Seated at table left to right as the minimum wage bill is signed… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Vowing to strengthen Maryland's middle class, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation Monday that will gradually raise the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — his No. 1 legislative priority for the last of his eight years in office.
The measure was among more than 200 bills the governor signed into law at a State House ceremony. Others included a ban on the sale of most grain alcohol, reforms to Baltimore's liquor board and expansion of the city's needle-exchange program to prevent AIDS.
O'Malley hailed the minimum-wage bill, which will begin raising the current $7.25 minimum wage in January, as a victory for Maryland's working families.
"It is not fair, it is not right, it is not just" for Marylanders to have to work 16-hour days while raising their children in poverty, O'Malley said.
The governor was joined at the signing ceremony by U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, representing President Barack Obama, who is advocating an increase in the federal minimum wage to the $10.10 level that Maryland will reach in 2018.
Perez, a former member of O'Malley's Cabinet, praised his home state as an "incubator of innovation."
"This will be good for Maryland business, good for Maryland workers and a good example for the country," Perez said.
Winning passage of the minimum-wage bill at the level Obama supports, even with the compromises needed to get it passed, gives O'Malley something to brag about as he turns his attention to a possible run for president in 2016.
Within minutes of the bill signing, O'Malley's federal political action committee sent out an email over his signature urging supporters to spread the word on Facebook and Twitter and "tell Congress to do the same for all Americans."
The minimum-wage legislation passed over the opposition of most of the General Assembly's Republicans and some of the state's leading business organizations. Opponents contend that by raising the cost of labor, the legislation will place a burden on small businesses and cost jobs.
Perez, however, said he had recently visited Washington state, which has the highest state minimum wage in the country. He said business leaders there told him the policy had been good for business.
"When you put money in people's pockets, people spend it," he said.
Maryland will join 21 states that, along with the District of Columbia, have set a rate above the federal minimum wage. Only Connecticut has adopted a rate as high as $10.10, effective in 2017.
The Maryland law will phase in the increase, raising the minimum wage from its current $7.25 to $8 Jan. 1 and $8.25 on July 1, 2015. Subsequent increases will bring it to $8.75 on July 1, 2016, $9.25 on July 1, 2017, and $10.10 on the same date in 2018.
The ban on the sale of high-potency liquor applies to beverages with an alcohol content of 95 percent and higher. The measure had the support of many college educators, who have been alarmed by the effects the high-strength liquor has had on students.
"The immediate impact is that when students come back to college in August, they will no longer be able to get grain alcohol," said Jonathan Gibralter, president of Frostburg State University."Hopefully, there will be fewer transports to the emergency room. Hopefully, there will be less harm toward college students because this product is no longer available."
Joshua Snider, a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park who testified in support of the bill, said he's seen how quickly grain alcohol can get people drunk. "I've seen people getting so drunk they fall on their heads and crack their skulls open," he said.
The Baltimore liquor board bill will give City Hall greater oversight of the agency's finances and sets higher ethical standards for board members and employees. The needle exchange measure will remove the restriction on the number of clean syringes needles the city can dispense to drug users. The current law limits the transactions to a one-for-one exchange. Proponents of the bill said removal of the limit would make the needle exchange program more effective in preventing the spread of AIDS and other diseases through the use of shared syringes.
O'Malley handed his allies in organized labor a victory by signing legislation extending the prevailing wage for school construction projects to all that cost more than $500,000 and receive at least 25 percent of their funding from the state. Opponents of the bill contend that the measure will raise the cost of school construction.
Not on the signing list was a bill that would delay — and possibly block — development of a wind farm in Somerset County because of a concern that tall turbines could interfere with radar across the Chesapeake Bay at the Patuxent naval air station in St. Mary's County. The governor has not decided whether to sign or veto the legislation, spokeswoman Nina Smith said Monday. The bill is opposed by clean energy advocates but supported by powerful Democrats in the state's congressional delegation.