ANNAPOLIS — Measures to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and decriminalize possessing small amounts of marijuana won final stamps of approval from legislators as they wrapped up their work in the Maryland State House.
On Monday, the final day of the state’s three-month legislative session, Senate lawmakers passed a bill that would remove criminal penalties for carrying less than 10 grams of marijuana. Possessing small amounts of the substance would be a civil offense punishable by fines of up to $100. Possessing more than 10 grams would still be considered a criminal offense.
Both Frederick County senators helped give the bill final approval, sending the proposal to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk.
The governor released a statement after the bill’s passage indicating he planned to sign it into law.
Under the bill, someone who has racked up three or more civil violations could be sent to a court-ordered drug treatment program. Sen. David Brinkley said he supports monitoring and rehabilitating these individuals rather than jailing them.
“The way we’ve been doing things for the past 100 years hasn’t worked, and the courts can’t accommodate the volume of it,” said Brinkley, R-District 4.
The House of Delegates approved the marijuana decriminalization bill Saturday after shooting down a series of amendments.
Delegate Kathy Afzali offered two amendments to the proposal, one that would keep marijuana possession a crime but ease penalties for the first two offenses. Another proposed change would have lowered from 10 to 5 grams the threshold between civil and criminal possession.
Afzali said she understands giving young people a second chance, but doesn’t believe decriminalization is the right approach.
“We’re giving permission for young people to smoke dope, and I don’t think that’s our intention, because it is a dangerous and highly addictive drug,” said Afzali, R-District 4A.
Delegate Michael Hough, R-District 3B, argued for keeping criminal penalties for people who possess marijuana in a school zone.
These amendments failed, and the proposal passed by a vote of 78 to 55, with Delegate Galen Clagett the only local lawmaker supporting it in the House.
Legislators on Monday also passed a bill to expand access to treatment with medical marijuana.
A higher minimum
The minimum-wage hike, a key piece of O’Malley’s legislative agenda this session, also cleared the General Assembly to the chagrin of most Frederick County lawmakers.
The proposal would gradually increase the current minimum rate of $7.25 per hour until it reaches $10.10 in July 2018.
The Maryland House of Delegates gave final passage to the bill Monday after a brief debate on whether it would negatively affect businesses in the state.
The decision won praise from President Barack Obama, who said Congress should learn from Maryland’s example.
“They should follow Maryland’s lead and lift wages for 28 million Americans by passing legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10, helping to ensure that no American who works full time has to raise a family in poverty, and that every American who works hard has the opportunity to succeed,” Obama said in a statement.
Sen. Ron Young, who co-sponsored the bill, said the proposal will benefit the economy by giving low-wage workers more spending money.
“I think it will help a lot of people,” said Young, D-District 3. “The way to get people off poverty is to give them opportunity and give them a salary that’s workable.”
Delegate Kelly Schulz said she was glad that lawmakers watered down the wage-hike legislation before passing it. The version initially proposed by O’Malley featured a shorter implementation timeline, raised the minimum hourly rates for tipped employees and indexed the minimum wage to rise with inflation.
However, Schulz said the mandated increase will still burden many small businesses. Most of the pay hikes are timed to happen in July, a midyear shift that will inconvenience businesses, she said.
“I think there will be parts of it that will be very difficult,” Schulz, R-District 4A, said of the increases. “I don’t like the implementation dates. I don’t like the overall rate where it’s going, at $10.10.”
Monday was a day of goodbyes for Clagett and Delegate Patrick Hogan, who have decided not to run for re-election.
During his last year in Annapolis, Clagett, D-District 3A, pushed a package of proposals to make the state a better place to do business.
One of his bills, which gained final approval Monday, would create a business ombudsman position within the governor’s Cabinet to streamline the relationship between government and business.
Hogan said he spent time this session working on reforming the legislative redistricting process.
While his proposal ended up dying, it attracted bipartisan support and sparked conversation about gerrymandering.
“It’s a positive step, and maybe sometime in the future the state will look at doing the right thing with redistricting,” said Hogan, R-District 3A.
As his final session draws to a close, Hogan said he has enjoyed his time in office but is ready to bow out.
Monday also marked an ending for Delegate Don Elliott, who is running for re-election, but in a newly shaped district that no longer includes Frederick County. Elliott, R-District 4B, said he has “always loved Frederick County” and found it very similar to his home jurisdiction, Carroll County.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.