Momentum appears to be building to raise the minimum wage in Maryland, with key politicians recently announcing support to increase hourly pay to at least $10 an hour.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, speaking briefly last week at a ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, called for action that "raises the minimum wage for every mom and dad that's willing to work hard and play by the rules."
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Del. Heather Mizeur, both Democrats and candidates to succeed O'Malley, have thrown their support behind a wage raise, with Brown calling it a top priority. Rep. John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland's 6th Congressional District, said he would spend his own money to work for a wage hike in Maryland.
And on Friday in Gaithersburg, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, expected to join the race for the Democratic gebernatorial nomination, said a wage increase would lessen the burden on struggling workers — particularly women, who hold 60 percent of minimum wage jobs.
Meanwhile, Del. Keith E. Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat, said he plans to introduce legislation to push the state's hourly rate to $12.50, and Democratic Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich said he will offer legislation to bump up that county's minimum pay to $12 an hour.
"We're really excited by the growing support there is to the issue," said Matthew Hanson, campaign coordinator for Raise Maryland, a coalition of groups that support a higher minimum wage. The group wants the minimum wage to be raised to $10.10 per hour by 2016, and thereafter increased for inflation.
But whether that vocal support translates into an actual raise is unclear.
Maryland's minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. The last time Marylanders saw a minimum wage increase was in 2009. Once a wage hike goes into effect next year for New Yorkers, 20 states and D.C. will have a higher minimum wage than Maryland, even though the state has one of the highest costs of living, Hanson said.
In the past few months, protesters at stores and fast-food restaurants around the country have called for an increase in the federal minimum wage, but until recently, a push to raise wages in Maryland has been fairly quiet.
"People are running in a primary election for governor, that's what's different," said Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I can certainly understand why politicians would get on board with something like this. A lot of their support comes from labor."
But Norris said he also senses a legitimate concern among politicians about the growing number of workers since the recession who are struggling to get by on $7.25 an hour.
Even Gansler, who has presented himself as the business-friendly candidate, has called for an increase, and "this does not play into that narrative at all," Norris said.
But whether these recent declarations of support turn into legislation that will pass is another matter. State lawmakers failed to pass a bill to raise the wage this year.And legislators facing re-election from the more conservative districts may not be as likely to support a wage increase this year, Norris said.
"There is momentum building — toward an election in 2014," said Kathleen T. Snyder, president and CEO for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "Anybody who is running for office knows that theme will play well with voters."
The chamber was glad that lawmakers this year maintained the current minimum wage, Snyder said. Most large employers here pay well over the minimum wage now, and Maryland has one of the highest average wages in the country, she said.
Raising the wage would affect small businesses that haven't fully recovered from the recession, Snyder said. Meanwhile, these businesses are dealing with higher personal income taxes, a new stormwater management fee and uncertain costs from the Affordable Care Act, which kicks in next year, she said.
But Hanson said this is less about mom-and-pop businesses and more about big employers. About seven out of 10 Marylanders earning less than $10 an hour are employed by large companies with 50 or more workers, particularly big corporations such as Walmart and McDonald's, he said.
"There's widespread recognition around the country that wages have not kept up with corporate profits," Brown said. "This is not unique to Maryland."
The bill in the 2013 General Assembly, sponsored by 58 members of the House of Delegates and 25 in the Senate, provides a solid foundation for next year, Brown said, but it's going to take a broad-based coalition of organized labor and other advocates to pass a measure.
"It's not an impossible task, but it could be a heavy lift," he said.