ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland General Assembly gave final approval to incremental increases in the state's minimum wage over several years to $10.10 in 2018 and to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession, as the final regular legislative session of Gov. Martin O'Malley's tenure ended Monday.
The House of Delegates voted 87-47 to raise the minimum wage early in the day, sending it to 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.
Republicans 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 measure 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.
Efforts to overhaul Maryland's bail hearing system failed. Maryland's highest court ordered the state to provide defense attorneys for poor defendants at initial bail hearings. O'Malley said he would work with stakeholders toward an approach that had been backed by Sen. Brian Frosh. That approach would use data on each defendant, such as criminal history, to assess a person's risk of committing more crimes if they were released from jail. O'Malley said he could issue an executive order to invite jurisdictions to create a computerized risk-assessment tool.
As a backup measure, next year's budget has allocated $10 million for paying private attorneys to staff these bail hearings.
A measure that would have set aside $18.5 million in film tax credits failed in the waning hours, despite a visit to Annapolis last month from actor Kevin Spacey, star of the show "House of Cards." The two-time Oscar winner greeted lawmakers at a local wine bar to push for the bill to help the show that is filmed in Maryland.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said some lawmakers weren't happy about a letter from the show's production company that threatened to move the show out of Maryland without more tax credits.
The tax credit program will still have $15 million.