Maryland lawmakers signed off on a plan Monday to raise the state minimum wage and, before adjourning for the year, acted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana — legislation that Gov. Martin O’Malley said for the first time that he would sign.
In the waning hours of the 90-day session, the last with O’Malley as governor, the General Assembly also finalized bills to outlaw “revenge porn” and to get tougher on people who cause car accidents while using a handheld cellphone.
A deal to boost funding for tax credits for production companies that choose to film in Maryland collapsed minutes before the session ended at midnight with bursts of confetti, leaving less money for the Netflix series “House of Cards” and other productions than supporters had sought.
The 2014 agenda was not as ambitious as in recent sessions, but candidates will have plenty to talk about as they head onto the campaign trail ahead of the June primaries.
With final passage in the House on Monday, Maryland became the second state to embrace President Obama’s goal of $10.10 an hour, compared with the current federal minimum of $7.25. Under the bill, Maryland employers will have to pay $10.10 by July 2018, two years later than O’Malley (D) originally proposed. Obama applauded Maryland lawmakers for “leading by example.”
Republicans previewed some of their campaign arguments against the wage increase during Monday’s floor debate, saying that Maryland businesses, already burdened by tax increases, cannot absorb the higher payroll costs.
“You might feel good today,” said Del. Andrew A. Serafini (R-Washington). “But the reality is that in the long run, it will hurt jobs.”
Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said such fears are overblown.
“If not now, when? When is a good time?” Davis said. “Ultimately, the time is now.”
Lawmakers finished work on two bills that would change Maryland’s marijuana laws. One would impose civil fines rather than criminal sanctions on possession of less than 10 grams of the drug. The Senate gave its final sign-off late Monday afternoon on a 34 to 8 vote.
O’Malley, a former prosecutor who rose to prominence as a tough-on-crime mayor of Baltimore, said he used to think decriminalization “might undermine the public will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety.” Now, he said, he has come to believe that the measure passed Monday “might even lead to a greater focus on far more serious threats to public safety and the lives of our citizens.”
The legislature also passed a measure to fix a law enacted last year to make marijuana more broadly available to those who would benefit from it because of illness. Under the 2013 medical marijuana law, responsibility for the program was given to academic medical centers, but none have been willing to participate. Under the new measure, an existing commission would certify physicians to recommend that their patients receive the drug. Patients could then get the drug from state-licensed dispensaries.
Another bill approved on the final day would make it a misdemeanor to publish sexually explicit images of a person on the Internet without that person’s consent. Violators of the “revenge porn” measure could be punished by up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. California, New Jersey and, most recently, Virginia have passed similar bills.
The Senate and House reached a compromise between two versions of “Jake’s Law,” a measure that would stiffen penalties for drivers who cause serious crashes while talking or texting on a handheld cellphone. The legislation was filed in memory of Jake Owen, a 5-year-old killed in a 2011 crash.
Up until the final minutes of session, lawmakers tried to reach a deal to make more money available to reward production companies that choose to film in Maryland. Both sides agreed to increase funding to $18.5 million, although from different sources.
The House wanted to include language that would penalize production companies that film a season or two in the state, but then relocate elsewhere. Senators refused to agree to those conditions, and at one point angrily walked away from a huddle meeting in the House lounge, surrounded by reporters.
The program will still receive $15 million through its annual allocation and other sources, but lawmakers were unsure if that would be enough to keep the makers of “House of Cards” happy enough to film Season 3 in Maryland.
Earlier in the session, lawmakers passed a package of bills to curb domestic violence, including one championed by two of the leading Democratic candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. The measure would allow judges to impose harsher sentences on abusers who commit acts of violence in the presence of a child.
Another bill that passed this session ends Maryland’s distinction as the only state that requires “clear and convincing evidence” to receive a civil protective order. The legislation says only “a preponderance of the evidence,” a lower standard, is needed to receive such an order.
Brown also won approval of a modest first step in an expansion of a “universal” pre-kindergarten program that he has championed as a gubernatorial candidate.
After passing a string of tax increases in recent years, Democrats found one to cut in this election year, raising the state exemption under the estate tax to match that of the federal tax code.
The 2014 session was the last for O’Malley, who is term-limited after eight years. In previous sessions, at his urging, lawmakers have legalized same-sex marriage, adopted some of the most stringent gun-control legislation in the country, raised taxes on gasoline for the first time since 1992 to build more transportation projects, created incentives to jump-start the wind-power industry and launched what will be one of the most concentrated casino markets in the country.
This final session included difficult moments for the governor, as lawmakers held a series of briefings on problems with Maryland’s health insurance marketplace and passed several bills aimed at addressing another embarrassment for his administration: a scandal at a state-run jail in Baltimore where guards aided inmates in a drug and money-laundering conspiracy.
Legislators stiffened penalties on those who smuggle cellphones into correctional facilities, made it easier to take disciplinary action against wayward guards and gave the corrections department more authority to use polygraph testing on its employees.
The session was also notable for the passage of several bills that had failed in previous years. Among them were bills providing anti-discrimination protections for transgender people, imposing fines on people younger than 21 who sneak into casinos, prohibiting corrections officials from shackling pregnant inmates during labor and banning the retail sale of highly concentrated grain alcohol. After two years of wrangling, lawmakers also passed a breed-neutral dog-bite bill that slightly shifts the legal liability toward dog owners when their pets injure somebody.
Another bill will require people caught driving drunk with a child in the car to have an electronic device installed in their vehicles that verifies sobriety before the vehicles can be turned on.
Prompted by a series of court decisions, the legislature this year also debated how to reform Maryland’s system for setting bail. But it did not appear that lawmakers would reach agreement on that issue Monday.