The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Montgomery council supporters of $15 minimum wage try again

Legislation to bring a $15 minimum wage to Montgomery County, vetoed in January by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), was reintroduced Tuesday by its chief council sponsor, setting the stage for an election-season debate over whether it would help or harm low-income workers.

The revised bill, presented by Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), still calls for the hourly wage, currently $11.50, to reach $15 for most employers by 2020. But it attempts to address concerns raised by opponents of the original version by softening the impact for certain segments of the county economy. The legislation gives nonprofit organizations, adult day-care providers and companies with fewer than 26 employees until 2022 to comply.

Beginning in 2023, the minimum would rise based on a consumer price index for urban workers.

Elrich, one of three council incumbents running in the 2018 Democratic primary for county executive, acknowledged Tuesday that the bill is likely to undergo further changes. But he said the pernicious effects of low wages on children and families make a path to $15 an imperative for Maryland’s largest, and one of its wealthiest, jurisdictions.

"We need to get a bill and get it soon," said Elrich, who led passage of the council's 2013 law increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $11.50 over four years, part of an unusual regional effort that saw the District and Prince George's County pass similar measures.

New York state and city, California, Seattle and the District have all approved gradual increases to $15. At least three of Maryland’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, State Sen Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) and former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, have all expressed support for a $15 statewide minimum.

But there is still no consensus among economists about the long-term effects of a higher minimum wage. If anything, the debate has grown more contentious.

Last month, economists at the University of Washington found that when Seattle's wage grew to $13 in 2016, low-income workers across all businesses lost an average of $125 a month because of reduced hours or job loss. A different study of Seattle restaurant workers by the University of California at Berkeley found that wages for low-income workers increased without any significant job loss.

Leggett vetoed Elrich’s first $15 proposal, which passed the council 5 to 4 — one vote short of the supermajority needed for an override — saying he was concerned about damaging the county’s economic competitiveness.

He left the door open to considering a revised bill, but commissioned PFM, a Philadelphia-based economic consulting group, to conduct a study of the potential impact on the county. That report is due as early as Friday.

The Montgomery County Business Coalition called the council “irresponsible” for introducing the bill before release of the PFM report and on the eve of its six-week summer recess. The group asked that the bill be withdrawn and that any further action be postponed “until the Montgomery County government study is released and the public has had time to review the findings.”

Elrich said the PFM study was “nonsense” because it was impossible to project the future impact of a wage increase. He was also critical of polling that the firm has conducted as part of the study, asking county employers about the potential effect of a wage increase. The exercise is certain to produce negative responses, Elrich said.

“I know they will project that this will cost jobs,” Elrich said.

Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large), a co-sponsor of the Elrich bill who is also running for county executive, lamented that the public discussion has been dominated by the impact of a wage increase on businesses. He put out a call to low-wage workers to step forward during upcoming hearings on the bill.

“Employers are very eager to weigh in,” said Leventhal, who also supported the first version of the bill. “ Those who labor in the shadow of poverty unfortunately have not been ringing our bell.”

Elrich and Leventhal are joined by Council members Hans Riemer (D-At Large), Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County) and Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) in support of the bill. The four in opposition — council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) — also a candidate for county executive — Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) have not ruled out saying yes to $15, but say they want to see the study first.