Baltimore's City Council, pushed by a group of freshmen members seeking dramatic changes, gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.
That would be the highest minimum wage in the state of Maryland — nearly $5 an hour higher than in surrounding counties.
"Today is a day I've waited for a long time," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said after the 12-3 vote.
Clarke, lead sponsor of the bill, said it would bring about "economic equity" in Baltimore, making life better for some of the city's poorest workers.
"It's time now to share the wealth," she said.
The measure still needs one more vote to advance to the desk of Mayor Catherine Pugh. She pledged during her campaign to support a $15 minimum wage, but recently expressed concern about the bill's impact on businesses. She has not said whether she will sign the bill or veto it.
The vote Monday — which had a wide enough margin to override a mayoral veto — comes about half a year after the previous City Council narrowly rejected a similar proposal. But November's election swept into office eight new Democrats, most of whom are seeking widespread changes to how the city runs.
Voting in favor of the legislation were City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Vice President Sharon Green Middleton and council members Zeke Cohen, Brandon Scott, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, Kristerfer Burnett, John Bullock, Edward Reisinger, Robert Stokes, Shannon Sneed and Clarke.
"Working people in our city have waited too long for this to happen," Cohen said. "I'm proud to be part of the council that I hope is finally going to pass a $15 minimum wage."
Burnett said a wage increase would be important to "folks in my district who are scraping to get by."
"I've met a ton of people who are working two or three jobs to make ends meet," he said.
Voting against the legislation were council members Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, Leon Pinkett and Eric Costello.
Each of those councilmen tried to introduce last-minute amendments to alter the bill. Pinkett tried to exempt businesses offering apprenticeships. Schleifer tried to exempt small businesses. And Costello tried to introduce an amendment halting the law if it hurt the economy by raising the unemployment rate. All of those attempts failed.
"In my district and citywide, apprenticeship programs are key to moving people from minimum wage to wages where they can actually support their families," Pinkett said.
Costello has cited a host of worries about the bill's fiscal consequences, including a fear that it would exacerbate the city school system's budget woes. The schools are facing a $130 million structural deficit.
At a City Council hearing last week, Baltimore finance officials warned that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost taxpayers $115 million over four years because of higher wages for city workers. They also warned it could cost the city hundreds of jobs.
Schleifer said his goal in introducing amendments was to "not punish those who are trying to create jobs and start businesses."
"We have a lot of startups who want to get things moving," he said. "During those first years, it's really tough to get things going. The owners themselves start off making little to no money. I just fear that having to pay this wage will prevent them from starting companies."
Some business owners have fought the bill bitterly, saying it would cause them to move out of the city or lay off workers. Many argued that such an increase should be done at the state level.
Donald C. Fry, president of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee, warned the measure could cause jobs to leave the city for nearby Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
"Businesses that are unable to overcome the costs associated with the increased minimum wage will have little choice but to close their doors," Fry said. "Businesses that do survive will not have the ability to grow and create jobs as they would otherwise. This is not a threat, just an economic reality that deserves very serious consideration."
But some area businesses backed the idea. Josh Keogh, the co-owner of Baltimore Bicycle Works, called paying a "fair wage" a "great investment" for his company.
"Gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 will give customers more money to spend at local businesses like ours, and that will be good for our economy and our city," he said.
The minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75 per hour, set to rise to $10.10 an hour by 2018.
The bill would exempt workers under 21 from the wage hike and give businesses with fewer than 50 employees until 2026 to comply with the $15-an-hour wage.
Despite support for the bill, some advocates said they are disappointed with the exemption for younger workers.
Joshua Graham, 28, who makes $13.50 an hour working for a firm that provides security at T. Rowe Price, said he would benefit from the legislation. But he didn't like that a younger co-worker wouldn't.
"It sounds good to me," he said. "But I'm a little upset for people who are younger than me who won't see this benefit."
Advocates supporting the bill commissioned a poll of 400 registered city voters by The Mellman Group that found widespread support for the bill, with only 6 percent opposed.
A recent poll by Goucher College found that 60 percent of Marylanders support raising the minimum wage at the state level and 63 percent believe cities like Baltimore should be able to set their own minimum wages.
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