Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that she will veto the bill passed by the City Council that would raise Baltimore's minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed legislation Friday that would have raised the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 by 2022, leaving the measure's future in question.
The council — which next meets on April 3 — would need 12 of its 15 members to vote to overturn the veto. On Friday, the 12-member coalition that originally backed the higher wage began to disband.
Councilman Edward Reisinger of South Baltimore said although he voted to pass the bill, he would not support a veto override. Over the next seven years, the Pugh administration estimated the bill would cost the city $116 million, including the expense of paying city workers a higher minimum wage.
Reisinger said the cost is especially concerning given the city's outstanding fiscal challenges: a $20 million deficit, a $130 million schools budget shortfall and new spending obligations associated with the U.S. Department of Justice's police consent decree.
"The mayor has some very persuasive arguments," Reisinger said. "Baltimore City doesn't have a money tree."
Pugh also was concerned that requiring employers in the city to pay a higher minimum wage could send them fleeing to surrounding jurisdictions. That would worsen unemployment in the city and make it harder for low-skilled workers and ex-offenders to get jobs, she said.
She emphasized that Baltimore's minimum wage is increasing along side the rate statewide. The rate in Maryland will rise to $9.25 on July 1 and $10.10 a year later.
"I believe it is in the best interest of the city that we follow the state," Pugh said.
Pugh said she consulted with ministers, nonprofits, small business owners and elected officials in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties before making her decision.
The City Council voted 11-3 to pass the minimum wage bill Monday. Councilman Brandon Scott also supported the measure but didn't cast a vote because he was traveling overseas.
It is unclear how many of the original supporters also would support a vote to overturn the veto. A motion to override could be made as early as the council's next meeting.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said historically it has been difficult to override a mayoral veto. Young voted in favor of the $15 minimum wage.
"We don't know if there will be a vote to override," Davis said.
Asked if Young would vote to override the veto if such a vote is held, Davis said: "We're putting the cart before the horse. He obviously has heard the concerns of the mayor. They have prayed about this together.
"He respects her for it and knows she is only coming from a place to putting the overall city first."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of North Baltimore, the bill's sponsor, said she was "very upset and disappointed in a veto response to a very reasonable, balanced proposal."
Clarke said she would work with the bill's supporters to figure out what step to take next.
"Right now, we are thinking, 'we needed the mayor,'" Clarke said. "And she has vetoed this, which is an opportunity to make a major difference in equity across the city.
"It was my hope with the Freddie Gray aftermath and all of our resolutions to do better that we would bring fair wages to the people who built the city, whose lives could have changed for the better. Shame, shame."
Councilman John Bullock of West Baltimore was one of eight new City Council members elected in November, many of whom campaigned on pushing a progressive agenda including a higher minimum wage.
Bullock said he recognizes the complexities of the issue and valid arguments on both sides, but believes that flat wages have been detrimental to the city's lowest-paid workers. He said Pugh's veto wasn't surprising, but disappointing.
"All of us have to think about next steps and see what's feasible," Bullock said.
The pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee's president, Don Fry, praised Pugh's decision. The measure "threatened jobs, made Baltimore an island surrounded by counties with lower business costs and hit the city budget with millions of dollars in higher labor costs it simply cannot afford."
"The decision was no doubt a difficult one for the mayor," Fry said in a statement. "But this shows real leadership as she stayed true to the priority that Baltimore must remain competitive for growth and jobs."
Advocates pushing for the higher wage decried Pugh's action as a broken promise.
"We are deeply upset that Mayor Pugh has broken her campaign pledge by vetoing this legislation, which promises to give tens of thousands of workers higher wages and the opportunity to lead self-sufficient lives," said Ricarra Jones, chairwoman of the Fight for $15 Baltimore Coalition, in a statement.
"As a state senator, Mayor Pugh was a strong supporter of a livable minimum wage and explicitly promised to sign the Baltimore wage bill as mayor. Today, she has made clear that promises are made to be broken. The voters will remember her turn-around."
Jones noted that during last year's campaign, Pugh said she would support a $15 minimum wage bill as mayor on a union questionnaire.
"Yes, I would. I am aware of the current initiative to raise the minimum wage in the City Council to $15 per hour and when it reaches my desk I will sign it," Pugh wrote.
Asked Friday about her response to the questionnaire, Pugh said she has been faced with significant unanticipated expenses since taking office in December, including the schools budget deficit.
"I don't think they make you swear on the Bible," Pugh said. "They ask you if you would support it, and I do support it. But you ask me as a chief executive officer of this city what I would do as it relates to the conditions of the city currently, and where we are economically, I have a right and responsibility to respond on behalf of all of the citizens of this city."
Pugh noted that legislation to increase the minimum wage statewide is before the General Assembly.
"While it may not take place this year or next year, I will follow the lead of the state," she said.