Mayor Catherine Pugh’s Veto May Kill Baltimore Minimum Wage Bill

Mayor Catherine Pugh (Photo provided)

The fate of Baltimore’s lowest-paid workers is in doubt after Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced on March 24 that she will veto a bill to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022.

Her veto likely kills the bill, as at least one council member who voted for the bill said he would support a mayoral veto, which would prevent a veto-proof majority.

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,” she said.

Prior to making her decision, the mayor consulted with many nonprofit organizations, small business owners 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’m committed to stand with the working poor people of this city and [those] 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 [people who] built Baltimore.”

The Baltimore City Council voted, 11-3, on March 20 in favor of the bill.

Pugh’s move sends the bill back to the council — which meets on Monday — where the veto is expected to be upheld.

Councilman Edward Reisinger (D-District 10), who voted in favor of the bill, told the JT on March 23 he vowed to flip his position in favor of the mayor.

While the final vote for the legislation at the March 20 council meeting generated a nearly veto-proof majority — D-District 2 Councilman Brandon Scott, a supporter, was out of town — 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.

For her part, Pugh previously said through her spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, the city is dealing with a number of fiscal concerns. Among them, McCarthy noted, are a $20 million deficit, a $130 million schools budget shortfall and new spending requirements tied to the U.S. Department of Justice’s police consent decree.

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 Young, Stokes and Middleton seeking comment were not returned. All three voted in favor of the bill at both the preliminary hearing on March 6 and and the final reading on March 20.

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

Now, Clarke is consulting with the bill’s supporters to figure out the next course of action.

“We’re not asking people to become rich,” Clarke said. “We are asking that they become solvent when they’re working in many of the jobs our investment as a city has created.”

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 two weeks ago 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 many 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. “But this shows real leadership, as she stayed true to the priority that Baltimore must remain competitive for growth and jobs.”

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