By Megan Brockett
Maryland’s minimum wage debate is set to take center stage at the State House next week, when a total of six different proposals are scheduled to go before members of the House and Senate. The options range in scope from one statewide increase to “county choice” measures that would grant jurisdictions the individual authority to set their own base rates of pay.
Gov. Martin O’Malley has pushed an increase in the state’s minimum wage as his main priority this legislative session, throwing his support behind the Maryland Minimum Wage Act of 2014, which would raise the base rate to $10.10 an hour by 2016. The measure, scheduled to be heard in the House Economic Matters Committee on Tuesday and the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, would also increase the minimum amount of pay for tipped workers from 50 to 70 percent of the state’s base rate, and index both rates to the cost of living starting in 2017.
An estimated 455,000 residents would see a boost in their wages under the Maryland Minimum Wage Act, according to a report released last month by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit, left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C. Maryland’s current minimum wage matches the federal level of $7.25 an hour.
More than 20 states now have rates above the federal level.
Last year, a bill that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour died in the Senate Finance Committee.
But recent polls show the vast majority of Marylanders support a raise of the minimum wage, and with the amount of attention given to the topic by President Barack Obama in his recent State of the Union address, the shifting climate has led some policy experts to believe there is an increasing likelihood that some type of legislation will pass.
“I think it gives [the issue] a little more momentum, especially among Democrats,” said Curt Grimm, professor of economics at the University of Maryland. “When you’re talking about the state of Maryland … where the Democrats kind of are in charge ... then it could have a factor [in getting the support of] … some of the more moderate Democrats that would need to support this. I think that could be a factor [in] helping push this over the top.”
But support from Obama isn’t likely to sway the opinions of Republican lawmakers who oppose the idea of a minimum wage hike, an issue that is often split down party lines, Grimm said.
Alternative minimum wage bills introduced by some Republican lawmakers are also scheduled to be heard in General Assembly committees next week.
A “county choice” bill co-sponsored by Sen. Barry Glassman, R-Harford, and Delegate Neil Parrott, R-Washington, would give counties the power to decide whether the minimum wage for people employed within their borders should be above the federally set rate. Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, is sponsoring an identical bill.
Backers of the county choice bills argue that while a $10.10 minimum wage makes sense in some jurisdictions, it doesn’t in counties where the median income and cost of living is lower.
“Western Maryland isn’t the same as the Eastern Shore, which isn’t the same as Baltimore City, [which] is not the same as southern Maryland,” Parrott said in an interview last month. “So to come up with one minimum wage rate for the whole state might be sensible in some counties, but is certainly not sensible in other counties.”
Opponents of a statewide hike also say it would hurt the counties that border Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, where the minimum wage sits at the federal $7.25 hourly minimum wage.
On the other end of the scale, a bill introduced by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, would explicitly prohibit counties from adopting their own minimum wage laws.
Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties recently voted to raise their minimum wages to $11.50 by 2017, but some critics say the counties have no way of enforcing the rates. Opponents also argue that different minimum wages within the state would create an economic disadvantage for certain counties.
Klausmeier’s bill calls for a statewide minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, with a “training wage” exemption that would permit employers to pay certain workers $7.25 an hour through the first six months of their employment.
A bill that would require the Commissioner of Labor and Industry to enforce minimum wage laws set by counties will also be heard next week, along with one sponsored by Delegate Keith Haynes, D-Baltimore City, that calls for a statewide rate of $12.50 an hour.