In a unanimous vote, the City Council gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would require businesses getting large city contracts or financial support to hire 51 percent of new workers from Baltimore.
"My council colleagues believe this is a fair thing to do," Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, the bill's lead sponsor, said after the vote. "We have an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. We need to get Baltimore City to work. There are qualified people in this city that can do these jobs."
The city's law department has challenged the legislation — calling it unconstitutional — and some businesses object to what they believe is a burdensome requirement. The bill is scheduled for a final vote at the council's next meeting June 3.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she wants to see the final version before deciding whether she will veto the bill or sign it over her law department's objections.
Under an amendment approved Monday, Young's bill would not take effect until six months after the legislation is enacted. Young said he and Rawlings-Blake met Friday to discuss the legislation, and he offered the six-month grace period as a compromise.
The measure would apply to a business receiving any city contract worth at least $300,000 or to any project that gets at least $5 million in city assistance. It would require that 51 percent of the company's new jobs go to city residents. Businesses that did not comply could be barred from receiving city contracts for a year and face a $500 fine.
The law department said in a letter to council members that enacting hiring preferences based on residence would put the city in a "legally indefensible" position and violate the U.S. Constitution's privileges and immunities clause, which bars one state from discriminating against the residents of another. City Solicitor George Nilson has said that if the bill becomes law, he expects the city would lose any lawsuits filed against it.
But Young noted that Boston and San Francisco have similar local hiring programs, calling them models for Baltimore. The legislation is needed, he said, to help Baltimore overcome the effects of the nationwide economic downtown. City unemployment remains persistently high. It was 9.6 percent in March — the latest figures available — compared with 5.2 percent in March 2008.
"We have union workers who are trained and skilled that don't have work right now as we speak," Young said.
Fewer than 20 city-supported projects top the bill's $5 million mark, but many businesses get city contracts in excess of $300,000. This week, for instance, the city Board of Estimates is set to approve the qualifications of 13 businesses to receive contracts greater than that amount.
Waivers could be issued, on a case-by-case basis, under certain conditions, Young said. For instance, if a company could demonstrate it made a "good faith" effort to hire city residents but couldn't find enough with the necessary skills, it could avoid a penalty. Businesses that are located — and perform their work — outside the area would be eligible for waivers, a provision that supporters believe satisfies legal objections.
Several organizations, including the Job Opportunities Task Force, Associated Black Charities and the Baltimore Jewish Council, submitted testimony in favor of the bill, citing the benefits of bolstering hiring for city residents.