Minimum Wage Showdown: City Decries State Effort to Limit Powers


The debate over whether local jurisdictions should have the power to raise the minimum wage has taken center stage at the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis.

Baltimore City Council members on Jan. 26 slammed Democratic state lawmakers at a news conference over a bill that would prevent the city and other jurisdictions from enacting their own minimum wage laws.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat who represents the 14th District and has long been a champion of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, said Baltimore should be able to determine a wage level that is best for the city.

“Even those opposed would agree: Don’t rob us of the right to set those wages locally, a right decades old and crucial to our future resurgence,” Clarke said.

Del. Derrick Leon Davis, a Democrat who represents District 25 in Prince George’s County, introduced a bill Jan. 25 that would prohibit any county or municipality from passing a law “that regulates the wages or benefits provided by an employer other than the county or municipality.”

A spokeswoman for Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, said he would not comment on the legislation until after a public hearing in Annapolis Tuesday, after press time.

City Councilmembers Zeke Cohen, Kristerfer Burnett, Ryan Dorsey, Shannon Sneed, Robert Stokes and John Bullock flanked Clarke around a lectern in City Hall to express their displeasure for the proposed state measure.

Cohen, a Democrat who represents the 1st District, told the JT afterward he adamantly opposes any legislation that curtails the power of the City Council to make rulings in favor of Baltimore residents.

“To me, this is about usurpation of local authority,” Cohen said. “I wouldn’t go into P.G. County and assume to tell Del. Davis how he should run his jurisdiction. That is not acceptable.”

Supporters, meanwhile, think a statewide minimum wage mandate would help improve the business climate in Maryland, which Forbes ranked 31st in 2016 as the best state for business.

C.T. Wilson, a Democrat who represents District 28 in Charles County, is a co-sponsor of Davis’ bill, which he believes will stop unfair competition for businesses across jurisdictional lines in the state.

“Our goal is to make sure we have the same uniformity in the state and that we help both our employers and employees,” Wilson told the JT. In my experience meeting with business owners and regular people, it becomes very difficult to monitor what laws and regulations there are from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, which gets even more difficult when employees work in multiple jurisdictions. The goal really is to try and continue attracting business to Maryland.”

The current minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75 and will rise to $10.10 by July 2018.

In Prince George’s County, the County Council has already passed a law to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2017. Montgomery County has done the same, passing legislation last month to raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2022.

Marc Elrich, a Montgomery County councilman and Democrat, joined the City Council to stand in solidarity with its efforts. He said the Montgomery County Council and Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, a Democrat, are unanimous in their opposition and would be working hand-in-hand with the Baltimore City Council to ensure the bill does not pass.

“I think we are stronger when we work together, and we absolutely have to work together,” Elrich said. “This is one of those moments where we have to decide where we stand and what we’re going to do. I am tired of hearing about starter wages, because nobody gets starter food and nobody gets starter rent. There’s no starter anything, except for the private sector.”

Some political experts wonder if the long-term goal behind Davis’ bill is to get state lawmakers on the same page to fight for a $15 minimum wage together.

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, speculated that advocates of the bill may be working behind the scenes to generate more support at the state level for such a measure.

“Maybe they feel like strength is in the numbers. If they want to fight for $15 per hour, then they have to have everyone fighting together in the same battle,” Kromer said.

This past August, the city council squashed an effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 by July 2022, voting 8-6 with one abstention to send the bill back to committee. But with a new, more progressive and younger council, Clarke, the bill’s sponsor, hopes to introduce another version of her legislation later this year and get enough votes for passage. She previously told the JT she planned to introduce that legislation last month.

Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat who represents the 5th District, said he has not taken a position on whether he supports a $15 minimum wage. But he acknowledged any decision impacting the city such as a minimum wage proposal should be made by elected city officials.

“Anytime the state tries to override and take control of city decisions, it hinders that ability to properly represent the people we’re sworn to represent,” Schleifer said.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has backed the City Council’s stance against Davis’ bill, telling the JT in a prepared statement that “we must be aware of that impact as conversation around a minimum age increase goes forward.” She also added that she is in favor of seeing minimum wage regulations discussed at the state or regional level.

Passage of  legislation in major metropolitan cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, among others, adds fuel to activists that Baltimore will one day join that list on its own merit.

For his part, Cohen called on residents throughout Baltimore to reach out to their local legislators to make their voices heard.

“If we’re not going to stand for ourselves, then who will? If not now, then when? This is Baltimore’s moment,” Cohen said. “We should stand up.”

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