Montgomery set to vote on minimum-wage hike, but devil remains in details

The Montgomery County Council appears poised to pass some form of legislation Tuesday raising the $7.25 an hour minimum wage. But as of Monday evening, the particulars of the final bill remained in flux. A flurry of new proposals and amendments continued to circulate among council members.

The size of the raise, the length of time to phase it in, and the question of whether future increases will be tied to the consumer price index are all under negotiation.

“A lot of things are still in play. Something will pass for sure. It’s a question of how much,” Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty) said of the bill, sponsored by Council member Marc Elrich (D-At-Large). Navarro and Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) are co-sponsors.

The measure, as approved last week by the council’s health and Human Services Committee, would increase the minimum to $11.50 an hour over three years, with future increases linked to the consumer price index. The District of Columbia and Prince George’s County councils are considering essentially the same proposal.

Ervin called the measure “a vote of conscience” and “a litmus test” for the June 2014 Democratic primary. She said those voting for a lesser package could find themselves targeted by organized labor and progressive Democratic groups for defeat.

But some council members remain uncomfortable with the size of the increase and the phase-in period, contending that it lifts the wage too high, too quickly.

Late Monday, County Executive Isiah Leggett attempted to address those misgivings with a new proposal staggering the increase over five years, topping out at $11.50 or $1.00 higher than the state minimum wage--whichever is lower — with no indexing for inflation.

Leggett had originally favored $10.75 over three years, with no indexing for inflation.

“I feel we must adopt an approach that will balance the needs of both our workers and our businesses that are still struggling to recover from a prolonged national recession,” he said in a letter to Navarro.

Elrich said Monday he told Leggett that the proposal was not acceptable because of the five-year phase-in, the lack of certainty that it will top out at $11.50 and the absence of indexing.

“Indexing I think is really important,” Elrich said. “You want people to move closer to a living wage and then you don’t index it, that means every year it erodes to the order of something like 30 to 40 cents.”

Council member Hans Riemer (D-At-Large) said Monday evening that he was working with Council members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) George Leventhal (D-At-Large) and Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg) on an alternative proposal to get the minimum to $11.50. Riemer would not reveal specifics, but said it had the potential “to garner the support of everyone on the County Council.”

“I think the broad outlines are almost there. We’re going to get this thing done,” said Riemer.

Some members were concerned after hearing testimony at last week’s committee hearing from two liberal economists. Judith Hellerstein of the University of Maryland and Harry Holzer of Georgetown both endorsed raising the wage but cautioned that a hike to $11.50 over three years could increase joblessness among the working poor.

Holzer, a former chief economist for the Department of Labor in the Clinton administration, said he was concerned about a wage that went higher than $10 an hour. Hellerstein said she favored $9 an hour, indexed to inflation.

The committee recommended approval of the bill at $11.50, but committee chair Leventhal said Monday there is broad interest in a compromise.

Leventhal said the objective is to find a set of numbers that could attract something close to a unanimous vote.

“It would be better to have the council together on this,” he said.

The question, he said, is whether Elrich and his co-sponsors are willing to give some ground and come away with a significant legislative victory “or would they rather go down in flames to retain their purity.”

“That’s a joke,” Elrich scoffed. “If we do any of the numbers we’re talking about it’s an improvement.” But with most of the county’s working poor making between $8.50 and 11.00, an increase to $11.50 would have more of an impact.

“I’m not going to be the one to propose lowering the number,” he said. “Why they would expect me to propose that I don’t know.”

Lobbying on both sides intensified as the Tuesday afternoon vote approached. Groups such as the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO) Progressive Maryland, Casa de Maryland, Jews United for Justice, the National Organization for Women pressed the council to stay at $11.50.

From the business community, Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce told the council that it favors no more than $10.10 an hour, spread over five years with no indexing. Developer Bruce Lee sent a pointed e-mail to council members Monday contending that taxes and fees raised over the last few years have placed an intolerable burden on employers.

“Please ask yourselves, who will be left to pay the bills for your many expensive initiatives?” Lee wrote. “Please work with our business community instead of killing it slowly, as you are doing so well currently.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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