Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
Maryland lawmakers this week closed the books on the 2014 General Assembly session. It was the last chance for outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley to work on priorities like raising the minimum wage. But much of the spotlight in Annapolis this year was on other issues, like decriminalizing marijuana possession. WAMU 88.5 reporter Matt Bush joins Kojo to explore what this year’s session means for the future of the Old Line State.
- Matt Bush Maryland Reporter, WAMU, 88.5
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni, editor-in-chief of "Roll Call," sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, tax season is upon us. We'll explore the new headaches that same-sex couples may face now that the IRS is recognizing their joint tax returns for the first time. But, first, another legislative season comes and goes in Annapolis. Maryland lawmakers wrapped up their 2014 season on Monday.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIIt was one of the outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley's last chances to enact the remaining big ticket items on his agenda, like raising the state's minimum wage. But as it worked up until the final buzzer, the general assembly was also consumed with decriminalizing marijuana and offering tax credits to high-profile television shows, like "House of Cards," filmed in the Baltimore area. Joining us to examine what Maryland's lawmakers did and didn't achieve this session is Matt Bush, who is a reporter for WAMU 88.5. Thanks so much for being here, Matt.
MR. MATT BUSHThank you very much, Christina.
BELLANTONISo what would you take away as the most important headline from this legislative session?
BUSHI think, when it comes through this, we -- you know, obviously the minimum wage was passed. The hike that's statewide now, that had already happened in the suburbs of D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and they will have a higher minimum wage than the rest of the state. And it seemed like that was going to happen once Montgomery and Prince George's counties approve their minimum wage hike that the state would follow suit in some sort of way. And Gov. O'Malley was going to get his sort of last legislative victory by getting that passed.
BUSHBut I think how the marijuana decriminalization and -- it came and went, I think that's the one that I think most people are going to take out of this because, a week ago at this time, it seemed like it was going to pass. And then on Friday, it seemed like it was dead. Then on Saturday, it miraculously came back. And then the governor himself sort of changed his thoughts on this bill and decided that he was going to sign it on the last day, announcing very quickly after it had been passed, that he was going to sign it.
BUSHSo I think, at the end, that'll be what's remembered most as Maryland's sort of following the rest of the country on this issue on marijuana, that their decriminalization and legalization will -- like everybody else. I think all 48 other states are going to watch what happens first in Colorado and Washington. And then they will take it up. But we'll hear about that next year.
BELLANTONIAnd this isn't changing national sentiment. In fact, you had Maryland's own Steny Hoyer, the minority whip in Congress, talking to reporters yesterday -- "Roll Call" actually reported about him saying he's changed his mind on this issue. He does support Gov. O'Malley in this.
BELLANTONISo -- and back to the minimum wage for a minute, this is $10.10 an hour, you know, far above the federal minimum wage, earning Gov. O'Malley a lot of praise from President Obama who's making this a big campaign issue this year as he's trying to fight for the congressional midterms. How much did politics play into this? Or was this just something that was sort of expected because it's already happening in some of the counties?
BUSHI -- again, when it started -- this was interesting -- the people who supported this said, you know, last year, they noted they had a 10.10 bill last year, and it never made it out of committee and was defeated soundly in the House Committee that it came up in. So it never even got to the full floor. And then a year later, they were able to pass something. So in general, just much like the country, this issue has just sort of come out of nowhere.
BUSHAnd when it started in Montgomery County and then last fall, when the Councilman Elrich first proposed it, it started taking off. Then Prince George's County joined in so that the two counties in Maryland, where the standard of living is much higher and the cost of living is much higher than the rest of the state -- cost of living, not standard -- cost of living is much higher than the rest of the state, it passed there. D.C. joined in. It was sort of a regional approach. And it is going to be higher.
BUSHBut once that went through, you had the feel that the rest of the state was going to hike theirs, too. You couldn't have an 11.50 minimum wage in 2017 in two counties and still have it 7.25 right across the borders in those other counties, like Howard and Frederick Counties. So it was going to come. And once Gov. O'Malley said he wanted to have it done, it was going to happen. It's much different -- not much different, but is different in a lot of areas than what he initially proposed. It's on a longer timeframe now. It won't be until 2018 until they get to 10.10.
BUSHTip workers are not in the bill, and there's no indexing the wage every year after this particular timeframe ends. When it gets to 10.10 in 2018, the initial proposal was to index it every year to inflation, but that was taking out -- it would have given workers pretty much a yearly increase. And there's all those little cutouts that are also in it, too. Six Flags in Prince George's county will not have to pay this wage. So they were cut out of the bill. And there are all sorts of other things.
BUSHBut it was a victory for the governor. And he was sort of taking his victory lap this year anyway after all the things that had been passed in the prior seven years of his administration. This was sort of his victory lap. And he ended up getting the victory he wanted. But it took some lifting 'cause, in the Senate, they were not going to take what he wanted. They went through and took a lot out of what the governor was seeking. But he ended up getting the win in the end.
BELLANTONIAnd this patchwork that you describe, where it's different amounts in different places, or phased in at different times, or doesn't apply at certain companies, is something that the federal level the president's been talking about, well, if you have that and the state next door has a much lower one, that affects competitiveness. And is this really a matter of states taking things into their own hands?
BUSHI think so because, particularly Maryland -- also, let's look at the politics of this. You're talking about President Obama. Well, Gov. O'Malley rumored that he would like to be the person who steps into the White House after President Obama leaves in a couple of years. So obviously this was something that -- say that the governor decides he's going to run for president, he's certainly going to be talking about (unintelligible) and will sound very good in the Democratic primaries saying -- this is a big issue to Democratic voters -- I was able to raise the wage in my state.
BUSHHaving said that, also at the same time, which you brought up, the states are different. Virginia and Pennsylvania, which share the most border space with Maryland, their wages stayed the same. Delaware's went up slightly but not as much as what Maryland's will go up and all that. So there's that issue, too. And that'll be something that will play out.
BUSHA lot of the supporters of this will immediately say, you know -- and I remember this locally when they started pushing this -- that a lot of the people that they're talking about -- there's a lot of restaurants that pay very low -- they don't anticipate a lot of restaurants are going to go across from Montgomery County into Fairfax County and locate over there just because they'll have to pay a higher wage. They may just close instead. But they don't see the competitiveness as much of an issue.
BUSHBut out on the Eastern Shore. It might be a little different for Maryland 'cause there's a -- that's a very much obviously tourism and hospitality and all that sort of thing. That could affect them a little more out there, having to pay the higher wages opposed to Delaware and since you have all those beach resorts town pretty much competing with each other, and they're right next to each other.
BELLANTONIYeah. Now, turning to the decriminalization effort, you can join our conversation and tell us how you feel about the idea of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in Maryland. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can, of course, talk to us on our Facebook page as well.
BELLANTONIAgain, I'm Christina Bellantoni of "Roll Call," sitting in for Kojo, and we're talking with Matt Bush, a reporter from WAMU 88.5 here in Washington. Now, talk about the decriminalization. This was an evolution for Gov. O'Malley of sorts, certainly coming from Baltimore as a tough-on-crime mayor.
BUSHAbsolutely. Absolutely. And it wasn't just decriminalization. You had three different marijuana things that came out. There was the people who wanted to go all the way and legalize it this year. There was the decriminalization bill. And then there was also one that expanded medical marijuana in the state, the -- and that which also passed on the final day as well. So, yeah, as far as the decriminalization went -- even the legalization supporters said, maybe this isn't their year, but they at least wanted people to talk about it.
BUSHThey had a few hearings, you know, in committee and all that sort of stuff. There's more talk about it. But, really, it came down to everybody wants to see what happens in Colorado and Washington first since it just happened there. So they want to see what happens there. As far as decriminalization, that seemed to pick up the most speed, is that there was enough support for it, and it got through the Senate pretty quickly with bipartisan support, both sides saying, look, at this point, it's very costly to end up having to prosecute these cases. It's very costly to have to incarcerate people over this.
BUSHAnd also, the unfair -- the arrest rates, even though, you know, white people and black people use marijuana at the same rates pretty much, you know, black people are arrested at a far higher rate for this. So there was this very unfair enforcement of these laws. And all of those played into the support, and that went through the Senate very easily. Once it got to the House, it had to go through the Judiciary Committee. And that's where it looked like it was going to stop.
BUSHWhen the head of the Judiciary Committee, Joe Vallario, long-time delegate for Prince George's County, decided instead he wanted a task force to study decriminalization. He's been against many of the marijuana bills that have come through and was ready, got it through the initial okay to do a task force instead, but the amount of delegates that supported this, last Friday, said, we have enough votes to change this on the House floor.
BUSHAnd then the Chairman Vallario sot of backpedaled and went back into his committee and allowed them to change the bill in the committee and sending it back on the House floor 'cause, as they say, leadership does not like to get embarrassed on the floor. And he would have lost on the floor because there were enough people to change the bill and -- which they eventually did, but they did it in a way that maybe didn't show him up on the House floor. And it passed, and now it's a -- it will be a civil fine to have 10 grams or less of marijuana in Maryland. It really came through.
BUSHAnd then, last week, with what the governor was saying at the beginning of the session -- I believe the phrase he used was, I'm not inclined to support this. (unintelligible) lot of wiggle room in that statement. And by the time it signed, he said he would.
BUSHAnd on Monday, just minutes after it passed both chambers officially, and said he would, then his basic thought was, this is where society is on this issue now. People don't care about it pretty much as the way they did, and this is the way that society's going. And he supported it. And, again, if, in two years, he's out on a Democratic primary speaking to people nationally to national Democratic voters, they're going to like that an awful lot.
BELLANTONIAnd he can say that he was a leader on the issue, even if he wavered at the beginning...
BELLANTONI...'cause people don't always pay attention to legislative...
BELLANTONI...politics, except when they're following your reporting, which, of course, they should be every moment, every step of the way.
BUSHThank you. Thank you.
BELLANTONINow, with this issue, what is the timeline of when this is going to happen? He has not signed it yet. They have time to, like, adjust any vetoes he does for the session, right?
BUSHHe is not -- he has never vetoed a bill in his eight years. He might actually this year. It's a totally different bill that deals with a wind farm project on the Eastern Shore. He wouldn't give us a straight answer on that. That's a whole other issue. But as far as this, he's going to sign it. Even if he didn't and say he just decided he wasn't going to sign it but not veto it, it would have still gone in at the end of May when he has to sign all the bills and all that sort of stuff.
BUSHSo this is going to go in. It'll be later this year when this comes through. I have to go back and check the exact timeline. But usually the bills either start in July or October, and I'm going to guess now -- I shouldn't guess -- but it'll be at some point later this year when this finally goes into effect.
BELLANTONISo we have a question from Alex in Riverdale Park, Md. who wants to ask about the decriminalization measure. Hi, Alex. Thanks for joining us.
ALEXThanks for taking my call. My question is, is exactly where are these individuals that have 10 grams or less of marijuana getting it from? Are they getting it from illegal drug dealers? Or are they growing it themselves? And, also, has the state of Maryland made plans for the implementation of THC testing of individuals that have smoked this 10 grams of marijuana and then get out in their car and have an accident and create havoc for other drivers?
BELLANTONIHmm. Thanks for the question, Alex. Are there distinctions, Matt Bush?
BUSHThe distinctions, as far as people might drive on it, it'll be treated just the same way you would treat a drunk driver. Obviously the testing on that, that's a good question. I don't actually know what the testing on that would be. I'm sure they have -- though I'm sure the police have that, though, so it'll still be treated just like it would alcohol. If you are high or -- and drive, it'll be just as illegal as it would be if you were drunk and driving.
BUSHAnd as far as the 10 grams thing, this is something we were talking about -- the reporters downstairs, sort of a joking manner, but are they going to carry scales around to measure this? This doesn't say, oh, well, you have 10 grams. Do you have 10.1 grams? Does that mean that you're in trouble and all that sort of thing? Something to look at, and we don't necessarily know that.
BUSHAnd as far as where the people are getting it from and all that sort of stuff, that's still illegal. It's still illegal to sell. It's still illegal and all that, just as all this is just to deal with possession of marijuana being that that is not as heavy a crime to many lawmakers and to most residents now. The polls show that people supported this by a pretty high margin in Maryland, and lawmakers are just following along with the public sentiment on this.
BELLANTONIAnd obviously it could also be an argument for reforming prisons, which are crowded in most places.
BELLANTONII imagine it's the same case in Maryland.
BUSHYes, absolutely. And, like I said, in the coming years, we will -- and certainly with next year and with a new governor, and a lot of this will be talked about in the primary election this year. Legalization will be discussed a lot, and we'll see bills that will legalize next year. We'll see how far they go.
BELLANTONISo one of the reasons a lot of times you'll see "House of Cards" stars hanging out around Washington is 'cause they're filming in Baltimore, not in Los Angeles where a lot of shows film. You know, "West Wing" was primarily filmed there. What did the legislature try to do for shows like that and "Veep," and what ended up happening?
BUSHWe became part of the show, it felt like. That's pretty much what happened. So "House of Cards" is filmed mostly in Maryland, even though it's set in D.C., it's mostly in Maryland, filmed mostly in a soundstage out in Harford County. And then there's "Veep," which the new season is premiering soon as well. That's filmed mostly at a facility in Howard County.
BUSHSo there are tax credits that these companies get for filming here so they don't pay as much in state taxes for all that they do. The basic feeling is by offering this they are creating a lot of other jobs through catering, through all the other things that might go into the production and all that sort of stuff. So the state wants to really brand itself after falling behind, really in between when "The Wire" wrapped filming and when these sort of shows started coming up, you know, "Veep" and "House of Cards".
BUSHThere was this real lull in filming in Maryland so they decided the best way to get people to come back to do this is to offer them these tax credits. And right before the session started and right before the second season of "House of Cards" started, Governor O'Malley and House Speaker Bush received letters from the producers of Netflix -- or from the producers of the show, "House of Cards," saying, "If you don't increase these credits, we're going to leave."
BUSHAnd they delayed filming the third season until the legislature acted on it. Now, there still are tax credits that are available, but on the last night, in this sort of very dramatic fashion that would have fit right into the show, they did not approve this. And the best part about it for reporters who get to cover this stuff all the time is we got to watch the bill die because they both ran -- the Senate and House passed differing versions. So what they do is they create a conference committee of three lawmakers from each branch, get together and try to hash out their differences.
BELLANTONIBehind closed doors, of course.
BUSHUsually behind closed doors, but because this was the last night and it was only an hour left, they couldn't hide from us, as they might typically. So they held it in the back of the House lounge, which is where the reporters are allowed to be. And all of us just sort of gathered around the six of them and sat and watched what it's like when these conference committees happen, how they give and take.
BUSHThe "Will you support this? Why don't we take this out?" happens. And just watching it -- and the story that ran yesterday morning for us, had the soundbite of it. Just listening to this and how at the end of it they just, you know, there was some shouting. There was just sort of like, you know, it just died right there in front of us. And then 15 minutes left -- they have to adjourn at midnight -- and that's it.
BUSHSo there are still -- there's still $15 million in the pot for tax credits, but the people who wanted more are worried that "Veep" and "House of Cards" will take almost all of that. And the state, if it wants to bring somebody else in, isn't going to be able to offer anybody anything else.
BELLANTONIAnd other states offer lots of incentives. Virginia definitely does a lot of incentives for people who want to film movies there.
BUSHAnd New York does, too. And I think that's where they're very worried with what New York offers, if that's where these places would go. Mike Miller, the Senate president, yesterday said he's not at all worried. Interesting that of the three, being that the speaker and the governor got letters, Mike Miller did not. And yesterday he basically told the producer of the show, said well, he knows politics (unintelligible) knows it very well, so he knows how things get done and the Senate president was not worried that they're going to leave.
BELLANTONIWell, tell us what you think about "House of Cards" being in Maryland, like Parker did, from West Virginia, sent an email to email@example.com saying, "I have worked on 'House of Cards' for the past two years. If the show leaves a lot of people will lose jobs. Local businesses will lose money and the state will lose money." So very interesting discussion there. And now we're going to turn to Martin O'Malley's legacy.
BELLANTONIYou've mentioned he's term limited. This is the end of his two terms. He's very openly considering a presidential bid, with, of course, Hillary Clinton being the big question. So let us know, if you're listening today, how would you describe Martin O'Malley's legacy? What is he leaving behind? And what is your opinion of Martin O'Malley? Give us a call at 800-433-8850.
BELLANTONISend a tweet to @kojoshow or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We have an email from David, in Howard County, who says, "What is Martin O'Malley thinking? Does anybody actually take the idea of him running for president seriously? Would Hillary Clinton put him on her ticket? No way could this guy be president, no matter how much he wants to talk about legalizing same-sex marriage," which was a big initiative last year, "or raising the minimum wage.
BELLANTONI"I watched his convention speech in 2012. For a guy who plays in a band he was boring." That's David, in Howard County's opinion. In addition to same-sex marriage, which the governor signed, he also put in some pretty strict gun-control measures. How do you view his national prospects and David's thoughts?
BUSHWell, first the convention speech, David's not the only person who thought that about the governor's convention speech. A lot was build up into it. This was really a chance for him to introduce himself to national Democratic voters and he did not get high marks for his speech. He has a lot that would play well to Democratic voters. Obviously, he was -- Maryland was the first state where voters upheld same-sex marriage, after it passed the legislature.
BUSHVery tough new gun laws that they were able to put in and various amounts of other things, you know, wind energy. He was very strong in pushing for wind energy. There isn't any, you know, fracking licenses have been pretty much delayed in Maryland. There's only a very small part of the state that would have fracking in any way. So these things, you know, the minimum wage hike would obviously be very good. He's been very supportive of very many issues that would play well to Democrats. He's gotten a lot of them passed.
BUSHI think he took the biggest hit, though, during this year. And it had nothing to do with what happened in the session, with the state's healthcare exchange, as through the Affordable Care Act. The fact that it bombed so badly, and the fact that they are now going to use Connecticut instead of -- to do this. The Connecticut governor, Governor Malloy, also another Democrat, has passed many of the same things that have been passed here in Maryland.
BUSHIt's almost to the point now where his healthcare exchange works, so voters could sit and compare the two and say, "Well, you both got it passed, but, Governor Malloy, your healthcare exchange worked. Governor O'Malley, yours was not good at all." And I think that really took the biggest hit because Democrats really obviously support this law. They've been behind it the whole time.
BUSHAnd if there's a Democratic state like Maryland, with a governor that has been on the front of these issues and all of a sudden every one of his opponents would be able to remind him, "Well, your healthcare exchange flopped, badly." And that, "You had to borrow another Democratic state." I think that really, really, really hurt his chances at a national bid.
BELLANTONIWell, we will be keeping an eye on that and, obviously, the upcoming governor's race this fall. And, of course, all of Matt Bush's terrific reporting for WAMU 88.5. Thanks very much for being here with us, Matt. We're going to be back after a short break. And we're going to be talking about tax issues for same-sex couples ahead of the April 15th deadline. I'm Christina Bellantoni, sitting in for Kojo.
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