The City Council's decision to pass legislation that sets Baltimore on the course toward a $15 an hour minimum wage puts Mayor Catherine Pugh in a tough spot. The city's new chief executive was elected on a promise to be the mayor for everyone "from the streets to the suites," but now she is being pulled in opposite directions by both constituencies. Organized labor and advocates for the working poor are urging her to sign the bill; the Greater Baltimore Committee and other business interests are pressing her to veto it. She voiced support for the higher wage during the campaign but said she would prefer to see the issue addressed on the state level. She is faced with both a substantial projected impact on the city's finances — $115 million in increased costs over four years — and the fact that as things stand now, the council appears to have the votes to override a veto.
Perhaps the most politically expedient course would be for Mayor Pugh to let the legislation go into law without her signature. She could make a bland statement suggesting she sees both sides of the issue and hope that advocates and opponents of the measure give her a pass. We hope she won't do that. She needs to take a stand and veto this bill.
We wholeheartedly agree — and we believe the mayor does too — with the motivation behind the $15 an hour movement in Baltimore. The measure's backers, led by council veteran Mary Pat Clarke, argue that people who work full time should earn a family-supporting wage. The supporters are undoubtedly right that people who get a raise as a result of the legislation would spend the money in local businesses, creating an economic multiplier effect.
But we believe they too readily discount the down sides. Baltimore's biggest economic competitors for the kind of jobs that would be affected by this bill aren't the cities that have passed $15 an hour laws, like San Francisco, Seattle or even Washington, D.C. It's the suburbs Baltimore needs to worry about. Retailers have only recently begun to set up shop in the city again after decades of development in the counties, but that momentum could easily be reversed. Service sector jobs like call centers can locate in the city or the suburbs. With the massive redevelopment of Sparrows Point underway, will the next big opportunity like the Amazon warehouse go to the city or the county if minimum wages here are nearly 50 percent higher than there? Baltimore is already at a big disadvantage when it comes to property and income taxes. Why make matters worse?
Supporters of the legislation have made a number of concessions that soften its impact. Workers under age 21 will be exempt. The wage won't phase in fully until 2022 and not until 2026 for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. This year and next, the city's minimum will continue to rise at the same pace as the state minimum.
In theory, that provides time for advocates to build on their momentum here to persuade other counties and ultimately the state to move toward a $15 minimum. That strategy has worked on other issues in the past, for example the indoor smoking ban. But Prince George's County officials have already rejected the idea of moving past their earlier plans to raise minimum wages to $11.50 this year. The Montgomery County Council passed a $15 minimum wage bill, but County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett vetoed it in January on the grounds that it would make the county uncompetitive — this in spite of Washington's decision to adopt a $15 an hour requirement. The odds that a statewide $15 minimum will be enacted while Gov. Larry Hogan is in office would seem slim, no matter what the counties do.
The council voted 11-3 in favor of the minimum wage increase, with one supporter, Councilman Brandon Scott, out of town. It takes 12 votes to override a veto, so Mayor Pugh would only need to persuade one more person to vote to sustain one. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who opposed a version of the legislation last year, came on board as a co-sponsor after working with Councilwoman Clarke on a number of changes to protect small businesses, among other things. Still, he has previously voiced concerns about the effect of the $15 wage on Baltimore's competitiveness. He would be a good place to start in her lobbying efforts.
What would be most persuasive is for Mayor Pugh to accompany a veto with her own ideas to address minimum wage advocates' concerns. We've gotten some indications of her ideas in that regard, including the advent of mobile employment centers and an increased emphasis on summer jobs for youth. Her budget is due soon, and she should use it as a tool to demonstrate her commitment to expanding economic opportunities in Baltimore, not putting it at a competitive disadvantage.