The Inspector General for DHHS will examine MD’s online health benefits exchange. Lawmakers vote on bills dealing with the minimum wage, the estate tax, marijuana decriminalization, & Baltimore’s needle exchange program. Plus: how the harsh winter is affecting MD’s farmers.
Federal Investigation Of MD Health Exchange: Maryland’s online health insurance exchange looks like it will soon be under scrutiny from the federal government. The probe will come from the Inspector General for the US Department of Health and Human Services. First District Congressman Andy Harris tells the Baltimore Sun that he requested the investigation, and that officials with the Department of Health and Human Services tell him it will take place. It’s the first investigation that has been publicly announced; last week, the Government Accountability Office announced that it would examine state-based health insurance exchanges, but didn’t specifically state that Maryland’s would be investigated. Our state’s exchange has been marred with technical glitches and higher than expected costs; a state-level review is underway, but won’t likely be complete until the middle of next year.
MD’s Minimum Wage: Maryland’s minimum wage is a step closer to going up. On Friday, the House of Delegates approved a bill that would raise the rate from its current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by the year 2017. Supporters of the measure say it would raise the standard of living for the poorest workers; opponents say the move would hurt small businesses and lead to layoffs. The measure moves to the State Senate now… and while the chamber is expected to pass a minimum wage bill, it won’t necessarily be the one that the House approved. Governor Martin O’Malley is calling on the Senate to restore a provision that the House struck from the bill, one that would index the minimum wage to inflation, so that it could continue to rise after 2017 without legislative action. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun and here from the Washington Post.
MD’s Estate Tax: The House of Delegates has also approved a bill that would change Maryland’s estate tax. Currently, estates in Maryland are exempt from the tax if they’re valued at $1-million or less. The House bill would gradually raise that threshold, by a million dollars a year, so that by the year 2018, an estate would have to be worth $4-million or greater to be subject to the tax. The bill would have the exemption match the federal government’s estate tax exemption in 2019; that exemption is currently about $5.3-million, and is set to rise with inflation in the years to come. The House passed the estate tax changes on a vote of 120 to 13; the State Senate will soon take up its own version of the measure. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun and here from the Annapolis Capital.
Election 2014: Taxes The estate tax was one of the taxes discussed on this morning’s edition of Inside Maryland Politics. WYPR's Fraser Smith and Christopher Connelly spoke about the arguments - and possible motivations - behind proposals to change Maryland's estate and corporate income taxes.
Decriminalizing Marijuana: The State Senate this week will consider legislation that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. On Friday, a State Senate committee voted 8 to 3 to approve a bill that would make it a civil offense to be caught with up to 10 grams of marijuana (or a little more than one-third of an ounce). Violators of the law would pay fines of $100. The legislation is expected to pass the Senate – where a similar bill was approved last year. But the measure faces an uncertain future in the House of Delegates, which killed last year’s decriminalization measure. The Baltimore Sun has more here.
Baltimore’s Needle Exchange: The House of Delegates on Friday approved an expansion of Baltimore’s needle exchange program, which allows intravenous drug users to swap used needles for clean ones. This takes used needles of the street, so they won’t be reused – thereby reducing the risks of transferring HIV and other blood-borne diseases. Under the house bill, the current “one for one” restriction will be lifted, so addicts won’t have to turn in an old syringe to for each new one they get. Baltimore officials have distributed nearly half a million syringes through the program over the last 20 years. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun.
National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day: Today is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in Maryland. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is among the organizations observing the event. Officials are urging women and girls from 13 to 64 years old to get tested for HIV. For information on HIV care services, call 410-767-5227.
Maryland Farmers Struggling Through The Winter: This winter is turning out to be one of the worst in memory for area farmers. WYPR’s John Lee reports on how the harsh winter has been a struggle, and what it might mean for the growing season to come.
Baltimore’s Affordable Housing Shortage: Many of Baltimore’s poorest families are facing a housing shortage. Many families find it difficult – if not impossible – to get affordable rental units because officials in the market are not building or renovating units. Baltimore Housing Commissioner Robert Embry tells the Baltimore Sun that affordable rental housing is only available when money comes from the federal government, which is reducing its participation in various housing programs.
BWI Sees Surge In International Travel: International travelers are flowing through BWI at an impressive clip. The number of passengers heading overseas grew 20-percent last year and has nearly doubled over the past five years. BWI posted its second-busiest year in 2013 for passenger traffic, 22-point-five-million, down 200-thousand from a record high the previous year. There’s more here from WJZ.
MD Air National Guard’s New Facility: The Maryland Air National Guard is celebrating the opening of a new facility. The state-of-the-art base in Middle River is home to the 175th Wing Headquarters. Major General James A. Adkins said the facility will be used to provide support to airmen who have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq during the last 13 years. WJZ has more.