Approval Expected For 'Living Wage' Bill

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

Maryland would become the first state in the nation to mandate that state contractors pay employees a "living wage" under a bill moving briskly toward passage in the House of Delegates yesterday.

The legislation would require that at least $11.30 an hour be paid for work on state contracts in Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and in Baltimore. In other, more rural, counties, where jobs are less plentiful, the floor would be set at $8.50 an hour, still significantly higher than the state's minimum wage of $6.15.

During initial debate yesterday, supporters said the legislation would benefit thousands of workers across Maryland, while opponents argued that it would drive up the cost of state contracts when the state is facing a $1.5 billion budget shortfall next year.

"It's going to lift tens of thousands of Marylanders out of poverty," said Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), a leading proponent of the bill. "It makes Maryland a leader in ensuring that our tax dollars are helping build the middle class rather than perpetuating poverty."

The House is expected to give final approval to the bill today. House leaders said they were confident they have the votes to pass the bill, though they said they were unlikely to have the support of most Republicans and some Democrats from rural areas, who are unhappy with the two-tiered approach.

That approach was part a deal brokered between Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Senate leaders to pass the bill before the 90-day session ends Monday at midnight. In January, O'Malley called on lawmakers to pass a bill with a uniform statewide mandate. But the governor started pushing hard for a compromise in recent days.

"The governor is committed to improving the quality of life for working families in our state and looks forward to signing the bill," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties have had living-wage laws that apply to county contractors since 2005.

More than a decade before that, Baltimore became the first locality in the country to enact a living-wage requirement for city contractors. Since that 1994 action, similar laws have been enacted in at least 120 other localities, including the District.

The current living-wage requirements are $11.60 an hour in Montgomery, $11.25 in Prince George's and $9.62 in Baltimore.

Maryland lawmakers passed a uniform living-wage bill in 2004, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who argued that it would drive up the cost of state contracts. Rather than attempt to override Ehrlich's veto, legislators successfully pushed to raise the state's minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour.

This year, O'Malley called upon lawmakers to pass a statewide living wage during his State of the State address. But the bill, which set the requirement at $11.95 an hour, remained in a House committee because it appeared unlikely to advance in the Senate.

Earlier in the session, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) voiced concerns about whether the wages prescribed by the bill were warranted in all parts of the state. Per-capita income varies considerably in Maryland, from a high of $56,662 in Montgomery to a low of $21,741 in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore, according to 2004 U.S. Census figures.

Amendments to the bill were drafted by O'Malley aides in response to Miller's concerns. Earlier this week, O'Malley received assurances from Miller and Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) that a two-tiered bill could pass the Senate.

Yesterday morning, the House Economic Matters Committee sent the bill to the floor on a 12 to 11 vote.

During debate on the House floor yesterday, lawmakers rejected an amendment 92 to 41 that would have replaced the two-tier requirement with a statewide mandated wage of $10.63 an hour.

"I see discrimination in the bill," said Richard K. Impallaria (R-Baltimore County), who pushed the amendment.

He argued that the bill could make it more difficult for contractors to hire workers in areas where the living wage is nearly $3 less than in other counties.

Lawmakers also turned back an amendment that would have stripped a provision from the bill that requires notification of the law to be given to workers in multiple languages.

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