By a wide margin, Maryland voters want to raise the state's minimum wage to $10.10 a hour, a poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun shows.
A majority of voters in every region of the state supports that wage increase, and the proposal has near-unanimous support from African-Americans, according to the poll.
Statewide, 69 percent of voters surveyed said they back a proposal now being debated in the General Assembly to increase Maryland's minimum wage from the current federal level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by 2016. The bill was proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"People, they say we're coming out of the depression, but we ain't," said Arthur Brown, Jr, a former welder from East Baltimore who supports the increase and took part in the survey.
A higher wage would help Marylanders by putting "a little bit of extra change in their pocket, and maybe they can pay up their bills," said Brown, 58.
On an another issue in Annapolis, the poll found that a majority of voters, 58 percent, supports changing marijuana laws to either decriminalize small amounts of the drug or legalize it completely, as Colorado and Washington have done.
The telephone survey, which has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points, was conducted for The Sun by OpinionWorks of Annapolis.
Steve Raabe, president of the polling company, described the depth of the support for the minimum wage increase as "just amazing."
"These numbers make me believe that there's broad awareness across this state about income inequality," Raabe said. "And there is lingering stress around the economic difficulties we've all had for years."
The wage proposal is backed by civil rights, labor, religious and women's groups, as well as some businesses and all three Democrats running for governor. Supporters contend that raising the pay of low-wage workers would help lift some families out of poverty.
Some business groups and Republican lawmakers object to the increase, saying it would ultimately hurt the economy as well as workers when companies are forced to cut hours to make ends meet.
That argument resonated with Catherine Suska, a 52-year-old Republican from Pasadena, who participated in the survey. She said she could support a small increase in the minimum wage, but thinks raising it to $10.10 would "put the economy in a major tailspin."
Suska also said she had to work hard to reach her current salary of $11.33 an hour as a customer service representative in a photography business and does not believe the legislation would help her. She doubts it would prompt her employer to raise her pay to keep pace.
Most Republican voters surveyed oppose raising the minimum wage, but the proposed increase drew majority support across all regions of the state and in every age, gender and racial category.
Eighty-five percent of Baltimore City residents polled said they support increasing the wage. In Prince George's County, 92 percent of those polled are for it. Majorities in Western and Southern Maryland, as well as on the Eastern Shore, also back the increase,
On the Eastern Shore, 54 percent of those polled favor a raise, while 56 percent back it in Western Maryland as do 63 percent in Southern Maryland.
Robert Sutton of Swanton in Garrett County is a Republican who isn't a fan of O'Malley's. But on the issue of the minimum wage, he comes down on the same side as the governor.
"I hate to see people starving on food stamps who are trying to work," said Sutton, 66. He said the current minimum of $7.25 is too low. "You can't live on that," he said.
The smallest margin of support and the greatest amount of uncertainty on the issue came from voters on the Eastern Shore.
"Sometimes, I think it might be good, and then on the other hand, you need that incentive to get a better job," said Joan Harding, who lives in Kent County. She is among the 11 percent of Shore voters polled who said they were not sure whether the $10.10 increase was a good idea.
The retired seamstress said she worked for minimum wage in 1958 in a canning factory, and at the time it seemed appropriate for a part-time person.
"I'm afraid [an increase] would hurt the small-business owners," said Harding, 73. "Then again, I wouldn't like to think that I would have to raise a family — or even support myself — on minimum wage."
Members of the General Assembly also are weighing a proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and another to legalize it completely. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has expressed support for legalization, but O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have not.
Voters surveyed were split on what to do. Thirty percent said they want to make marijuana use legal and to tax it, similar to how alcohol is treated. Another 28 percent said they would rather downgrade its criminality, so that users caught with 10 grams or less would be issued citations like speeding tickets and face no risk of going to jail.
Those answers suggest a solid majority favors changing Maryland's laws, Raabe said, but there is not consensus on how far to go.
"This is still an issue that needs more discussion," he said. "People have not landed on it."
Melvin Kryglik, a retired teacher from Baltimore County, said he thinks the state should legalize marijuana and use the tax revenue to rebuild the state's infrastructure. Kryglik, 64, called it a "harmless drug" and said it would be in the public interest to stop sales on street corners.
"I'm not a marijuana smoker, but I don't think it's any more harmful than alcohol and tobacco," he said. "What other product in the world can cause all of the injury and harm as tobacco but still be legal?"
Lloyd Snyder, a political independent who lives in Shawsville in Harford County, favors decriminalization of marijuana.
"It's not a whole lot different than alcohol," said Snyder, 66. "We've had the war on drugs since Nixon. I don't think we've won yet. I don't think we're anywhere near winning."
Nevertheless, Snyder balks at the idea of legalization, fearing it would give young people more access to the drug. "They have enough problems without being involved in that," he said.
Some of the strongest opposition to legalization and decriminalization comes from Western Maryland voters such as homemaker Linda Hamilton of Westernport in Allegany County.
Hamilton, a 65-year-old Democrat, said she has no objections to marijuana for medical purposes but opposes recreational use. She said she's seen its effects on young people and hasn't liked the results.
"It did affect a friend of mine's grandson," she said. "It kind of made him a little irritable. It got to the point where he got mean with his grandmother."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
About the poll
OpinionWorks of Annapolis conducted the poll for The Baltimore Sun. It surveyed 1,199 likely Maryland voters by telephone Feb. 8 to 12, including Democrats, Republicans and independents. The margin of error is 2.8 percentage points.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun