The Maryland Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to legislation raising the minimum wage for most workers to $15 by 2025, a major victory for liberal Democrats that sets up a possible showdown with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
A final vote is likely by the end of the week.
The left wing of the Maryland Democratic Party has pushed for years to increase the hourly minimum wage across the state, but bills never made it out of committee.
Then a wave of liberal victories in the 2018 elections significantly increased support for a $15 minimum in Annapolis this year. Still, the bills’ prospects solidified only when the more centrist Democrats who lead the House and Senate gave their stamp of approval, adding the legislation to their 2019 agendas.
Both chambers made significant changes before advancing the bills, with the House of Delegates delaying full implementation from 2023 to 2025 and exempting some workers and the Senate giving companies with fewer than 15 employees until 2028 to reach the higher wage.
The modifications have not been enough to placate Hogan, who wrote in a letter last week to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) that a $15 wage would hurt businesses and make the state less competitive with its neighbors.
The governor proposed raising the minimum wage, currently $10.10, to $12.10 an hour by 2022. He also asked the legislature not to increase it further unless surrounding states reach a combined average of 80 percent of Maryland’s wage. The minimum wage is $7.25 in Virginia and Pennsylvania and $8.75 in Delaware and West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Miller told his colleagues Monday that Hogan said he would probably veto the $15 wage legislation if it reaches his desk. The governor’s spokeswoman did not respond to a question Wednesday about Hogan’s plans.
But the legislature shows no sign of yielding. The House version of the bill passed 96 to 44, more than enough votes to override a veto. The initial approval in the Senate did not include an individual vote tally; it is unclear how many votes the bill will get when it is up for final passage.
Senators spent more than an hour Wednesday debating several amendments, mainly offered by Republican lawmakers. Each was rejected.
One amendment, by Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Worcester), would have created geographical tiers for phasing in the $15 wage, to “make it as fair as possible for the different regions of the state.”
Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City), the lead Senate sponsor of the bill, opposed the amendment, arguing that a person living in poverty in Baltimore City is not unlike a person living in poverty in Garrett County.
“We are one Maryland,” McCray said.
A second amendment went further than Hogan’s matching proposal, calling for a $15 minimum wage in Maryland only if the five surrounding jurisdictions raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour, too. Of the five, only the District has approved a $15 wage floor, to be fully implemented next year.
Another amendment, offered by Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard), focused on a provision giving small businesses more time to phase in the $15 minimum. That provision defines small businesses as those with fewer than 15 employees. But Hester’s amendment would have expanded the provision to apply to businesses with fewer than 25 employees.
If the legislation receives final approval in the Senate, which is expected, differences between the two House and Senate versions of the legislation will have to be reconciled through a joint conference committee. The bill would then go to the governor, who could sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
On Wednesday, proponents of the $15 minimum said they were pleased even with the modified versions of the legislation and would focus on ensuring final passage and pressuring Hogan to sign it.
“We were hoping that we would get to $15 by 2023 but I think we’re at a point where we are looking forward and excited that hundreds of thousands of low-income workers are getting much-needed and long-overdue raises,” said Ricarra Jones of the Fight for $15 coalition. “We’re hoping the Senate and the House will reject the governor’s proposal and move forward with what’s on the table right now.”
If the legislation takes effect, Maryland would join a growing list of blue states that approved a $15 wage. Most 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls support boosting the wage nationwide.
According to the NCSL, California will hit the $15-an-hour threshold in 2022, Massachusetts in 2023, New Jersey in 2024 and Illinois in 2025. Even red states such as Missouri and Arkansas are boosting their wage floors, though by lesser amounts.
In New York, which has approved a staggered minimum wage in different parts of the state, the wage rose to $15 an hour for large employers in New York City on Dec. 31, 2018, and smaller employers will have to pay that wage by the end of 2019, according to the NCSL.
Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, Montgomery County, approved legislation two years ago that will raise the minimum wage for businesses with at least 51 employees to $15 as of July 1, 2021. Other jurisdictions, including Prince George’s County, opted to wait until the state adopted the higher wage.
Just hours before the Senate vote, Jones led a group of about 75 health-care workers in a march around State Circle, ending up in front of the entrance to the governor’s mansion chanting, “What do we want? 15! When do you want it? Now!”
Among them was Lisa Williams, an environmental care worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital who makes $12.57 an hour, more than both the current minimum wage and the governor’s proposed $12.10 minimum.
Williams said she struggles to make ends meet and believes poverty in Baltimore has driven a surge in crime. If the governor wants to reduce crime in the city, she said, he should support a $15 minimum wage.