House approves living-wage bill

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill yesterday that would require state contractors to pay workers a "living wage," despite objections from rural lawmakers who said their constituents would be short-changed by the proposed pay system.

The 88-50 House vote sent the measure to the Senate, where that chamber's president, Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, says it is likely to pass before the General Assembly adjourns Monday. Legislators moved swiftly to pass the bill after Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders reached an agreement this week to resurrect a proposal that had appeared moribund.

Under the agreement, the bill was changed to include a two-tier system under which contractors on government work worth more than $100,000 must pay employees at least $11.30 an hour in urban areas and $8.50 in rural areas. The original bill called for a statewide minimum of $11.95.

While the deal allayed the concerns of Miller and others that contractors outside the Baltimore-Washington corridor wouldn't be able to afford the higher wage, it also angered legislators from outlying areas, who said the system discriminates against those residents. Several Democrats from the rural counties sided with Republicans in voting against the measure.

"There is no way for me to go home and explain to my constituents why they are getting paid $3 less," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, a Carroll County Republican who voted against the bill.

Unions and other advocates of the legislation said a living wage is needed to help lift families out of poverty, and to ensure that state government is not adding to the problem. An estimated 50,000 workers would get the living wage, which at the higher level amounts to $23,500 a year, and at the lower level $17,680. The national poverty threshold for a family of four is $20,650 a year.

The bill would require the higher wage in Baltimore City and the counties of Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel. The lower wage would be in effect for all other counties. Lawmakers and the governor's office said they took into account the cost of living in the different areas.

"Every time we give a low wage, the government has to come back and provide a program to mitigate the effects of poverty," said Del. Herman L. Taylor, a Montgomery County Democrat. "So in effect the government is trying to get out of the poverty business."

Legislators also raised concerns about passing the measure at a time when the state faces a $1.5 billion shortfall. Fiscal analysts said costs for state contracts could increase by less than 1 percent under the wage law, but some legislators were skeptical.

Republicans tried and failed to amend the bill. They included Del. Richard K. Impallaria of Baltimore County, who proposed setting a statewide living wage at about $10.60 per hour. That amendment was voted down Thursday.

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