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Maryland House of Delegates approves bill to raise state's hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2025

The Maryland House of Delegates approved Friday a bill that would gradually increase the state's minimum wage from $10.10 per hour to $15 by 2025.

The 96-44 vote fell largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and mostly Republicans opposing it.

The vote came after about 90 minutes of debate, with supporters arguing that raising the amount would help lift low-wage workers out of poverty and opponents saying it could drive companies out of business, resulting in a loss of jobs. Some lawmakers from rural counties that border other states said the effects would be worse in their areas because jobs might be chased across the border to where wages are lower.

Pennsylvania and Virginia follow the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Delaware and West Virginia have a minimum wage of $8.75, with Delaware’s scheduled to increase to $9.25 this fall. The minimum wage in the District of Columbia is $13.25, going up to $14 this summer.

Del. Mike McKay, a western Maryland Republican, said he was concerned about higher wages resulting in families making too much money to qualify for benefits, such as food stamps and subsidized housing.

“This bill is not ready for prime time unless we address these issues,” he said.

Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the committee that reviewed the bill, questioned the claims from business owners who had predicted a “calamitous effect.” Davis said the state increased its minimum wage over the last four years from $7.25 to $10.10, and there are more businesses operating in the state.

“If you’re going to leave, leave. If you’re going to close, close,” Davis said. “But you’re hurting your own cause … when it starts to appear you’re crying wolf.”

Provisions of the bill approved by the House include:

» Increasing the minimum wage to $11 on Jan. 1, with 75-cent increases each year after that until reaching $15 in 2025.

» Allowing the state Board of Public Works a one-time opportunity to delay an increase based on economic data.

» Requiring additional money in future budgets for state-funded health and human service organizations, such as those that pay workers to help people with disabilities.

» Allowing employers to pay workers younger than 18 only 85 percent of the minimum wage. Current law allows workers younger than 20 to be paid 85 percent for the first six months of employment.

Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader, said the wage increase could damage small businesses that couldn’t afford to pay workers more.

“It’s the kind of thing that, at first glance, I think most of us would want to do. But, like most things around here, it’s a little bit more complicated,” said Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, said workers making minimum wage couldn’t afford an apartment in his county. He said the committee made changes to the bill to accommodate some industries — including exempting farms and food processing and canning businesses — while still helping as many workers as possible.

“We can’t just say, ‘No,’” he said. “We can’t just say: ‘Let’s do nothing and see if it works.’ Because it doesn’t.”

The debate now moves to the Senate, which has not yet taken action on a companion version of the bill.

Supporters of the higher wage have said they hoped the Senate would pass a stronger version of the legislation, while opponents are working to defeat it altogether there.

“We are asking the Senate not to further weaken the bill with more amendments,” said Ricarra Jones of the Service Employees International Union and the “Fight for $15” coalition.

The coalition will push the Senate to include a provision to automatically increase the minimum wage after 2025 based on the federal Consumer Price Index. The coalition also wants to get rid of a “tip credit” that allows employers to pay tipped workers, such as servers and bartenders, as little as $3.63 per hour.

Business groups, meanwhile, pointed out that the bill would result in a 48 percent increase in labor costs, which small businesses may not be able to absorb.

“Not only will many small businesses be affected, but many employees will also be hurt as hours are cut and jobs are eliminated,” said Mike O’Halloran of the National Federation for Independent Business.

If the House and Senate pass different versions of the bill, lawmakers will have to reconcile those differences.

Gov. Larry Hogan has said he has reservations about raising the minimum wage. He’s concerned that it could end up causing employers to locate elsewhere and lead to a loss of jobs.

The Republican governor hasn’t firmly said, however, whether he would sign or veto a bill. The House vote Friday was well above the 85 votes that would be needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 has been a growing focus of Democrats across the country. Maryland’s Democratic leaders set it as one of their priorities for this year’s General Assembly session. And many Democratic presidential candidates and hopefuls have included a $15 minimum wage on their platforms. A bill pending in Congress would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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