The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two votes will test how progressive the Maryland General Assembly has become

The Maryland State Senate plans to debate a first-in-the-nation statewide ban on polystyrene foam food-service products on Wednesday.
The Maryland State Senate plans to debate a first-in-the-nation statewide ban on polystyrene foam food-service products on Wednesday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Maryland’s already liberal General Assembly moved further to the left after the November elections, fueled by a wave of new candidates whose campaigns were energized by resistance to President Trump.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are expected to cast initial votes on bills that illustrate the strength of the progressive faction in each chamber.

The House of Delegates will vote on a $15 minimum-wage proposal that has failed to advance in recent years but is expected to become law this session, albeit in watered-down form.

In the Senate, a first-in-the-nation statewide ban on polystyrene foam food-service products — often referred to as Styrofoam packaging in restaurants and grocery stores — is coming to the floor.

Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

Senior legislative leaders, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), have embraced both bills, noting their popularity with constituents and tacitly acknowledging the growing strength of the progressive wing of Maryland’s majority party.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he will “review and consider any legislation that reaches his desk” but noted that Hogan is concerned that a $15 minimum wage “could result in job losses.”

The “Fight for $15” minimum-wage campaign has evolved from a fringe proposal to a mainstream Democratic economic agenda item across the country, embraced by most of the growing field of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

But legislation to require a $15 minimum wage failed to make it out of committee in Maryland each of the past two years, with business leaders saying it would hurt small businesses and the economy.

Some of the state’s most liberal counties, including Montgomery, have already adopted a $15 wage, however. And several lawmakers who ran on minimum-wage platforms in 2018 were elected, adding to the pressure this year to pass the bill, which has 75 co-sponsors in the 141-member House.

Freshman Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), who campaigned on the issue in her Takoma Park district, challenged members of the House Economic Matters Committee on Monday over amendments that would exclude certain groups of workers from a $15 wage, delay the wage increase timeline and eliminate a requirement to index future wage increases to cost-of-living increases.

But Charkoudian’s objections did not stop the amendments, meaning that a weaker version of the bill will now be considered by the House.

“I think it’s really important to move the minimum wage forward, but it could’ve been much stronger,” Charkoudian said. “Ultimately, we didn’t protect all workers in the state.”

Still, supporters said, a $15 minimum wage that excludes some and takes longer to implement is better than no wage increase at all.

“Anything that moves us in the right direction is positive,” said Del. Jared Solomon, another freshman Democrat from Montgomery County who made a wage increase central to his campaign platform.

The wage proposal faces a tougher battle in the Senate, where more amendments could be added, advocates say.

Lawmakers on the left are also pushing legislation calling for stronger renewable-energy standards, the creation of an affordability board to regulate prescription drug prices and bans on plastic firearms, with the latter two bills backed by Busch and Miller.

Legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21 has advanced in the legislature, while the fate of some other progressive proposals — including to allow clean-needle injection sites and to let doctors prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients — is unclear.

Banning plastic foam became a Democratic Party priority this year after failing to advance in the General Assembly the past two years.

During that time, bans have gone into effect in many of the state’s largest jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“It’s time to ban,” Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) told her colleagues during an initial discussion of the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday.

She fended off criticism from Republican senators, saying that while studies have shown a public health benefit from banning foam plates, cups and other food containers, the bill is being pushed because of the effect it would have on the environment.

“It’s a small percentage of our landfill based on weight, but it’s a large percentage based on litter and on volume,” Kagan said. “It does not biodegrade, it cannot be recycled. It absorbs 10 times more toxic chemicals than other products.”

Meet the freshman class of the Maryland General Assembly

Minimum wage, health care and education expected to dominate the Maryland General Assembly

$15 minimum wage bill advances to Md. House floor vote

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