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Phased-in minimum wage plan appears to have momentum

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate Finance Committee’s action to phase-in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour while increasing pay for caregivers who work with the developmentally disabled appears to form the basis for what would satisfy the governor and ultimately pass in both chambers.

The committee amendments passed Wednesday keep in place Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s legislative priority of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour but stretches it out to 2018 and does not include a provision that would provide automatic increases linked to the rate of inflation.

The measure still has several hurdles to clear.

Provisions in the amended version of HB 295 include:

– A phased-in increase to $10.10 per hour beginning with an increase to $8 by Jan. 1, 2015. The rate increases to $8.25 on July 1, 2015; $8.75 on July 1, 2016; $9.25 on July 1, 2017; and $10.10 on July 1, 2018. The House wanted the increases phased in over three years beginning in January.

– Wages for tipped workers will be frozen at $3.63 as under a proposal by the House of Delegates. Employers would be required to make up the difference if tips do not bring the worker’s hourly wage to the current minimum wage that is in effect at the time.

– The Senate committee retained language that allows amusement parks to pay workers the current federal minimum wage rate.

– The committee added language adopting a so-called training wage, which will be 85 percent of the minimum wage for workers 19 and younger. The rate will apply only for the first six months. After that, employees would be bumped to the minimum wage.

Matthew Hanson, campaign coordinator for Raise Maryland, expressed “mixed feelings” about the final recommendations from the committee.

Hanson said his coalition was happy that the committee kept in place the $10.10 minimum wage but expressed disappointment over the longer phase-in.

“For every year you extend the phase-in, it diminishes the value of the minimum wage,” Hanson said.

Hanson said he was also disappointed that the committee opted to keep in place the freeze on tipped worker wages but vowed that there would be an attempt to amend the bill when it reaches the Senate floor.

“We have some champions,” Hanson said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, tied passage of the minimum wage bill to his effort to help wages for caregivers who work with the developmentally disabled keep pace.

Currently, the state reimburses those wages at 36 percent above the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

As part of the minimum wage package, Middleton said those caregivers will see flat percentage raises beginning with roughly a 2 percent increase in January. Additional 3.5 percent annual increases will be given from 2016-2018. The increases will keep caregiver wages at about 30 percent higher than minimum wage.

Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Coalition, said she was “very happy” with the increase even though it will fall below the current 35 percent level.

“It’s a very strong proposal,” Howell said.

The package also contains language that is meant to ensure that increases given to the state Developmental Disabilities Administration for wage increases are spent as the legislature intended.

The bill package still needs the approval of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee but could be voted on by the full Senate by the end of the week.

The changes to the House bill could require a conference committee to iron out a final version before the General Assembly adjourns on April 7.

Medical marijuana

The Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would expand access to medical marijuana in Maryland.

The Senate amended House Bill 881 to make it identical to the Senate bill passed earlier this year.

Under the bill, the state medical marijuana commission can register physicians who wish to order the drug for their patients.

Changes made by the Senate allow the commission to license an unlimited number of growers to provide the drug. The House bill authorized only 10 growers in the state.

Additionally, the Senate amendments allow for two medical marijuana treatment centers in each of the state’s 47 legislative districts. The commission could license additional centers in the event that a district contains multiple jurisdictions. Legislators said that the intent is to ensure each county has at least one center.

A final vote on the bill could come as early as Thursday.

The changes made in the Senate mean the legislation will likely head to a conference committee between the House and Senate before the session ends on April 7.

Dog-bite measure

The Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill resolving a two-year debate on dog-bite liability.

The Senate voted 44-1 on House Bill 73. The bill is identical to a Senate bill that would hold dog owners liable for injuries and death caused by their dogs unless they can prove they had no way of knowing their dog was dangerous or vicious.

The bill also contains an amendment holding dog owners liable for injuries and death caused by dogs running at large unless the person injured was trespassing or somehow provoked the dog.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, voted against the bill. She had previously said she was the victim of a dog bite as a child and does not believe the proposed legislation goes far enough to protect victims.

The House bill moves to a final vote that could come as early as Thursday. The bill would be sent to the governor for his signature once it receives final approval from the Senate.