed at encouraging the development of new apartment buildings around the city; the Sun has more on this proposal here. And a programming note: Mayor Rawlings-Blake will be Dan Rodricks’ guest on the noon hour of Midday.

Speed Camera Investigation Continues: The Baltimore City Council is demanding hundreds of pages of documents about the city’s troubled speed and red-light camera system. The investigation follows the release of an audit indicating that the cameras’ error rate was far higher than officials had claimed. City Councilman James Kraft chairs the committee that’s leading the investigation; yesterday, he asked Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s administration to voluntarily turn over the documents – but said that the council could subpoena them if the administration doesn’t comply. Mayor Rawlings-Blake tells the Baltimore Sun that officials will get the council “as much information as [they] possibly can.”

Minimum Wage Debate Begins In The General Assembly: Lawmakers in Annapolis will begin hearings today on a proposal to raise Maryland’s minimum wage. Governor Martin O’Malley’s is backing a bill that would up the rate from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, and then index it to the cost of living, to ensure future increases. It’ll get a hearing in a House of Delegates committee today; a State Senate committee will examine the bill later this week. Supporters of a higher minimum wage say nearly half a million Marylanders would benefit, and claim the move would also lead to more consumer spending. Opponents of the plan tell the Washington Post it would lead to thousands of job losses and make Maryland businesses less competitive. O’Malley was planning to testify in favor of the bill today, but the Baltimore Sun reports that Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown will stand in for him, as the governor attends the funeral of a Baltimore philanthropist.

Brown “Welcomes” Mizeur’s Marijuana Decriminalization Bill: Lieutenant Governor Brown has sent an open letter to Montgomery County Delegate Heather Mizeur, saying supports the decriminalization of marijuana in Maryland… and that the decriminalization bill she introduced in the General Assembly is a “welcome part of the debate.” The Baltimore Sun reports that Brown went on to call current marijuana laws “distressing,” “ineffective,” and “costly.” Brown and Mizeur are both running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Mizuer is calling on Brown to testify in favor of her marijuana decriminalization legislation at the bill hearing; Brown has not said whether he intends to do so. Also in Democratic governor’s race is state Attorney General Doug Gansler; Mizeur has asked him to testify in favor of the legislation as well, but the Washington Post reports that, so far, he hasn’t responded.

Longshoremen Vote On Contract Today: Members of a Baltimore longshoremen’s union are going to vote on a new contract today; in fact, the voting has already begun. The contract covers forest products, cars, and other break bulk cargo. The group that represents employers at the port call the deal their “best and final offer,” and are urging of Local 333 to approve it. Union officials have called on members to vote against it. Voting concludes tonight at 7. The Baltimore Sun has more.

Health Exchange Costs More Than Expected: The problems with Maryland's troubled online health insurance exchange are costing Marylanders money. State Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein told lawmakers yesterday that about $22 million have been spent so far this year to fix the website’s bugs, hire people to staff call centers and manually process paperwork.* Sharfstein said he's exploring all options to fix the exchange – including switching to the federal website. However, he says that wouldn’t happen until after this year's open enrollment period is over at the end of March – if it does happen at all. Secretary Sharfstein says the website has seen improvements… but adds that glitches remain and notes that enrollment numbers in private insurance plans are lower than projected. There’s more here from the Annapolis Capital and here from the Baltimore Sun.

Who Should Pay Stormwater Fees? It was 2012 when the General Assembly passed a law requiring many Marylanders to pay “stormwater remediation fees” – decried as “the rain tax” by their critics. The controversial fees began to kick in last year. This year, the debate has begun to shift to how to broaden the base of property owners who pay them. WYPR’s Karen Hosler has the story.

*This post has been corrected from what was originally published.