THE RATIONALE behind the mislabeled "living wage" bill in Montgomery County is wrongheaded. Proponents claim it would assist the working poor. But some strong advocates of a higher federal minimum wage -- including Maryland's Rep. Al Wynn and County Executive Doug Duncan -- see serious consequences. This is not your classic minimum-wage measure; it is an out-of-line wage burden on selected merchants, nonprofits and others: Do business with the county, and you may have to pay your employees more than twice the current county minimum wage.

Rep. Wynn says he is "frankly horrified" that the wage bill could cause employers to shy away from redevelopment efforts in downtown Silver Spring. "Any entry-level wage should be one that will be attractive to an employer so that he will hire more people who have marginal skills."

When financiers and some businesses that had planned to be part of the Silver Spring project balked, sponsors of the bill pledged to tat up an exception. A similar response came in Wheaton when developers complained. When nonprofits warned that their entry-level staffs and services would suffer cuts, council members scurried to come up with still more exceptions. What message do these scattershot contractions send to businesses?

The county's largest private-sector employer -- Marriott International Inc. -- voiced strong concerns early on about being included in this bill because of tax credits it received for agreeing to stay in Montgomery. Not to worry, said supporters of the bill, that agreement was already completed. But there is new concern about whether Marriott's management of a planned county conference center might subject it to the twice-as-high entry-level wage requirement.

Enough. Council members and taxpayers who support solid assistance for the working poor should back a broader, fairer approach proposed by Mr. Duncan: a county earned-income tax credit that would give assistance to some 12,000 workers who earn less than $17,000 a year to support a family of four. This plan, along with transportation, job training and child-care assistance, deserves enactment. The "living wage" bill -- even retinkered -- does not.