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Maryland House gives initial approval to $15 minimum wage

The Maryland House of Delegates gave initial approval Wednesday to legislation requiring a $15 minimum wage. A final vote on the bill is scheduled for Friday.
The Maryland House of Delegates gave initial approval Wednesday to legislation requiring a $15 minimum wage. A final vote on the bill is scheduled for Friday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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The Maryland House of Delegates gave initial approval Wed­nesday to legislation requiring a $15 minimum wage, a priority for progressive Democrats that failed to advance to the House floor in previous years.

A final vote on the bill is scheduled for Friday. After that it would be considered in the Senate, where proponents expect it to pass, after more amendments to soften the impact on business owners.

“Phew, I’m just glad we’ve got something,” Del. Diana M. Fennell (D-Prince George’s), the bill’s chief sponsor, said after the voice vote.

A handful of other deep-blue states, including California, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey, have already adopted a $15 minimum wage, and Connecticut, Illinois and New Mexico also are weighing bills to raise their wage floors.

The $15 minimum has been embraced by most 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls and is being pushed in states and cities by progressive groups such as the Working Families Party.

“Our mission is a national standard,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of Working Families. “If you get a toehold, that creates a critical mass that won’t stop at the edges of a state line.”

Maryland’s Democratic legislative leaders included the $15 minimum on their legislative agenda for the first time this year, under pressure from new, more liberal lawmakers and constituents.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll over the summer found that 64 percent of registered Maryland voters support a $15 minimum wage. A Goucher College poll released this month showed 85 percent of registered Democrats support it, compared with 37 percent of registered Republicans.

The business community is also split on the issue. Groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce and restaurant association have lobbied heavily against the wage increase, arguing that it would result in job losses and lost hours for workers, compress wages and hamper the state’s economic competitiveness.

“You don’t create jobs by increasing costs,” Jay Steinmetz, chief executive of Baltimore-based Barcoding, told a Republican caucus briefing early Wednesday.

Maryland is sending the message, he said, that he needs to move his supply-chain automation company out of state.

Bob Garner, the owner of Glory Days Grill, said the added cost of a wage increase would upend the business model for his seven ­full-service restaurants. Many of his employees already make more than a $15 hourly wage, he said, but if the wage floor rises, his labor costs will exceed profits.

“A lot of businesses never made a plan for this level of an increase,” he said.

Other business leaders say they favor a higher wage, believing that it can reduce turnover and boost worker productivity.

“A low-wage model makes it harder to hire and retain employees when they can go elsewhere and make more,” said Alissa ­Barron-Menza, vice president of the group Business for a Fair Minimum Wage. “It locks in poverty in already depressed communities.”

The legislation was amended Monday to delay the wage-increase schedule, exclude agricultural and some youth workers, and preserve a tipped-wage credit for restaurant workers. Another amendment removed a requirement to link future wage increases to the consumer price index.

The bill would require employers to increase the current $10.10 minimum to $11.00 in January 2020. The wage would then increase by 75 cents each January through 2025.

“Any forward motion is good,” said Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored a similar bill last year. She and others said advocates in the Senate may try to restore some of the bill’s original provisions, which would create a need for a conference committee to reconcile the two versions.

Five amendments were offered by House Republicans on Wednesday to address the bill’s impact on less-populated counties, where the cost of living is lower. All were defeated on mostly party-line votes.

“Fifteen dollars would decimate the economy of the rural areas,” said Del. Wayne A. Hartman (R-Worcester), who proposed a tiered system with different wage rates for different parts of the state. “The very same people we are trying to help will be hurt by this.”

Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) cited a Frostburg State University survey of business owners and some workers in his Western Maryland district, which found that a majority believed a wage hike would have negative consequences locally.

“When you talk about economic issues in the state of Maryland, one size doesn’t fit all,” he said.

The House also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make it a hate crime to inscribe or place a symbol of hate — such as a noose or a swastika — on property without the owner’s permission and to threaten or intimidate others.

Del. Mark S. Chang (D-Anne Arundel), the bill’s sponsor, said two men who hung a noose at Crofton Middle School in 2017 were acquitted of criminal ­charges because there was no hate crime statute in Maryland.

“The circuit court judge . . . asked the legislature to specifically address this issue,” Chang said in an interview.

The legislation would make publicly displaying symbols of hate a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison and $5,000 in fines. If the crime involves another felony, the hate crime statue would stiffen those penalties up to a possible 20 years in prison.

Two votes will test how progressive the Maryland General Assembly has become

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