A DECEPTIVELY named "living wage" bill being drafted for consideration by the Montgomery County Council is a formula for assisted economic suicide. The proposal, to be introduced this week by council member Philip Andrews, would all but guarantee the flight of businesses out of the county and the refusal of other industries to consider coming to Maryland. The legislation as envisioned would require companies that receive county contracts or taxpayer-funded economic development incentives to pay employees more than twice the current minimum wage.

Already the prospect nearly killed the most important project on Montgomery's horizon in years: the Silver Spring redevelopment effort. Mere word of the project was enough last week to prompt the partnership that is building the commercial center to put a hold on its financing package. Although Mr. Andrews said he intends to provide some sort of exemption for urban renewal areas, backers of the project have good reason to suspend financing. The concept behind the legislation is bad; it would force certain companies to bear out-of-line, permanent costs to do business in the county. Not until after two days of lobbying by aides to a justifiably concerned County Executive Doug Duncan did eight of nine council members agree to send letters pledging not to support any bill that would affect enterprise zones. Such action would exclude the Silver Spring and Wheaton redevelopment projects from the bill. But Mr. Andrews refused to sign, saying the language was too broad.

Little wonder that the Silver Spring partnership still is holding back. Or that a prospective tenant, Strosnider's Hardware, has had second thoughts about locating there; officials estimated that the "living wage" -- $10.41 an hour -- would cost the store $250,000 a year in employee raises. Though council members say Marriott wouldn't be included, what's the message to other firms assessing the pros and cons of moving out?

Workers who have been led to believe that "living wage" legislation is like a minimum wage bill shouldn't pin any hopes on raises. If elected officials can make a case that more government subsidies for the poor are necessary, they can vote for them, not for a back-door scale targeted at certain private employers. No matter how council members try to trim or adjust the "living wage" approach, it would be bad economic news for those least able to absorb it. Rather than trying to paint the "living wage" as help for the poor, the council should drop it outright.