Partial victory for the working poor [Editorial]

House of Delegates can take an important step toward lifting the prospects of Maryland's working poor this week when it votes on a measure to gradually increase the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. But amendments the House made to Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislation will dampen its impact and all but ensure that whatever gains low-wage workers make will be temporary.

To be sure, the legislation as amended would still represent an important advance. Setting the rate at $10.10 an hour effectively restores the minimum wage's purchasing power to what it was in the 1960s, and the House Economic Matters Committee beat back the idea of setting a lower wage tier in the state's rural counties. A full-time worker earning $10.10 an hour would only barely be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in even the least costly county in Maryland. Nearly half a million Marylanders would see their wages go up, either directly or indirectly, as a result of such an increase, the vast majority of them adults and most of them full-time workers. That would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in additional consumer spending in the state's economy.

But two decisions by the committee should be reversed by the Senate. The first is the House committee's decision not to index the wage for inflation. While it may sound like a responsible thing to leave the business of setting the wage in the hands of the General Assembly, the reality is that it means another gradual erosion of living standards for the working poor until the Democrats in the legislature again see political advantage in dredging up this issue.

The last time the General Assembly raised the minimum wage was during the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. At the time, the Democrats who control the legislature saw the need to raise the minimum wage to make up for the effects of inflation as a "crisis situation," in Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.'s words. Mr. Ehrlich's veto of the bill and the legislature's subsequent override of him set up a wedge issue for Democrats to use in the next election — it showed up in then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's attack ads against Mr. Ehrlich, and Mr. O'Malley at one point invited Mr. Ehrlich to join him in urging President George W. Bush to support an increase in the federal minimum wage.

Now the issue has legs again, thanks to President Barack Obama's advocacy for a $10.10 minimum wage. Mr. O'Malley, contemplating a run for president, has picked up the issue, as have all three of the Democrats seeking to replace him.

Maryland Democrats were willing to go along with the idea of indexing the gas tax to inflation last year, but in that case, they were absolving themselves of having to take votes they didn't want to down the road rather than robbing themselves of future opportunities to cast themselves as champions of the working poor. But those workers and the businesses that employ them would be much better served by a predictable, rational process for making the wage keep up with inflation, rather than seeing increases only when Democrats perceive an opportunity to make hay out of it.

The other problematic amendment from the House committee deals with the wages for tipped workers. The initial legislation called for tipped workers to be paid wages of at least 70 percent of the official minimum, up from the current standard of 50 percent. That, combined with the overall increase in the minimum wage, would have made for a large increase in guaranteed pay for restaurant workers and others, the impact of which requires careful consideration. But the House committee went to the opposite extreme, adopting language that would freeze the tipped wage at the current dollar amount of $3.63 an hour. Theoretically, businesses are required to ensure that tipped workers take home at least the minimum wage, but in practice, such a law is all but unenforceable. There is little question that if the bill is enacted in its current form, a measure designed to help low wage workers would actually set some of them further behind.

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