Management & Labor

Maryland Lawmakers Raise Minimum Wage, Decriminalize Marijuana

by | April 8, 2014

By Erin Cox, Michael Dresser and Timothy B. Wheeler

By the time confetti fell in Annapolis on Monday night, state lawmakers had loosened marijuana laws, made Maryland the second state in the country to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and whittled their way through more than 2,600 bills considered during the 434th legislative session.

The two major votes on marijuana decriminalization and increasing the minimum wage closed out the annual 90-day frenzy of lawmaking. Measures to create stricter penalties for drivers who cause fatal accidents while texting and to revamp Maryland's stalled medical marijuana program also received final passage.

Since January, legislators have passed a wide spectrum of other bills, including protecting transgender people from discrimination and allowing hunting in Western Maryland on Sundays.

Along the way, they were caught up in a dispute over how many millions to set aside to subsidize the film industry — first threatened by the production company behind the Netflix thriller "House of Cards," then wooed in person by none other than the series' chief star, actor Kevin Spacey.

Lawmakers could not agree on whether to give the state more tools do deal with future threats. The failure to compromise means $3.5 million will be trimmed from the $18.5 million the General Assembly had set aside for the film industry.

Senators and delegates failed to resolve the thorniest issue of the session: revamping Maryland's system for setting bail in the aftermath of a court ruling that deemed the current process unconstitutional. They could not agree on a long-term solution, approving only a stopgap plan to give the judiciary $10 million to hire some of the lawyers the court said are needed to represent the poor at the earliest bail hearings.

It is not clear whether that solution will satisfy the court. Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would work with willing jurisdictions to develop a computerized tool to decide who gets bail and who has to wait to see a judge.

The end of the session leaves the state's 188 lawmakers — and O'Malley — with time to turn their attention to their coming political pursuits and raising campaign cash.

O'Malley capped the eighth and final session of his tenure by persuading lawmakers to approve gradual increases to the state's minimum wage, hiking it from the current federal level of $7.25 to $10.10 by July 2018.

"We were able to raise the minimum wage for hardworking Marylanders throughout our state who, playing by the rules and working hard, should not have to raise their children in poverty," O'Malley said.

Maryland became the second state, after Connecticut, to pass a hike this year to $10.10, the mark set by Democrats across the country seeking to address income inequality.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have wages set above the federal rate. President Barack Obama has sought a hike at the national level. In a statement Monday, Obama praised O'Malley and state lawmakers, and said the move should prompt Congress to act.

"The Maryland legislature did the right thing for its workers today," Obama said. "Maryland's important action is a reminder that many states, cities and counties — as well as a majority of the American people — are way ahead of Washington on this crucial issue."

Once the Maryland measure is signed by O'Malley, the first of five wage increases in Maryland will take effect on Jan. 1, 2015, raising the minimum pay to $8 an hour. Six months later, it will go up by another 25 cents.

"This is huge," said Matthew Hanson, campaign director of the grass-roots group Raise Maryland, which pushed for the increase. "Our victory today means that hundreds of thousands of working Marylanders will receive a significant pay raise over the next several years. This will lift families out of poverty."

Republicans, drastically outnumbered in both chambers, called the increase an unnecessary government intervention and predicted some small businesses would shed workers or close up shop.

O'Malley, who is contemplating a bid for the White House, was reluctant in an interview to discuss his legislative legacy. The legislature delivered all of his initiatives this year — passing not just the minimum wage, but stricter domestic violence laws, a modest expansion of the state's pre-kindergarten program and doubling the amount of land under tough wilderness protections.

"I always kind of chafe at the legacy thing," O'Malley said. "I think of it more as momentum."

In eight years, O'Malley has pushed legislation that repealed the state's death penalty, imposed one of the nation's toughest gun-control laws, legalized same-sex marriage, granted in-state college tuition to some undocumented immigrants, increased the sales tax and raised income taxes for the state's wealthier residents.

On Monday, the governor shifted from his long-held position against loosening marijuana laws, saying he plans to sign legislation that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Adults caught with less than 10 grams of pot will get a citation that carries a fine, similar to a traffic ticket. They could no longer be sent to jail.

"As a young prosecutor, I once thought that decriminalizing the possession of marijuana might undermine the public will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety," O'Malley said in a statement. "I now think that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police, and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health. Such an acknowledgment in law might even lead to a greater focus on far more serious threats to public safety and the lives of our citizens."

More than a dozen other states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, as advocates push to treat minor drug offenses as a public health issue and not a crime.

The NAACP and the ACLU joined other advocates for a new approach to marijuana in arguing that current possession laws are unfairly applied. They pointed to studies showing that African-Americans who use marijuana are twice as likely to be prosecuted for the offense than their white counterparts.

The argument gained traction this year as key Democrats vying for governor embraced the idea, including Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.

As recently as Friday, the proposal seemed to be dying in the House of Delegates, until the Legislative Black Caucus and others persuaded a key committee chairman to change course.

The House of Delegates passed the proposal Saturday with just seven votes to spare. Opponents argued that decriminalizing possession sent the wrong message about drug use. On Monday, the Senate voted 34-8 to adopt changes made by the House.

In a less controversial measure, the House revamped the state's medical marijuana program, which was approved last year but failed to get off the ground. It had relied on academic centers to administer medical marijuana, but none volunteered to do so. The new version would create a system of at least 15 private growers, dispensaries across the state and specially licensed physicians to prescribe the drug. All of it — plus scores more regulations — would be overseen by the state's medical marijuana commission.

Over the course of the session, lawmakers granted pay raises to future state lawmakers and the next governor by declining to overturn the recommendations of a special compensation committee.

Not many environmental bills passed this year, and environmentalists were largely fine with that. Republicans and some Democrats came to Annapolis vowing to repeal or revise the stormwater fee derided by critics as a "rain tax." More than a dozen bills to do that died in committee. At the last minute, though, a handful of lawmakers tucked a provision in a budget bill allowing Carroll and Frederick counties to skip the fee if they pledged enough money from their property tax revenues to pay for reducing polluted runoff in their communities.

Lawmakers also put language in the budget delaying a regulation opposed by Eastern Shore chicken farmers and the poultry industry that would curtail the use of chicken manure as fertilizer.

On energy, lawmakers helped one wind project while possibly killing another. One bill lets farmers who've sold their development rights lease up to five acres for renewable energy projects, including wind. Another imposes a 13-month moratorium on commercial wind projects across much of the state to protect a Southern Maryland naval air station.

O'Malley told reporters late Monday he was "trying to understand" why that bill was necessary when the Navy did not object to the project, though he stopped short of saying he would veto it.

The final day of the legislature brought to a close the careers of at least 49 lawmakers, 47 delegates and two senators, who did not file for re-election.

Sen. Norman R. Stone of Dundalk is retiring from the longest legislative career in state history, with 52 years in the legislature. The 78-year-old Democrat he said he had mixed emotions about ending his half-century in the State House.

"I've been doing it for so long," Stone said. "I'm going to miss it, there's no question about it."

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican who is leaving after two decades in the legislature, isn't just ending her Senate career. She's leaving Maryland for a Central Florida retirement community in January. "I'm going to be teaching tennis in Florida," she said. "The taxes are not only pushing out ordinary citizens, they're driving out legislators too."

The vast majority of lawmakers are about to kick into an even higher gear, as they race toward a primary June 24 — three months earlier than in the past.

"I can sleep on June 25," said Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George's County, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor on Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's ticket.

Del. Jon Cardin, who is running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, likened the end of the session to breaking through mile 12 of a marathon, "and I'm going to be in a dead sprint for the next 78 days." Cardin said. "Getting home to see my family for dinner a few times a week is going to be the challenge."

(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun

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