Montgomery moves ahead on joint effort with District, Pr. George’s to raise minimum wage

A joint effort by Maryland’s Washington suburbs and the District to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2016 took a key step forward Thursday, as legislation successfully cleared a Montgomery County Council committee.

The action sets up the possibility of votes over the next two weeks by the full councils in three jurisdictions: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the District.

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D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said Monday that he expects the District measure to receive committee approval next week and to come before the full council for a tentative first vote on Dec. 3, with final action by the holidays. The Prince George’s council, concerned about placing the county at a competitive disadvantage, deferred a vote Tuesday and said it would wait until Montgomery acted. The Montgomery bill is due for final action next Tuesday.

Sponsors in all three localities say they have the votes to pass the bills and most likely withstand possible vetoes.

The $11.50 rate would be the highest in the nation if it were in effect today. Maryland law currently requires applicable employers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to pay $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. The District minimum is $8.25.

The regional effort is part of a movement by state and local governments to address income inequality and inaction at the federal level, where the minimum wage has not been increased in four years. Voters in New Jersey, New York and California have approved increases this year.

During a four-hour hearing in Montgomery on Thursday, the council’s Health and Human Services committee heard from two economists, Judith Hellerstein of the University of Maryland and Harry Holzer of Georgetown University, who expressed concern that the size of the wage increase could prompt employers to cut back, increasing joblessness among the poor. But the testimony had little impact.

The panel rejected a motion by one of its three members, Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), to defer action with the expectation that the Maryland General Assembly will pass a statewide increase early next year. It also deflected a counterproposal by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to make the wage increase $10.75 an hour by 2016.

The plan by Leggett, who said last week he would sign the bill but wanted to negotiate some details, was delivered to the committee by Economic Development Director Steve Silverman. It drew a spirited rebuke from County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty), who said the move threatened to undermine the regional effort.

Navarro said Prince George’s officials postponed action because they weren’t sure that Montgomery would follow through. “They really did not believe Montgomery County was going to stand strong,” she said. “I don’t blame them. I would have done the same thing. . . . Make no mistake: I think we should proceed.”

When Silverman replied that the difference between $11.50 and $10.75 was “a debate at the margins,” council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), the bill’s principal architect, said that to those on the edges of poverty, the 75 cents-an-hour difference amounted to $30 a week.

“The point is, it’s real money. It’s a bag of groceries,” Elrich said.

The committee voted 2 to 1 to report the bill favorably, with Navarro and the chair, council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) voting yes and Rice abstaining.

The committee made some changes before passage. Responding to concerns from seasonal businesses that employ many teenagers, it exempted workers 18 and younger who work less than 20 hours a week from the increased wage. The original cutoff was 16. The panel also dropped a section offering employers a credit reducing the required minimum wage they would have to pay if they provided health insurance. Council staff members said their research indicated that workers would have more disposable income purchasing insurance on the state exchange rather than having their minimum wage reduced.

 
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