The effort to raise Baltimore's minimum wage to $15 an hour is dead — at least for now.
Two weeks after the City Council backed the wage hike by a veto-proof majority, the bill's lead sponsor said Monday she had failed to collect enough signatures to even attempt an override of Mayor Catherine Pugh's veto.
"It has been laid to rest," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said of the legislation, after acknowledging just six of her colleagues had joined her in trying to force a vote to override the veto. She needed 10 council votes to force an override attempt.
But Clarke said she wasn't done fighting for a $15 minimum wage. She suggested she would try to launch a petition drive to place the matter before voters in the 2018 election.
"The fight for $15 goes on," Clarke said.
Due to a little-known provision in city law and scheduling issues, council members needed to hold a special meeting within the next two weeks to attempt to override Pugh's veto. But while 12 of the council's 15 members supported the $15 minimum-wage legislation — the exact number needed to override a mayoral veto — just seven signed Clarke's letter calling for a special meeting to do so.
Council members Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, John Bullock, Kristerfer Burnett and Shannon Sneed signed Clarke's letter calling for a vote on the veto override. Five of the seven are freshmen on the council.
After Pugh said she was vetoing the bill, City Councilman Edward Reisinger announced he was withdrawing his support of it. And City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Robert Stokes said they would not sign Clarke's letter forcing an override vote.
When running for mayor, Pugh told labor unions she would sign the $15 minimum-wage bill if it reached her desk. Pugh said she changed her position, in part, because of the budget problems she encountered after taking office in December, including a $130 million schools budget deficit she is trying to help close. The mayor allocated $22 million in her first budget proposal to help that effort.
The Pugh administration estimated the minimum-wage bill would cost the city $116 million over four years, including the expense of paying city workers a higher minimum wage. Some businesses said they would offset higher costs by raising prices, laying off workers, putting expansion plans on hold or looking for sites outside the city.
While some business groups cheered the mayor's veto, some religious leaders and others encouraged the council to vote to override.
News of the effort's failure came as clergy and labor unions rallied at City Hall to urge members to override Pugh's veto. They argued a $15 minimum wage would lead to increased pay for more than 80,000 workers in Baltimore.
"We need leaders in this city willing to stand up for Baltimoreans who work hard but don't make enough to pay their bills and provide for their families," said the Rev. David Carl Olson of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. "It is unacceptable that so many people in Baltimore who go to work each day are still living in poverty because the system has failed them."
The Rev. Ty Hullinger of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore said he sees the impact of low wages every week.
"I hear the stories from my own parishioners about the struggle to make ends meet on a nonliving wage," he said. "All these families are hard-working families and they deserve better than this."
From the council's chamber floor, Clarke lamented the bill's failure, acknowledging she could not secure enough votes to request a special meeting or override the veto.
"This is not the end, because it can't be," she said. "This injustice remains and it tears our city apart and it keeps us in shreds. I don't know where to turn next, but there is always a way."
She said she planned to consult lawyers to make sure any petition drive to create a ballot question would stand up to a legal challenge.
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The vetoed bill, which would have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022, exempted workers younger than 21 and gave businesses with fewer than 50 employees until 2026 to comply.
Even with the veto, Baltimore's minimum wage is increasing along with the rate statewide under legislation Pugh supported while in the state Senate. The rate in Maryland will rise to $9.25 on July 1 and to $10.10 a year later.
Pugh said advocates should focus on raising the wage at the state level. She said an economic imbalance between the wages of Baltimore and its surrounding counties could cause jobs to leave and unemployment to rise.
"We are on target to continue to raise the minimum wage," Pugh said, noting the minimum wage will rise for the next two years. "The fight for $15 goes out to 2026. ... We will be pushing just as hard as we can as at the state level. We may be past $15 by 2026."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.