WYPR News
9:05 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

Annapolis Horsetrading Stalls Minimum Wage Bill

Originally published on Thu March 20, 2014 6:35 pm

Just two weeks are left before the end of the legislative session in Annapolis, and the Governor’s proposal to raise the minimum wage is stuck in a Senate committee. Advocates for the wage hike are ratcheting up the pressure on key lawmakers to move the bill along.

  At a rally outside Atwater’s in Catonsville, Governor Martin O’Malley told his audience that it’s time to raise the minimum wage so everyone in Maryland can afford to live.

“No one who works hard, who plays by the rules, who catches the early bus and goes to work doing essential but difficult jobs should have to raise their child in poverty,” a fired-up O’Malley told the crowd. “Not in our state not in our state.”

The rally comes as the Senate Finance committee is considering the governor’s minimum wage legislation. Advocates are pulling out all the stops to keep up momentum as the end of the session gets closer.

Raise Maryland, a coalition of unions, faith groups and nonprofits bought radio air time in Baltimore to push for a raise for tipped workers. The House of Delegates nixed a provision to do just that when it passed the minimum wage bill last week. The delegates chose instead to freeze the current rate of $3.63 indefinitely, which angered advocates who call it a handout to the National Restaurant Association, which has pushed for similar wage freezes in other states.

Raise Maryland has organized campaigns to send thousands of constituent letters to delegates and senators.  And this week, the campaign launched a series of robo-calls targeting four Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee thought to be on the fence.

“We think it’s important that they hear from their constituents,” says Matt Hanson, Raise Maryland’s campaign director. “We know that they hear a lot from the opposition but when over 80 percent of constituents support a raise to the minimum wage, we want to make sure the grassroots support is not drowned out by big money opposition to the minimum wage bill.”

Baltimore County Democrat Kathy Klausmeier is one of the senators Raise Maryland wants to nudge over to their side of the fence. She introduced her own legislation earlier in the session that would raise the wage by one dollar to $8.25. That’s far short of O’Malley’s proposal, but it’s a number that she says is more reasonable for retailers and restaurant owners in her district than the $10.10 the governor wants.

“Some businesses can take that hit but small businesses, I don’t know that they can,” Klausmeier said.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has supported a similarly small wage hike.

Robocalls have also been going out in Charles County urging residents to tell Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mac Middleton to pass the minimum wage bill.

Middleton says supports raising the wage, but he’s holding up the legislation until he knows the Senate can pass a bill of his own. His proposal would tie the wages of state-subsidized workers who care for people with developmental disabilities to the minimum wage, creating a wage floor 50 percent higher than the minimum.

“These are not minimum wage jobs,” Middleton said. “You’ve got to have a certain education. You’ve got to have a background check. And a lot of times these are put unsupervised to work in group homes.”

Currently, these workers make an average of $9.82 an hour for what many recognize as difficult work that requires a level of skill above what most minimum wage jobs typically require. Middleton says direct care organizations are dealing with large vacancies and massive turnover already. He’s concerned that if the state raises the minimum wage to $10.10, these service providers become minimum wage workers, which he calls “unconsciounable.”

“To the extent that I don’t want a move a bill until we’ve resolved the [Developmental Disabilities Administration workers] thing, then yeah, we are stalling. I will admit that,” Middleton said Wednesday morning.

Middleton met with aides to Gov. O’Malley on Wednesday afternoon to try and find an agreement to move both bills forward, though no agreement has been announced.

The governor said Thursday he thinks the work these workers do is important, but any raise to their wages comes out of the state’s budget. Two weeks ago, the Board of Revenue Estimates downgraded the projected amount of money coming in to state coffers this year by $239 million dollars, making an already tight budget even tighter. “I don’t mind a degree of horse trading,” O’Malley told reporters after the rally Thursday. “But I don’t have a lot of horses to trade.”

The Senate Finance Committee working group will meet one more time before voting on the bill. Advocates, the governor, as well as members of the finance committee all say they have faith the committee will approve a bill increasing the minimum wage, but what exactly it’ll look like when it leaves the committee is still unclear.

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