State passes new minimum wage, decriminalizes pot

State-House-at-sunset 3ANNAPOLIS – The state legislature raised the minimum wage for the first time since 2006 after the House of Delegates voted 87-47 on the last day of the legislative session to raise the wage to $10.10 by 2018.

The House passed a bill last month to raise the wage to $10.10 by 2017 but the Senate amended the bill and passed it 34-13, setting up the House’s final vote. 
The finalized bill raises the statewide minimum wage to $8.00 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015, and then to $8.25 on July 1, 2015. A year later the wage will go up to $8.75 on July 1, 2016, then to $9.25 in 2017 and finally level off at $10.10 on July 1, 2018.
“This year, we are building on this record of strengthening the middle class by raising Maryland’s minimum wage to $10.10,” said Governor Martin O’Malley, who will the sign bill after making the minimum wage the top priority during the last year of his term. “We worked hard to bring people together and forge the consensus necessary to make this important progress possible. I commend the General Assembly for giving so many Maryland families the raise they deserve.”
President Barack Obama applauded the General Assembly’s action, saying Maryland is ahead of the curve. He said he hopes Congress will follow the General Assembly’s example.
“The Maryland legislature did the right thing for its workers today by increasing the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour,” President Obama said. “…(Congress) 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.”
Not everyone was pleased with the action. House republicans debated the bill before its final passage, with Delegate Mike Smigiel (R-36) going so far as to call the bill “socialist interference.” Raising the minimum wage hurts small businesses, he said, which have already had to deal with the increased sales tax, the gas tax, the income tax and numerous regulations.
“This is one more stick on the back of the engine that drives our economy,” Smigiel said.
Along with the minimum wage bill, the General Assembly also approved a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The bill had been thought to be dead after the Senate passed it in March, but then the House Judiciary Committee rewrote it into a bill to create a task force to study the effects of decriminalization for two years. However, after pressure from factions of delegates including the Legislative Black Caucus, the committee scrapped its amendments and restored the Senate’s language and only ended up raising the penalties for repeated offenses.
After some debate, the House of Delegates passed the bill 78-55. The Senate approved the amended bill 34-8 on the last day of the session. 
Under the bill, possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense, but remains illegal as a civil offense. Individuals will pay a $100 fine for the first offense, $250 for a second offense and a $500 fine for the third offense. In addition, individuals under the age of 21 will be required to appear in court for the first offense and will also be required to attend a drug education program to be assessed for a substance abuse disorder. Individuals 21 and older will be summoned to court for the third offense.
O’Malley said he has decided to sign the bill, but it was a tough decision because in his younger days as a prosecutor he believed decriminalizing marijuana would undermine the public will necessary to combat 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 acknowledgment in law might even lead to a greater focus on far more serious threats to public safety and the lives of our citizens.” 
Delegate Kathy Afzali (R-4A) of Frederick County was one of many republicans who voted against the bill. A green vote, she said, is a green light to say smoking marijuana is okay.
“We are saying it is not that bad and it is just a little bit,” Afzali said. “It is not okay.”
Delegate Michael McDermott (R-38B) said he believed Maryland and the House of Delegates could do better and passing the bill would not be in the best interest of the state.
Not all republicans voted against the bill, such as Smigiel who supported the measure. “This is not 
legalization,” Smigiel said. “We just don’t want to make our children criminals.”

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