O'Malley, Duncan unite to support vetoed bills

Call for override on wage, health care legislation

September 06, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG - United, at least temporarily, by a belief that the governor is ignoring the needs of working families, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan urged the General Assembly yesterday to override vetoed legislation raising wages and mandating that large companies provide health care benefits.

O'Malley and Duncan, the two leading Democratic candidates for governor - although neither has declared his candidacy - put aside differences to embrace a left-of-center agenda during Labor Day comments marking the release of a report by a liberal advocacy group. The study, done for Progressive Maryland, concludes that working-class families are losing ground in the state, with the poverty rate climbing for two consecutive years.

The two held a joint news conference before marching in a parade thick with politicians in this Montgomery County community, and they sharply accused Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of putting corporate interests ahead of families by vetoing wage and health care legislation this year.

Both officials called for the Assembly to override Ehrlich's vetoes of bills that would increase the state minimum wage a dollar to $6.15 an hour and compel any company with at least 10,000 employees - effectively just Wal-Mart - to pay 8 percent of its payroll in health care benefits or pay the difference to the state as a tax.

Ehrlich, a Republican, has said that the legislation would drive up the cost of doing business in Maryland and worsen what he says had been the state's reputation as a place unfriendly to commerce.

`Living wage'

Duncan and O'Malley also asked General Assembly leaders to support legislation that would establish a statewide "living wage" in Maryland for employees who work under state contracts.

Such a wage requirement, which is in place in Baltimore and other cities and passed the Assembly in 2004 but was vetoed, is designed to ensure that hourly workers make enough money to pay for rent, food, transportation and other daily requirements.

O'Malley claimed that Ehrlich has been an ineffective governor during three years in office and has been unable to work with lawmakers on solutions that he said most of the state wants.

"The people of Maryland should not have to override their governor's veto every time they want to make progress for themselves and their family," the mayor said. "The governor of Maryland is actually out of step with the desires of Marylanders."

Duncan said a minimum-wage increase - which would apply to 55,000 workers - and a health care mandate for large employers could be enacted without damage to the state's relatively healthy economy.

"The only time I hear Maryland is bad for business is from the governor," Duncan said.

Responding to O'Malley's and Duncan's comments, Greg Massoni, Ehrlich's spokesman, said: "We'll listen to what one of them has to say after the Democratic [gubernatorial] primary next year."

Lines being drawn

By embracing the legislative agenda of labor unions and liberal groups, Duncan and O'Malley are drawing a clear divide between themselves and Ehrlich.

Some members of the General Assembly have wondered whether lawmakers have swung too far to the left in passing the Wal-Mart health care legislation - which shows signs of becoming a national model.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland said, "It's not surprising to me that these two contenders for the Democratic nomination are trying to fight each other to the left.

"This gives you a snapshot of the potential future, of what Maryland would look like under these guys' leadership," O'Donnell said. "They are running so far to the left it makes mainstream Main Street ill."

Business fears

Small-business owners are fearful, he said, that their companies would be targeted next if the Wal-Mart bill becomes law.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that polls in even conservative-leaning areas show that three of four voters believe Wal-Mart should pay a fair share of health care costs and not burden the public health care system by forcing employees without coverage to seek assistance.

Miller predicted that the General Assembly would override both the Wal-Mart and minimum wage vetoes after it reconvenes in January. Doing so, he said, would be worth the "Herculean effort" he predicted it would take.

Overrides require a three-fifths vote of each chamber.

"These are very difficult times," Miller said. "People are choosing between gas to get to work and putting food on the table."

Critics, notably Republican legislative leaders, have said the bills send a wrong message about Maryland's business climate.

Veto override fights would provide Ehrlich with an opportunity to portray the Assembly - and O'Malley and Duncan, by extension - as too liberal.

But the two Democratic officials wield influence with their respective legislative delegations in Baltimore and Montgomery County, and their support could help ensure that the measures become law.

Miller said the overrides would happen without the support of Duncan and O'Malley, but he said "it's very good politics" for the Democratic candidates to embrace the issues.

"It's very positive that they are working together," he said.

Sun staff writer Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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