A divided City Council will decide next month whether to increase the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 an hour, which would be the highest in the state.
The council's labor committee voted 4-0 Thursday to send the bill to the 15-member council, where President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has pledged to scale back the proposed increase.
Advocates say joining a national movement to raise the wage to $15 an hour would help to lift impoverished Baltimoreans. But Young and others say it would lead to higher unemployment and fiscal calamity.
The council is split on the measure. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she would sign the bill if it reaches her desk.
Baltimore does not have its own minimum wage. Business and workers are subject to the state minimum wage, which rose to $8.75 this month, en route to $10.10 by 2018.
The city is the latest jurisdiction nationwide to consider an increase. Washington, Seattle and San Francisco have approved increases to $15 an hour. California and New York have approved statewide increases to $15.
Democrats meeting in Philadelphia this week agreed to push for a national minimum of $15 in their party platform. Republicans, who gathered in Cleveland last week, said the minimum wage is "an issue that should be handled on the state and local level."
In Baltimore, about 30 proponents — including union leaders, community organizers and low-wage workers — gathered outside City Hall before the committee vote Thursday to voice their support.
"A job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it," said Dante Bishop, an organizer for Maryland Working Families.
The labor committee approved several amendments to the legislation before approving it. The original version would have required employers to pay workers at least $15 an hour by 2020. It would have exempted businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
The legislation approved by the committee Thursday would require employees to pay workers $15 by 2022. It would exempt businesses with fewer than 25 employees or less than $500,000 in gross annual income. It would also exempt the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the city's YouthWorks program.
Councilman Eric T. Costello said he was disappointed by the decision to reduce the size of businesses exempted.
"I think we went a bit backward here, going from 50 to 25," he said.
The bill will likely change again before the council votes. Young has promised to introduce an amendment that would increase the city's minimum wage to $11.50 an hour.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, chief sponsor of the legislation, said she expects that vote to be close. She said she would not budge from $15 and was trying to persuade other council members to vote with her.
It's unclear how the bill and Young's amendment will fare when introduced to the full council. Councilman Carl Stokes and Costello said they were unsure how they would vote.
"Before I vote for something that puts us $4 above of everybody else, I have to be really comfortable that most of our smaller businesses are not put at risk here," Stokes said Thursday.
Brandon M. Scott, Robert Curran, Bill Henry and Edward Reisinger said they would join Clarke in voting for the $15 minimum. James B. Kraft and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector are opposed. Warren Branch said he was undecided.
Branch said he supported Young's amendment. Spector, Reisinger and Clarke are opposed to it.
Other council members said they were undecided or did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Henry said exempting small businesses is key to his support. He said a higher minimum wage would put pressure on small businesses to increase their pay rates to compete for job candidates, but it wouldn't require them to do so.
"The businesses that are least likely to be able to absorb the added labor costs are the smaller ones," Henry said. "This gives them the flexibility to raise their wages so they can be more in line with what the labor pool is going to expect."
Any increase in the minimum wage would cost Baltimore millions, according to an analysis released Thursday by the city Finance Department.
The current proposal would cost the city $145 million through fiscal year 2023, according to the analysis. If Young's amendment succeeds, the cost would drop to $51 million.
The original proposal would have cost the city $277 million.
A spokeswoman for Young said the council president is convinced a minimum wage of $11.50 an hour is the most Baltimore can afford. A union leader said Young should be more concerned about Baltimore residents who are working full time and living in poverty than about the city's fiscal health.
"I think we have to worry about the fiscal health of our residents," said Ricarra Jones, a political organizer for the Service Employees International Union.
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee, said his organization would oppose both wage increases because they would surpass the scheduled statewide increases.
Fry said any increase beyond the state's would put businesses in the city at a "competitive disadvantage" with those in neighboring jurisdictions.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.