Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh Vows to Veto Minimum Wage Bill

Mayor Catherine Pugh (File photo)

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh on Friday afternoon announced that she will veto a bill to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022.

Pugh said “it is in the best interest” of the city to follow the state in raising the minimum wage from $8.75 to $10.10 by 2018 and not increasing it beyond that.

She also believes a wage hike would put the city on an “island,” forcing businesses to move to surrounding jurisdictions, such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties.

“What I am doing is making sure that Baltimore City is not the hole in the doughnut, that we will follow the state’s lead,” Pugh said.

She consulted with many nonprofit organizations, business leaders and Maryland county executives, including Isiah “Ike” Leggett of Montgomery County, who vetoed a $15 minimum wage bill after his council passed it in January.

Councilman Zeke Cohen (D-District 1), showing his support for the bill’s lead sponsor, Mary Pat Clarke (D-District 14), outside City Hall after Pugh’s announcement, said he will continue to fight for Baltimore’s poorest workers.

“I’m here because I committed to stand with the working poor people of this city and who built this city,” Cohen said. “And to abandon them is unacceptable. … I am committed to this legislation to $15 — that’s the bare minimum of what this city should do for the city that built Baltimore.”

Since the Baltimore City Council voted on Monday in favor of the bill 11-3, Pugh had remained mum on whether she planned to sign it. She expressed concerns about the bill itself and the potentially negative impact it could have on companies.

Pugh’s move sends the bill back to the council, where her veto is expected to be upheld.

Councilman Edward Reisinger (D-District 10), who previously voted in favor of the bill, told the JT on Thursday he vowed to flip his position in favor of the mayor.

While the final vote for the legislation at Monday’s council meeting generated a nearly veto-proof majority — D-District 2 Councilman Brandon Scott, a supporter, was out of town for it — Reisinger’s backing of a mayoral veto would effectively kill the bill. Votes from 12 of the 15 council members would be needed to override Pugh’s veto.

Reisinger would join fellow council members Eric Costello (D-District 11), Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) and Leon F. Pinkett III (D-District 7) in opposing the bill. Costello, Schleifer and Pinkett have all previously voted against the legislation.

“I want to give her some consideration,” Reisinger said of Pugh. “I made a commitment and honor to vote for the bill on the second and third reader, but the veto vote is a different issue. She made a lot of compelling arguments.”

He said he was unaware of the financial strain he felt the bill would put on city taxpayers, citing a report released by the Department of Finance earlier this month, which concluded that the bill would cost taxpayers $115 million over the next four years because of higher wages for city workers. It also warned that it could cost the city hundreds of jobs.

A well-connected source with knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Councilman Robert Stokes (D-District 12) also would not oppose the mayor’s veto. The source added that it’s likely council Vice President and Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton (D-District 6) would not vote against the mayor. Prior to confirming with Reisinger, the source told the JT he was going to support the veto.

Calls and emails to the offices of Stokes, Young and Middleton seeking comment were not returned. All three voted in favor of the bill at both the preliminary hearing on March 6 and Monday’s meeting.

When Clarke reintroduced the legislation in February, she and Young hoped to get unanimous support from the council after some tweaks were made.

The bill calls for low-wage employees 21 and older at businesses with more than 50 employees to earn $15 by 2022. Companies with 50 or fewer employees would have until 2026 to implement the increase, which calls for hourly wages of the lowest-paid workers to rise 60 cents annually to reach the wage hike.

In addition, council members adopted an amendment by Pugh last week that would exempt for six months companies that are using city-approved programs to train workers.

During her mayoral campaign, Pugh pledged in an American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) questionnaire to adopt a $15 minimum wage if a bill reached her desk.

Advocates expressed their disappointment with Pugh, arguing that the current minimum wage doesn’t provide Baltimore workers a fair living wage.

“We are deeply upset that Mayor Pugh has broken her campaign pledge by vetoing this legislation, which promises to give tens of thousands of workers higher wages and the opportunity to lead self-sufficient lives,” said Ricarra Jones, chair of the Fight for $15 Baltimore Coalition. “As a state senator, Mayor Pugh was a strong supporter of a livable minimum wage and explicitly promised to sign the Baltimore wage bill as mayor. Today, she has made clear that promises are made to be broken. The voters will remember her turnaround.”

Opponents, meanwhile, feel the bill would result in higher costs of labor and create a competitive disadvantage between Baltimore and the surrounding counties.

In a prepared statement sent to the JT via email, pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee president and CEO Donald C. Fry, one of the legislation’s most outspoken critics, applauded Pugh’s decision.

“The decision was no doubt a difficult one for the mayor,” Fry said is a prepared statement. “But this shows real leadership as she stayed true to the priority that Baltimore must remain competitive for growth and jobs.”

This story has been updated.

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