By Michael Dresser

Vowing to strengthen Maryland's middle class, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation Monday that will gradually raise the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour -- his No. 1 priority for the final legislative session of his eight years in office.

The legislation was among more than 200 bills the governor approved at the State House signing ceremony. Others included a ban on the sale of "extreme strength" alcoholic beverages, reforms to Baltimore's liquor board decreased restrictions on the city's needle-exchange program to prevent AIDS.

O'Malley hailed the minimum wage bill as a victory for Maryland's working families.

"It is not fair, it is not right, it is not just" for Marylanders to have to work 16-hour days while raising their children in poverty, O'Malley said.

The governor was joined at the signing ceremony by U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, representing President Obama, who is advocating an increase in the federal minimum wage to the level set in Maryland.

Perez, a former member of O'Malley's cabinet, praised his home state as an "incubator of innovation."

"This will be good for Maryland business, good for Maryland workers and a good example for the country," Perez said..

The minimum wage legislation passed over the opposition of most of the General Assembly's Republicans and some of the state's leading business organizations.

Perez, however, said he had recently visited Washington state, which has the highest state minimum wage in the country. He said business leaders there told him the policy had been good for business.

"When you put money in people's pockets, people spend it," he said.

The law will phase in the increase, raising the minimum wage from its current $7.25 to $8 Jan. 1 and $8.25 on July 1, 2015. Subsequent increases will bring it to $8.75 on July 1, 2016, $9.25 on July 1, 2017 and $10.10 on the same date in 2018.

The ban on the sale of high-strength liquor applies to beverages with an alcoholic strength of 95 percent and higher.

The measure had the support of many college educators, who have been alarmed by the effects the potent liquor has had on students.

"The immediate impact is that when students come back to college in August, they will no longer be able to get grain alcohol," said Jonathan Gibralter, president of Frostburg State University."Hopefully there will be fewer transports to the emergency room. Hopefully there will be less harm toward college students because this product is no longer available."

Among the other bills O'Malley signed was one overhauling the operations of the Baltimore liquor board to make it more accountable to the public.

Another measure will remove the restriction on the number of needles the city can dispense to drug users. The current law limits the transactions to a one-for-one exchange.

Proponents of the bill said removal of the limit would make the needle exchange program more effective in preventing the spread of AIDS and other diseases through the use of shared syringes.

(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun