Baltimore City Council members spoke out Thursday against a General Assembly bill that would block the city and other jurisdictions from raising the minimum wage above what's approved by the state.
Council members Mary Pat Clarke, Kristerfer Burnett, Ryan Dorsey, Shannon Sneed, Robert Stokes and Zeke Cohen called a news conference at City Hall to protest the bill, sponsored by Democrats from Prince George's and Charles counties.
"Rather than supporting lower-wage workers, some state lawmakers want to tie the hands of local governments," Burnett said. "This would be a major step backwards."
Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, introduced a bill Wednesday that prohibit any county or municipality from enacting "a law that regulates the wages or benefits provided by an employer other than the county or municipality."
Davis' bill is co-sponsored by Del. Sally Y. Jameson and Del. C.T. Wilson, both Charles County Democrats.
None of the three lawmakers could be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he was not aware of the bill.
With eight new Democrats joining Baltimore's City Council, proponents of a $15 hourly minimum wage have relaunched their campaign to increase wages for the city's low-income workers.
After failing by one vote in August, advocates for a higher minimum wage are confident now because three council members who opposed the measure were replaced by members who have pledged to support the increase.
Whether lawmakers from other jurisdictions agree with a higher minimum wage, Clarke said, they should allow Baltimore to choose its own path.
"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,'" she said.
The Baltimore effort comes amid a national effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In November, workers participated in protests for higher wages in cities including Los Angeles and New York.
Clarke plans to introduce a bill that would gradually raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 an hour by July 2022 and tie it afterward to the cost of living, so that it could continue to rise. The legislation also calls for increased pay for tipped workers, who now earn $3.63 per hour.
Supporters failed In August to muster the votes needed for passage. The 15-member council voted 8-6 with one abstention to return the bill to committee and an uncertain future.
Clarke pledged at the time to look for the additional votes needed to pass the measure, even if it meant waiting until a new council took office.
Advocates estimate nearly 100,000 people — about 27 percent of workers in Baltimore — would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. They argue a higher wage would help alleviate entrenched poverty in Baltimore, where about a quarter of residents live below the poverty line and more than a fifth of households receive food stamps.
The minimum wage in Maryland is now $8.75 per hour. The federal rate is $7.25. The Maryland General Assembly voted in 2014 session to raise the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2018.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has said he doesn't believe the council should vote for a bill that raises the city's minimum wage any higher than $11.50 per hour.
He and other opponents say they worry about the impact on Baltimore's economy. They cite surveys of small businesses who say they would close or move if the wage is raised.
A spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh said she backs the council's effort to oppose Davis' bill, but she still thinks minimum wage laws should be discussed at the regional or state level.
"She certainly joins them in their opposition of the legislation. Obviously, local autonomy is very important, especially around local issues," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "The mayor is focused on creating new jobs, making Baltimore a strong city for small business, and ensuring that any conversation about taking that authority away from Baltimore City is met with strong opposition."