MONTGOMERY COUNTY’S minimum wage of $10.75 per hour already exceeds that of most of the rest of the United States by $3.50 per hour, and most of Maryland by $2. Believing this insufficiently supportive of low-wage workers, a progressive coalition led by local labor unions persuaded the County Council to pass a bill raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020 — to which County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has quite wisely said “no.” In a Jan. 23 memorandum explaining his veto, Mr. Leggett said he might be willing to go to $15, but not unconditionally, not before 2022 and not without an objective economic study of all the ramifications, intended and unintended.
The measure’s supporters, who had mustered five votes on the nine-member council, one fewer than a veto-proof majority, attacked Mr. Leggett’s veto: “Working families who fear life under the Trump presidency need not wait for the White House to make their lives harder — their own local leaders have already started,” the MD/DC Fight for $15 Coalition said Monday. This is hyperbole. Actually, Mr. Leggett took the action he did out of well-founded concerns, including the “significant financial impact” on county government from jacking up wages for entities that provide taxpayer-supported services.
Specifically, labor costs would rise to the tune of $21.1 million for the county’s nonprofit developmental disability service providers alone in the next fiscal year. Medicaid service providers would see their costs of doing business rise by 5.5 percent. And that is on top of the potential “competitive disadvantage” Montgomery businesses might face relative to those in neighboring jurisdictions, as Mr. Leggett noted. There’s no use raising wages for less-skilled or entry-level workers if most of the businesses that might hire them migrate elsewhere — or are deterred from opening or expanding. As Mr. Leggett pointed out, Seattle and New York City are tourist destinations whose hotel and restaurant industries can pass on some of the increased labor costs to non-residents. Not so Montgomery County. Even deep-blue California’s $15 minimum doesn’t kick in until 2022 — or later if certain economic conditions persuade the governor to impose a “pause.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took up the cry of “15 bucks an hour!” during his run for the presidency in 2016, converting support for that objective into a litmus test of true progressivism for many liberals. It takes a certain amount of political courage for those who support the goal of supporting low-income workers, but not necessarily this method, to say so. Mr. Leggett, and the four council members who voted against the measure, have shown that kind of courage.