Among the many fascinating contradictions about Maryland’s electorate revealed by the latest Goucher Poll is that the only thing voters like more than our pro-business Republican Gov. Larry Hogan (67 percent approval rating) is one of the core goals of the progressive left — a $15 an hour minimum wage (69 percent support). That’s perhaps not quite as weird as the greater opposition among Maryland Republicans to the Affordable Care Act (80 percent unfavorable impression, 14 percent favorable) than straight-up, single-payer health care (72 percent unfavorable, 20 percent favorable). But it’s close.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous makes the Fight for $15 a central element of his economic package, arguing that wages for low-income workers have not kept pace in this state and that the current minimum wage of $10.10 an hour is insufficient to support a family. He believes it will increase overall economic activity by putting more disposable income in workers’ pockets — money that will recirculate rapidly in the local economy. Governor Hogan, by contrast, is wary of the idea. A spokesman for his campaign said Mr. Hogan is open to a conversation about a higher minimum wage but worries that an increase to $15 over a short period of time (Mr. Jealous’ plan calls for Maryland to hit that level by 2023) would hurt those the policy is designed to help by spurring more automation and reducing the total number of hours minimum wage employees work.
As cities like Seattle and states like California move toward $15 minimum wages, there's an increasing amount of data about the real world effects of such changes but still no clear answer about whether Mr. Jealous or Mr. Hogan is right. Well regarded, independent studies (particularly in Seattle, where the economic research has been robust) come to contradictory conclusions. It’s simply not yet clear whether relatively large and rapid increases in the minimum wage enacted locally or regionally do more good or harm for low-wage workers.
But that may not matter in the public’s eye. The Goucher Poll shows some confidence among Marylanders that their economic situations will get better but also evidence that people believe the system is stacked in favor of the wealthy. Strong majorities of both Democrats and independents see the tax system favors the rich, and both groups back the $15 minimum wage by wide margins. Legislation to enact a $15 minimum wage got 74 co-sponsors in the House of Delegates this year — slightly more than a majority of that chamber — and a companion bill had more than 20 sponsors in the Senate. But it aroused strong opposition from business groups, such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which predicted that it could cost the state nearly 100,000 jobs over a decade, and it didn’t even get a committee vote. Given the strong level of public support, we expect the idea will advance farther in the coming General Assembly sessions no matter who is elected governor this year.
We opposed the $15 minimum wage bill that passed in the Baltimore City Council and urged Mayor Catherine Pugh to veto it, which she did. We were concerned about its effects on a city that already suffers from a lack of jobs and economic opportunity, particularly when city businesses would have to compete with those in the suburbs that would not be subject to the same minimum wage. Those issues pose less of a concern on a state-wide level, especially given that one neighbor, Washington, D.C., is already on a path to a $15 minimum wage.
Nonetheless, we should be mindful that most other jurisdictions that have committed to a $15 minimum wage haven’t gotten there yet, so the policy’s effects are still uncertain. Just because “fight for $15” is a catchy slogan doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right amount for Maryland’s economy, or that the timetable other jurisdictions have chosen is the right one here. We are all for exploring policies that will help working-class Marylanders make ends meet, but we believe we should approach this one cautiously.