By BRIAN WITTE and NICK TABOR
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland General Assembly on Monday gave final approval to incremental increases in the state's minimum wage over several years to $10.10 by 2018 and to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession.
The House of Delegates voted 87-47 to raise the minimum wage, sending it to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who made the bill a priority of his last regular legislative session. Passage of the minimum wage bill won praise from President Barack Obama.
"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," the president said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly also passed a bill to decriminalize the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, and O'Malley said he planned to sign it. O'Malley's decision marks a change in thinking by the former Baltimore mayor known for his tough-on-crime stance who is now considering a White House bid in 2016. O'Malley said when he was a young prosecutor, he once thought decriminalizing marijuana might undermine the public will that is needed to fight drug violence.
"I now think that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgement 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," O'Malley said. "Such an acknowledgement in law might even lead to a greater focus on far more serious threats to public safety and the lives of our citizens."
The minimum wage, which was last raised in 2006, will increase from $7.25 an hour to $8 in January. It will rise to $8.25 in July 2015; $8.75 in July 2016; $9.25 in July 2017 and $10.10 in July 2018. All 87 supporters were Democrats. Delegate Benjamin Kramer, D-Montgomery, said the lack of action on raising the minimum wage in Congress has left it up to states to move forward to give low-wage workers a badly needed raise.
Republicans, however, said increases in the minimum wage could result in job losses. Opponents, including six Democrats, also said the increases will make Maryland less attractive to businesses that would consider relocating to the state.
"We are making it so it's cost prohibitive for jobs to come here," said Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil.
The bill includes a provision to ensure about 18,000 community service providers who work with the developmentally disabled will make about 30 percent above the minimum wage.
Lawmakers approved a bill to make medical marijuana available in the state. Medical marijuana has stalled, because a law enacted last year required academic medical centers to make the drug available to qualifying patients, but none stepped forward. The bill passed this year will allow certified doctors to recommend marijuana for patients with debilitating, chronic and severe illnesses.
A bill to increase penalties for people who cause serious car accidents while text messaging or using a hand-held cell phone also cleared the Legislature.
Efforts to reform Maryland's bail hearing system stalled. Maryland's highest court ordered the state to provide defense attorneys for poor defendants at initial bail hearings, and to avoid this expense, the House and Senate have passed disparate bills to rework the bail process. But Sen. Brian Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Monday afternoon that lawmakers had run out of time to negotiate.
As a backup measure, next year's budget has tentatively allocated $10 million for paying private attorneys to staff these bail hearings. Public defenders have estimated it would cost $28 million a year for a proper solution, and they worry underfunding will cause a crisis.
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Governor O’Malley released the following statement in response to the final passage of Possession of Marijuana – Civil Offense (SB 364), which will decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana:
“With more effective policing and more widely available drug treatment, together in Maryland, we have driven violent crime down to its lowest levels in 30 years. This progress has been hard-won and much remains to be done. Recent spikes in homicides and heroin overdose deaths underscore the life-saving urgency of the work before us.
“The General Assembly has decided after much consideration — and with clear majorities in both Chambers — to send to my desk a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and I plan to sign it.
“As a matter of judicial economy and prosecutorial discretion, few if any defendants go to prison for a first or even a second offense of marijuana possession in Maryland. Desuetude is often a precursor of reform.
“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. I now think that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgement 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.”?