Md. Democrats’ movement to raise minimum wage gains speed as election year looms

September 3, 2013

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has said it’s consistent with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for justice. The three Democrats seeking to succeed O’Malley are for it. And one of the state’s congressmen has pledged to personally bankroll a campaign to promote it.

Raising the minimum wage, it seems, has become the latest rage in Maryland. And the attention comes as D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) weighs whether to sign a bill that would require the District’s largest retailers to pay their employees a super-minimum wage.

With an election year looming, a growing number of Democrats are promising a renewed push next year to require Maryland employers to pay significantly more than the $7.25 an hour required by federal law.

“Here in Maryland, we’re a progressive state,” Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) said Friday at event outside a Food Lion supermarket in Gaithersburg. “We ought to take care of the people who work every day and make sure that they make enough money to actually be able to live and survive in our economy.”

Gansler, a candidate in the 2014 Maryland governor’s race, argued that raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour is “the morally correct thing to do and the economically sound thing to do.” His two declared opponents in the Democratic primary had previously spoken out on the issue.

Bills to raise the minimum wage went nowhere during the most recent 90-day legislative session in Annapolis, in part because of staunch resistance from retailers and other employers. But supporters — including the state’s labor unions — hope the dynamic will be different when lawmakers return in January, particularly if O’Malley puts his legislative muscle behind a proposal.

Nineteen states and the District mandate a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum. Although bills are pending in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, most observers consider passage a long shot. On Friday, a bill that would require some major retailers in the District to pay employees combined wages and benefits of no less than $12.50 hourly was sent to Gray.

A senior O’Malley administration official said the governor is considering including a minimum-wage bill in a package of initiatives next session aimed at helping the middle class. O’Malley, who is weighing a 2016 presidential bid, has not settled on the specifics of a bill, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to more freely discuss the governor’s plans.

During remarks last week at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, O’Malley ticked off several issues that he said are part of the “work of justice” championed by King. Among them: raising the minimum wage “for every mom and dad that’s willing to work hard and play by the rules.”

Not everyone who needs to be sold on the idea has been.

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) said he remains “very concerned that it could result in the elimination of jobs.”

“Yes, it will benefit some people, but at the expense of others,” said Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, which has jurisdiction over minimum-wage legislation in the House. “We have to be cautious in our approach.”

 

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Davis said he considered this year’s legislation — which would have gradually raised the minimum wage to $10 an hour by mid-2015 — to be a “dramatic change.” He said he also continues to oppose a provision that would have automatically increased the minimum wage after 2015 by an inflation-driven formula.

One of Gansler’s rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery), was a co-sponsor of the bill that failed in the last session. The other, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, pledged during a campaign stop in June that he would make the issue a priority in the next legislative session.

Given the influence of labor unions in Democratic politics, some analysts say Democratic legislators — particularly those facing primary challenges — have an added incentive to support a bill next year, when their seats will be on the ballot.

“I think if you’re a Democrat running in a Democratic primary, you’ve almost got to be for it,” said Donald F. Norris, the chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “The labor vote is an important part of the Democratic coalition.”

Norris said raising the minimum wage does carry some risk for the legislature, however. Fairly or not, Maryland has a reputation in some quarters as a state unfriendly to business, and mandating higher wages “plays right into that narrative,” Norris said.

During his appearance Friday, Gansler said businesses stand to gain from paying higher wages because it will reduce turnover among employees. “It makes people loyal to the company,” he said.

Rep. John Delaney (D), the newest member of Maryland’s congressional delegation, made similar arguments last month when he announced that he would draw on personal funds to launch a campaign to raise the state minimum wage in next year’s legislative session.

Delaney, a financier who won election in Maryland’s 6th District last year, said he remains supportive of federal legislation to raise the minimum wage across the country. A pending bill would increase it from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2015.

But “the chances of that moving anytime soon are limited,” he said, adding that “the best way to make a difference for my constituents” is pushing state lawmakers to take action.

Delaney said the campaign he intends to bankroll would involve a grass-roots component, digital ads and more traditional media, including television spots, as the legislative session draws closer.

Maryland lawmakers last voted to raise the minimum wage for private-sector employers in 2005. The bill, which Davis sponsored in the House, established an hourly minimum of $6.15 — a dollar above the federal standard at the time. It was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

But the heavily Democratic legislature overrode Ehrlich’s veto in early 2006 and, later that year, passed a bill applying the higher pay standard to state and local government workers, who were not covered by the original legislation.

By 2008, the minimum wage mandated by Maryland was overtaken by increases passed by Congress. The federal floor of $7.25 has been in place since 2009.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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