- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Senate Democrats yesterday overrode Republican objections and approved increasing the state minimum wage by $1, to $6.15 an hour.

The bill was approved on a 30-16 vote and sent to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, voted against increases in the federal minimum wage when he was in Congress, but has not said whether he will sign the bill passed by the Senate.

“He is not enthusiastic about it and prefers that this issue be settled at the federal level, but he will reserve judgment until it reaches his desk,” Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.

Senate Republicans voted as a bloc against the bill and were joined by two Democrats from conservative districts — James E. DeGrange Sr. of Anne Arundel County and Roy Dyson of St. Mary’s County.

Before the final vote was taken, Republicans tried to amend the bill to allow employers who provide health insurance for employees to deduct the cost of the health care from the $1 increase.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican, said when employers have to pay the higher minimum wage, “some of them may choose not to offer health insurance.”

“Let’s reward them if they are giving health insurance to their employees,” he said.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore County Democrat, urged the Senate to reject the Harris amendment, which it did on a 29-17 roll call.

Mrs. Kelley said the amendment did not provide any minimum standards that health insurance would have to meet to qualify for the lower wage.

“They could provide something that may be worth $1 a week and would be meaningless,” she said.

The new minimum wage, which would take effect Oct. 1 unless Mr. Ehrlich vetoes it, would apply to about 62,000 Marylanders. Sixteen other states already have minimum wages higher than the federal $5.15 figure.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposed raising the state’s minimum wage, arguing that it would hurt many owners of small businesses who “are struggling to remain competitive in Maryland’s marketplace.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. yesterday said prospects are dim for passage of a stem-cell research bill in the final five days of the legislative session because sponsors have been unable to get the votes needed to shut off a filibuster.

Supporters are still trying to persuade 29 senators to vote to limit debate, but “they are not meeting with much success,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat.

The bill has passed the House and has been approved by two Senate committees, but the Senate president is reluctant to bring it to the floor for debate because opponents plan to stage a filibuster to kill the proposal.

Votes of 29 of the 47 senators are needed to shut off debate, and Mr. Miller said sponsors are one or two votes short.

Mr. Miller does not want a repeat of 1990, when a bitter battle over abortion tied up the Senate for nine days.

Still, he said if there is a lull in the Senate before the adjournment deadline at midnight Monday, he might bring the bill out for debate “so we can demonstrate to the public how mean and ugly these debates can be.”

“Reason goes out the window. There will be a lot of hurt feelings,” he said.

The bill approved by the House would provide more than $20 million a year for private companies engaged in research on embryonic stem cells. The Senate committees stripped out the funding, leaving a framework to dispense funds for stem-cell research if they are included in future budgets.

Mr. Ehrlich and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee reached a compromise on a witness-intimidation bill yesterday that makes it much more likely that one of the governor’s key legislative initiatives will pass before the legislative session ends Monday.

Mr. Ehrlich and top legislative aides worked out the final details at a brief meeting in the office of Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George’s Democrat. Mr. Vallario had been the chief obstacle for the governor’s bill, which cleared the Senate earlier in the session.

After the meeting, the Judiciary Committee passed the bill with one dissenting vote.

The key area of disagreement was the governor’s proposal to allow written statements given by witnesses to police and prosecutors to be admitted as evidence in court if the witnesses later flee or refuse to testify and if prosecutors can convince judges that the failure to testify was the result of threats from defendants.

The so-called “hearsay exception” was criticized by opponents as a violation of the rights of Marylanders accused of crime to cross-examine witnesses.

Under yesterday’s agreement, written statements could be used only if they were given under oath, were on paper and were signed by the potential witnesses. The bill also increases penalties for intimidating or trying to intimidate witnesses to keep them from testifying in criminal trials.

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