The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Montgomery proposal for $15-an-hour minimum wage faces uncertain prospects

Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Legislation to raise Montgomery County's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, scheduled for a County Council vote Tuesday, faces an uncertain fate as supporters work to head off a possible veto by County Executive Isiah Leggett.

While alliances could easily shift, the bill, sponsored by council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), holds a slender 5-to-4 majority — enough for passage but short of the six votes needed to override a veto.

In an interview Friday, Leggett (D) expressed unhappiness with the lack of council consensus and heavy opposition from the business community. He said passage under these conditions could send a negative message that would hinder statewide and national advancement of the movement for a $15 wage.

“When you have four people [opposed] and as many businesspeople opposed to this and you don’t work to get a solution, that’s a recipe for a movement going nowhere,” he said.

The national "Fight for $15" movement, spearheaded by organized labor, has helped place the higher wage on the books in the District, California, New York and other large jurisdictions. It narrowly failed in the Baltimore City Council over the summer.

Montgomery’s minimum wage is $10.75. It will rise to $11.50 in July.

One of Leggett’s principal objections to the Elrich bill is the time allotted for phasing in the rise to $15. Leggett has said he wants an extension from 2020 to 2022 to minimize disruptions or hardships for businesses.

Elrich said Friday that he plans to propose a 2022 deadline for small businesses with 25 or fewer employees. But it is not clear that will be enough for Leggett.

“I want to see how all this shakes out,” Leggett said. “I’d have to look at that and analyze it. I’m not going to negotiate publicly about it.”

Elrich, one of the leaders of the 2013 regional effort to raise the minimum wage in Montgomery, Prince George's County and the District to $11.50, said he is ready to negotiate. But he has had trouble connecting with the county executive.

“Things are still fluid,” he said. “I’m waiting to hear something from the executive. We proposed changes we thought addressed most of what he wanted.”

Elrich is joined by council members Hans Riemer (D-At Large), George L. Leventhal (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), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) — want the county to study the potential economic effect of a $15 wage. That would include the fiscal effects on county government, the costs to local businesses and the effects on low-wage employees.

Echoing objections from the business community, they maintain that there is plenty of time — any new minimum-wage legislation would not take effect for years.

“I think we have time to sculpt this to fit Montgomery’s economic situation,” Berliner said. “What’s the rush?”

Said Elrich: “There’s never a right time for a minimum-wage increase. That’s what’s frustrating.”

Riemer said he plans to introduce an amendment that would provide for an economic impact study — but not in lieu of legislation. His proposal would ask the council’s research arm, the Office of Legislative Oversight, to issue annual reports on the local effect of a rising minimum wage.

He said those pushing to freeze the bill for a study are not serious about getting to $15 an hour.

“Their intent is to embark on some reinvention of the wheel, to assess this, that and the other and hopefully delay the decision as long as possible,” Riemer said.

Not true, Berliner said.

“There does need to be an adjustment in the minimum wage,” he said. “I just don’t think we should be marching along on this national movement.”