Legislation that would more than double the minimum wage for certain workers in Montgomery County crumbled yesterday as the number of County Council members opposed to the measure in any form rose to a majority.
The bill, the first of its kind in the area, proposed to help an expanding population of ethnically diverse, poorer residents in the once overwhelmingly middle-class suburb.
It was part of a national campaign by anti-poverty activists to improve wages for those forced into low-paying jobs by welfare reform, a campaign that is expected to lead to similar legislation in Prince George's County in the coming weeks.
The measure's apparent demise in Montgomery represents a triumph for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who had warned that it threatened to make the county an unappealing place to do business by driving up labor costs. He has offered his own proposal to help the working poor through income tax credits and other means.
Yesterday, council members Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) and Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who both had signed campaign pledges supporting the general concept of "living wage" legislation, announced their opposition to the specific bill, cementing a five-member majority against it. They called the proposal "the wrong tool for doing the job with too many unintended and unknown consequences."
As proposed, the measure would require most companies that do business with or receive money from the county to pay workers at least $10.44 an hour, more than twice the minimum wage.
"If they don't support it, I can't see that it will be successful in any form," said Council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large), who this week presented a scaled-backed proposal in an effort to save the idea. "Now we may be looking at a battle for a considerable period of time."
When the living-wage campaign started in the county last year, six candidates who were subsequently elected to the County Council promised to support a bill.
Similar bills have succeeded in 30 jurisdictions across the country, often pushed by unions seeking to make privatizing government jobs an unattractive option, because companies bidding for such work would have to pay higher wages.
The bill's trajectory in Montgomery mirrored that of other recent, large policy proposals in the county. What started as a broad piece of legislation supported by unions and liberals shrank in the face of the county's commerce-driven political realities until, in this case, it evaporated.
In its place, Duncan's package of income tax credits and subsidies for job training, child care and other services has emerged as the consensus choice. Subin and Silverman pledged yesterday to introduce that package at Tuesday's council meeting. To the package, which calls for creating the country's first county-level earned-income tax credit, they will add $300,000 to expand school-based mental health services, they said.
"I hope the council adopts this as quickly as possible so we can start getting this help to poor families," Duncan said. "This has been a valuable debate. What is most important is that we do something to help these families struggling to make ends meet."
Last year, Silverman and Subin signed a pledge distributed by Progressive Montgomery, a coalition of churches, unions and community groups, that read: "Yes! I believe that private companies that benefit from tax-funded contracts and subsidies should be required to pay no less than living wages."
Tom Hucker, living-wage campaign director for Progressive Montgomery, called Subin and Silverman's opposition now a "betrayal."
"This is absolutely outrageous," Hucker said. "There's nothing courageous about this decision. They caved in to elements of the business community that are perfectly happy to profit with the help of the county while their workers live in poverty."
Silverman said that, after studying the ramifications of the bill, he decided that the legislation would end up costing Montgomery millions of dollars each year as contractors and recipients of economic aid passed on additional payroll costs to the county.
"When I signed on to this last fall, I was under the impression that the cost would fall on the private sector," Silverman said. "I decided that if we were going to pay for this, it should be on a more targeted basis."
Subin said that the living-wage advocates have "their hearts in the right place." But he said that the bill would consign working-poor families to low-wage jobs because it does not include job-training money. The package Subin and Silverman will introduce next week contains $6.5 million for job training, child care and housing, among other areas.
"I said I supported the [living-wage] concept but all along stated that I would need to see specific legislation," Subin said. "They never showed me this until it was presented."
Council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), the bill's primary sponsor, said he was disappointed that Subin and Silverman will not support living-wage legislation in addition to their proposals. But he said that even without the legislation, he would start questioning companies that receive economic development packages of more than $100,000, which require council approval. He wants to make sure Montgomery "is not subsidizing the creation of poverty wage jobs."
He also said the living-wage campaign will not disappear, even if his bill fails in a vote scheduled for Aug. 3. "Regardless of what happens in the next two weeks, it's only a matter of time before the county joins other jurisdictions in passing a comprehensive living-wage bill," Andrews said.