Advocates for low-wage workers are ramping up pressure on the Baltimore City Council to override Mayor Catherine Pugh's veto of a $15 minimum wage bill, but their cause has run into a roadblock.
Due to a little-known provision in city law, council members would need to hold a special meeting within the next two weeks to attempt to override Pugh's veto. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who has the power to schedule such a meeting, has declined to do so even though he supported the minimum wage bill.
Ricarra Jones, chairwoman of the Fight for $15 Baltimore Coalition, said the group is running radio advertisements, calling council members daily, opining on social media and preparing to rally Monday.
"We feel like it's dirty backdoor politics, and the residents of Baltimore are going to be the ones who suffer from the games we feel like people are playing," Jones said. "Jack Young has the power to call for a veto override. … He was a co-sponsor of this bill. We want him to see it all the way through."
Baltimore's charter states an override of a mayoral veto can only take place within five to 20 days after the City Council receives the veto. The council will receive the veto when it meets Monday. The next council meeting is scheduled for 21 days later — one day too late for an override attempt.
Council rules allow for a special meeting at the request of the mayor, council president or 10 council members.
Lester Davis, Young's spokesman, said the council president won't schedule the meeting. He said council members are welcome to submit a letter with 10 names authorizing a special meeting.
"He doesn't want to act unilaterally," Davis said. "He rules by consensus."
Young has said that the votes simply aren't there to override a mayoral veto, making the point of a special meeting "moot."
Twelve of the council's 15 members supported the $15 minimum wage legislation, including Young. Twelve is the exact number of votes needed to override a mayoral veto.
But Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, the bill's lead sponsor who is collecting signatures for a special meeting, said several members are refusing to sign on, including Young and Councilman Edward Reisinger. Reisinger withdrew his support of the bill after Pugh's veto.
"The supporters want a chance to be heard and cast a vote," Clarke said. "This is a big issue. We want to at least cast a vote."
Council members Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, John Bullock and Kristerfer Burnett have signed Clarke's letter. She said she is seeking more signatures.
Council members Robert Stokes, Sharon Green Middleton and Shannon Sneed, all of whom voted for the bill, did not respond to The Baltimore Sun's request for comment.
"I think we should vote," Cohen said. "I think it's reasonable to want to see where people stand. We know there has been at least one person [Reisinger] who publicly changed his vote. We're working to convince him to do otherwise."
Burnett said he's received a "tremendous amount of calls and emails" asking for a vote on a veto override.
"Nobody wants to hear it got stuck in a parliamentarian trap," he said. "I've encouraged people to call the council president's office and ask him to call a special meeting."
Bullock said he is supportive of the meeting, but not sure it would bring actual results.
"I recognize that if the votes aren't there, the meeting might not produce the results the advocates are looking for," Bullock said.
Councilman Brandon Scott, who just returned from an overseas trip, said he is still getting caught up on the recent machinations and hasn't made a decision about whether to sign Clarke's letter.
"For now, if there is a veto override vote, I will be voting to override the veto," Scott said.
Council members Eric T. Costello, Leon Pinkett and Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, who voted against the bill, remain opposed. They argue that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would have a negative impact on Baltimore's economy.
"I haven't heard anything to change my mind," Pinkett said.
Opponents of the bill, including small and large business organizations, have cheered the mayor's veto.
Mike Whatley, the National Restaurant Association's director of state and local affairs, commended Pugh for "her leadership to protect workers in Baltimore."
"Studies have shown dramatic increases to the minimum wage, like what the Baltimore City Council proposed, have a damaging effect on the city's economy and could result in overall job losses," he said.
Jones said she hopes the council members "will listen to their constituents and not fold under pressure from the mayor." She urged 10 members to sign onto Clarke's letter.
Jones said faith leaders will join members of the coalition at City Hall at noon, an hour before the council's 1 p.m. meeting. Another group is expect to rally at 5:30 p.m.
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 city 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 close that gap.
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.
In responding to a questionnaire during the campaign, Pugh said she supported the $15 minimum wage bill. In announcing the veto last week, Pugh said she didn't swear to support it.
"She said they didn't make her swear on the Bible," Jones said. "She didn't swear on the Bible when she filled out the questionnaire, but she did swear on the Bible when she became mayor."
The vetoed bill, which would have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022, exempted workers under 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 $10.10 a year later.
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