Maryland lawmakers pass bills to raise minimum wage, decriminalize marijuana

Maryland lawmakers passed bills Saturday that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2018 and decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, acting on two high-profile measures in the waning days of this year’s legislative session.

On a vote of 34 to 13, the Senate positioned Maryland to become the second state in the nation to embrace a minimum-wage goal set by President Obama and hand Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) a victory on his top priority in his final 90-day session.

The House, meanwhile, voted 78 to 55 to impose civil fines, rather than criminal sanctions, on those caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana — an outcome that would defy the will of a powerful committee chairman who wanted a study of the issue instead.

Final procedural votes on both measures are expected Monday, the last day of the session. The spirited debates came on a Saturday when lawmakers approved scores of other bills, including the $39 billion state budget, before their scheduled adjournment.

Proponents of the marijuana decriminalization bill pointed to racial disparities in sentencing, with African Americans far more likely than whites to receive prison time for possession. And they argued that a criminal conviction for having even small amounts of marijuana can permanently undermine a person’s ability to get a job.

“We’re sending the message that we’re not going to allow small amounts of marijuana possession to ruin the lives of our young people,” said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Baltimore), a leading sponsor of the measure.

Opponents said that the bill was being rushed through the chamber and that delegates need to spend more time weighing the consequences. Del. Michael A. McDermott (R-Worcester) pointed out that lawmakers were about to make possession of marijuana a civil offense while leaving the possession of drug paraphernalia, including the paper used to roll joints, as a criminal offense subject to prison time.

“Our kids deserve a better message, and this is not it,” he said.

Saturday’s vote came after a remarkable few days in which a bill that appeared dead in the House came roaring back to life.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted 14 to 5 to create a task force to study the issue for two years rather than approve a decriminalization measure that had passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

That move, orchestrated by Chairman Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George’s), prompted an uprising by members of the Legislative Black Caucus and other lawmakers who have pushed to loosen the state’s marijuana laws.

Facing pressure from other senior members of his party, Vallario agreed to let his committee reconsider the issue. And on Saturday morning, it recommended — on a vote of 13 to 8 — legislation similar to the decriminalization bill the Senate had passed.

There were a few changes. The Senate measure, for example, would subject those caught with small amounts of marijuana to a fine of $100 regardless of previous offenses. Under the House approach, the fine would be $250 for a second offense and $500 for any offenses thereafter.

The House plan mandates assessment for drug treatment for first-time offenders younger than 21 and for those older than 21 upon a third offense.

The action in Maryland comes as many states are rethinking their approaches to marijuana. Colorado and Washington state recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and the District this year decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of the drug.

The three major Democratic candidates running for governor of Maryland this year — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery) — have voiced support for decriminalization.

O’Malley has not said whether he would sign or veto a decriminalization bill. He has said he opposes legalization. But he and his aides have been open to more moderate changes to current law. O’Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith said Saturday that the governor would “review and make a decision about signing” if the bill reaches his desk.

The vote on the minimum-wage bill ended weeks of debate that has pitted advocates for low-wage workers against retailers and other business owners, who argued that they couldn’t absorb the increase in payroll costs that O’Malley wants to mandate.

Several senators who supported the measure said it reflected a compromise. The last time lawmakers voted to raise Maryland’s minimum wage was 2006.

“Really, its time has come and we need to do it,” Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore) told his colleagues during Saturday’s debate. “That money will be circulating throughout the economy and the city and the state.”

O’Malley did not get everything he wanted out of the legislation, which cleared the House last month.

Under the bill, the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would gradually rise to $10.10 by July 2018 — two years later than O’Malley originally proposed. Lawmakers rejected a provision that would have allowed the minimum wage to continue to rise above $10.10 based on inflation.

And they froze the base wage for workers who receive tips, including restaurant servers, at $3.63 per hour. O’Malley had proposed increasing the base wage from its current 50 percent of the statewide minimum to 70 percent, which eventually would have meant a base pay of more than $7 per hour.

Several categories of businesses would be exempt from paying the higher rate: seasonal amusement parks, cafes and restaurants with annual incomes below $400,000 and the state’s only drive-in movie theater.

Senators spent several hours Friday and again Saturday debating additional changes. Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick) suggested further delaying the wage increases in the bill, for example, while Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) wanted to speed them up.

Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Carroll) was among those who argued that the wage increases in the bill would be too onerous for many small restaurants and stores.

“The reality is if you’re competing with IHOP, if you’re competing with Waffle House, if you’re competing with Applebee’s, your small mom-and-pop stores cannot handle this,” he said. “It cuts the profit margin too low.”

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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