Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley used his final State of the State speech on Thursday to urge lawmakers to raise the state's minimum wage and to assure residents his administration would keep working on the troubled health care exchange.
The term-limited governor, making his eighth annual speech to the Maryland General Assembly, said raising minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016 would help the economy.
“When every worker earns more money, every business has more customers, and -- by the way -- every taxpayer is relieved from funding poverty programs for workers who are being paid poverty-level wages,” the Democrat said.
The governor also wants to index the minimum wage in 2017 to keep up with inflation. His proposal would increase the cash wage rate that business would pay to tipped workers from 50 percent to 70 percent of the state's minimum.
Republicans condemned the idea as a job killer.
“If I, as a business owner, only have so much to allocate to payroll and I wish to remain in business, two things are going to happen: fewer people will be on my payroll and I will look long and hard at automating what parts of my operation I can, perhaps putting even more less-skilled employees out of work,” said Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick.
Lawmakers will be wrestling with how to raise the minimum wage in a diverse state. Montgomery and Prince George's counties in the suburbs of the nation's capital already have decided to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2017. Lawmakers have said rural parts of the state will have a hard time raising the wage that much. Some say different regions will need to have flexibility.
Del. Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery, said he thinks the minimum wage bill has strong prospects this year, though he expects a vigorous debate over the proper amount. He supports a statewide increase that would leave room for counties to further increase their local minimum wages.
O'Malley, who is considering a run for the White House in 2016, used the 31-minute speech to reflect on tough budget choices he has made throughout his tenure during the Great Recession, while still managing to invest in high levels of education funding and maintaining the state's triple-A bond rating.
But Republican critics challenged O'Malley's estimates of budget cuts he has made in the last seven years.
“Oh, they're totally false,” said Del, Nic Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, who said the speech seemed to serve O'Malley's national political aspirations.
The governor also highlighted some of his main accomplishments on social issues during his tenure. They included legalizing same-sex marriage, repealing capital punishment and allowing in-state tuition rates for immigrants who are in the country illegally, if they have paid state income taxes.
However, the governor noted ongoing problems with the health care exchange. The troubled rollout has been frustrating for state officials who aspired to make Maryland a model for health care reform implementation. O'Malley described the glitch-ridden exchange website as “a source of great frustration, especially for those Marylanders who were looking forward to obtaining health care for the very first time in their lives.”
“My administration and I have not succeeded at every first try, but we have never ever given up,” O'Malley said. “We learn from both success and failure. Sometimes failure kicks the deepest spur, so we will continue to improve. We will continue to help those seeking health care and we will continue to enroll as many Marylanders as possible by the March 31 deadline.”
Republicans have been hammering the administration on the health exchange problems.
“Additional information is coming out about the colossal failure of this initiative every day,” Brinkley said.
O'Malley also called attention to reduced crime rates in Maryland. He said violent crime is now at a 30-year low, and fewer people are now incarcerated in Maryland's prisons now than at any time since 1994. However, the governor avoided mention of a variety of steps he is taking this year to increase prison security in the aftermath of the federal indictments of 44 people last year in a contraband conspiracy involving correctional officers and gang members at the Baltimore City Detention Center. The indictments included charges against 27 correctional officers.
O'Malley is pushing for changes to the Correctional Officers' Bill of Rights to enable internal investigators to bring charges against a correctional officer, if a criminal investigation takes longer than 90 days. He also has put money in the budget security cameras and for technology to make contraband cellphones useless in the Baltimore facility and to boost the internal investigations unit by 12 new positions. The governor has included $4 million in the budget to hire 100 more correctional officers.