Still no wage agreement in Annapolis

The standoff in Annapolis over raising the minimum wage intensified Tuesday, as Gov. Martin O'Malley met with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to press for action on the proposal — one of his top legislative priorities. Meanwhile, a key senator threatened to amend the measure to require state-funded pay increases for workers caring for developmentally disabled adults and children.

With a week and a half left in the General Assembly session, Miller said the governor "wants his minimum-wage bill moved expeditiously." But the Senate president indicated that O'Malley has yet to come to terms with those advocating for caregivers.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, has said that he is unwilling to bring the governor's minimum-wage legislation to a vote until the administration has pledged to provide comparable increases in compensation for disability workers.

On Monday night, Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and advocate for helping the developmentally disabled, said he has yet to strike a deal with the administration. He said he is weighing an amendment to tie the two raises together, essentially committing a future administration to increased state funding for caregivers.

Middleton has scheduled a hearing Wednesday on the minimum-wage bill passed this month by the House, which would raise the pay floor in Maryland from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016. Advocates for the developmentally disabled and their direct-care workers plan to "storm" Annapolis Wednesday to urge that the minimum-wage legislation be tied to raising their compensation.

The state's 18,000 "direct-support" workers average $9.82 an hour, about 35 percent above the current minimum wage. But advocates for the developmentally disabled say the workers' pay has not kept pace with prior increases in the state's minimum wage. In 2006, for instance, their pay was nearly 70 percent above the minimum wage.

O'Malley remained noncommittal Tuesday. Speaking to reporters after a Maryland Day celebration at the State House, the governor said the Developmental Disabilities Administration's budget has grown by 54 percent over the past seven years, more than that of most state agencies. Direct-care workers generally work for private nonprofit agencies, which are reimbursed under the Medicaid program for the services they provide.

"Perhaps Senator Middleton, knowing how generous we've been to DDA, feels like this is an opportunity to force us to be even more generous," O'Malley added. Still, the governor said, he was trying to work out the issue with legislative leaders.

"I'll do the best I can," he said. "I mean, there are so many things we would like to be able to fund at higher and better amounts. But we also have to be fiscally responsible."

Middleton says he wants to ensure that pay for disability care workers remains 35 percent above the minimum wage, wherever that is set.

That could cost $2.5 million to nearly $4 million in the next fiscal year if lawmakers agree to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, according to Del. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat and another leading advocate for disability workers. But the costs to the state could escalate after that by $15 million to $30 million annually.

"I think everybody is rightly asking questions about the cost," Guzzone said. But he called it a basic fairness issue because of the taxing nature of disability workers' jobs and the vulnerable nature of the population they serve.

"This is just an issue that will define us as to whether we really have the commitment to help a group of people who require consistent, reliable quality support," Guzzone said.

Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services, said advocates for the disabled are disappointed by the standoff but plan to keep pressing, because for people with disabilities, "it's their lives we're talking about."

Advocates for raising the minimum wage, meanwhile, steered clear of commenting on the disability pay issue, stressing that their proposal would help roughly a half-million Marylanders.

"Obviously, we want this issue resolved, and we want the Senate to take action immediately," said Matthew Hanson of Working Families.

The Senate president said he remained confident that a minimum-wage bill would pass, but predicted that neither O'Malley nor Middleton would get all they want.

"So we have a lot of room for compromise," he said.

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