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Senate panel backs 'living wage' bill

The Baltimore Sun

A state Senate committee endorsed a "living wage" bill yesterday that would require higher pay for government contractors, advancing a top priority of Gov. Martin O'Malley in the final days of the General Assembly session.

The Finance Committee voted 7-4 to back the measure, which would require wages of $11.30 an hour in urban areas and $8.50 an hour in rural areas. The state's minimum wage is $6.15 an hour.

If it is enacted, Maryland would be the first state with such a measure, which is championed by liberal groups and labor unions but opposed by business groups.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Finance chairman from Southern Maryland, said he has worked closely with the O'Malley administration and leaders in the House of Delegates -- which had approved the bill -- to craft amendments that he says lessen the measure's impact on small businesses and rural employers.

"The bill is much improved," he said. "It took into account a lot of the concerns of the business representatives, and I think these are good changes we made."

Senators agreed to exempt businesses with fewer than 10 employees, so long as they are not bidding on contracts in excess of $500,000.

They also changed the bill so that it applies only to service contracts and not to construction. Contracts to supply commodities to the state were already exempt.

Other amendments adopted by the Finance Committee yesterday call for the Board of Public Works to adopt a system for indexing the wage rates to inflation and for the board to periodically re-evaluate which counties are assigned to the higher wage tier and which to the lower one. Presently, Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties are in the top wage tier.

Middleton said he worked Thursday night with House leaders, including Del. Dereck E. Davis, the Prince George's Democrat who chairs the Economic Matters Committee, and with the O'Malley administration to get their agreement on the changes. Any dispute between the chambers could spell doom for the legislation because the General Assembly session is due to adjourn at midnight tomorrow.

Middleton said Republicans -- most of whom oppose the bill -- have also promised a series of amendments, which are expected be taken up when the Senate reconvenes tomorrow morning.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor supports the amendments the Finance Committee adopted yesterday and looks forward to seeing the legislation pass.

"The governor campaigned on improving the quality of life for working families in our state, and he's extremely pleased that the General Assembly has come together to pass this piece of legislation," Abbruzzese said.

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