Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett on Monday vetoed legislation that would have made the wealthy county the first jurisdiction in Maryland to require a $15 minimum wage.
Leggett (D) said boosting the wage to the level embraced by national progressive activists, including former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), would harm Montgomery's economy and its ability to compete for jobs in the Washington region.
The only locality that has adopted a $15 minimum is the District of Columbia, which will require employers to pay that wage by 2020.
"I remain concerned . . . about the competitive disadvantage [the bill] would put the County in compared to our neighboring jurisdictions," Leggett said in a letter to Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda).
Leggett left the door open to considering a revised bill, contingent on a study of the economic impact of a $15 minimum wage on the county's public, private, and nonprofit sectors. His other conditions for signing a revised bill include extending the wage hike's phase-in to 2022 — two years after the District will begin requiring a minimum of $15 an hour — and including an exemption for small business and youth workers.
Virginia uses the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour. Maryland requires $8.75 an hour, which will rise to $9.25 in July and $10.10 in July 2018.
In 2013, Montgomery and Prince George's counties joined with the District in an unusual regional action to raise the wage to $11.50 by 2017. But Prince George's officials indicated last year that they would not pursue a $15 minimum.
Leggett's decision to nullify the bill sparked strong criticism from labor and progressive groups that pushed hard to enlist the county in the national "Fight for $15" campaign. New York state and city, California and Seattle have all passed legislation putting their jurisdictions on the path to a $15 minimum.
"Working families who fear life under the Trump presidency need not wait for the White House to make their lives harder — their own local leaders have already started," the MD/DC Fight for $15 Coalition said in a statement Monday evening.
The group — which includes Service Employees International, CASA, Jews for Justice, Progressive Maryland and the Metro Washington Central Labor Council — added that "businesses will almost assuredly continue to thrive in the nation's eighth-richest county."
Leggett said that unlike Seattle, New York and other metropolises, Montgomery is not "a 'destination city' that draws great numbers of business travelers or tourists" to support businesses that charge more in order to pay a higher wage.
Instead, he said, "our residents will essentially shoulder the bulk of the cost" if a $15 minimum wage is put into place in the county but nowhere else in the state.
Leggett, who had until Jan. 30 to decide whether to sign or veto the bill, had strongly signaled his opposition before the measure passed a divided County Council last week.
The all-Democratic panel approved the bill, which mandated a $15-per-hour base pay by 2020, by a 5-to-4 margin — one vote short of the majority needed to override a veto.
The bill's chief sponsor, council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) tried to win Leggett over with an amendment to give businesses with fewer than 25 employees until 2022 to adapt to the higher wage. But Leggett wanted to extend the longer phase-in to all companies.
"I disagree with him fundamentally about [a deadline of ] 2022 for everybody," Elrich said. He questioned the validity of a study of the bill's future impact, an idea that council members who voted against the legislation have said they support.
"You can't do an examination of what's going to happen in the private sector," Elrich said. "You can study what has happened, but you can't tell what will happen going forward."
Leggett is a stalwart liberal on most social issues. But he can be more moderate on fiscal matters, and the veto reflects his concern about the county's economic vibrancy.
After his election to a third term in 2014, he led the effort to convert the county's department of economic development into a private, nonprofit corporation with a more aggressive approach to attracting and retaining employers. He also created a new ombudsman's position within his office to help real estate developers navigate the county bureaucracy.
He has said he will not seek a fourth term in 2018.