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Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch speaks in the House of Delegates chamber in Annapolis on Jan. 9, 2019, the first day of the state's 2019 legislative session.
Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch speaks in the House of Delegates chamber in Annapolis on Jan. 9, 2019, the first day of the state's 2019 legislative session. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

The House of Delegates will begin debate Wednesday on a bill that would gradually increase Maryland's minimum wage from $10.10 an hour to $15.

The bill, as revised by the House Economic Matters Committee, falls short of what unions and other advocates for workers hoped for because it would increase the wage more slowly than the original legislation would have and because it would allow restaurants to continue to pay tipped workers, such as servers and bartenders, a wage as low as $3.63 an hour.

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Lawmakers who revised the bill said they sought to strike a balance in making the bill more tolerable to employers while still helping workers.

“This is a major policy decision when you’re talking about increasing the minimum wage,” Del. Dereck Davis, the committee’s chairman, said as delegates voted Monday night.

Maryland lawmakers are advancing a bill that gradually increases the minimum wage to $15 per hour —  but does it at a slower rate that advocates had hoped for.

The revised bill would raise the minimum wage to $11 on Jan. 1, then add 75 cents each year, topping out at $15 in 2025. The original bill would have started increasing the wage this summer, building to $15 by 2023.

The revised bill also removed a requirement that after the minimum wage hit $15, future increases would have been automatic and tied to the federal Consumer Price Index.

Other provisions of the revised bill would allow workers under 18 to be paid 85 percent of the minimum wage, give a funding increase to health and human service organizations that use state reimbursements to pay workers, and allow the state Board of Public Works a one-time ability to pause a scheduled wage increase based on economic data.

The current version of the legislation disappointed advocates who wanted a “clean $15” bill, as well as business groups opposed to a minimum wage increase.

A battle is shaping up in Annapolis over whether — and by how much — to increase Maryland’s minimum wage. Advocates want a bill passed that will raise it to $15 for everyone. Opponents, including groups representing small businesses, hope to block an increase — or at least soften its impact.

“We applaud the efforts of Economic Matters and we are glad they did vote to advance the bill and move it to the floor,” said Ricarra Jones of the Service Employees International Union and the “Fight for $15” campaign. “We are disappointed that some of the important pieces of the bill are no longer in the bill.”

Jones said removing the automatic increases and continuing to allow a low wage for tipped workers were among the chief concerns of the coalition promoting the bill.

Jones said coalition members are working with supportive lawmakers on a strategy to strengthen the bill, or at least to fight off further amendments to weaken it.

Others, meanwhile, are expected to work to defeat the bill.

The chairman of a Maryland House committee says lawmakers will take input from everyone who testifies about raising the state's hourly minimum wage to $15. Del. Dereck Davis says he doesn't know yet what the "sweet spot" for salary is, but the problem is real.

Mike O’Halloran of the National Federation of Independent Business said that even though some of the most onerous parts of the bill were dropped — such as the automatic increases after reaching $15 and including tipped wage workers — his group is still fighting the bill.

“This bill, even the amended version, will have serious unintended consequences,” he said. “Those consequences include lost jobs, lost benefits and less workers.”

Both sides said they’re also focusing on the state Senate, which held a hearing on the bill but has not acted. If the House and Senate approve different versions of the bill, they would have to be reconciled before sending the measure to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to consider.

Hogan has said that while raising the minimum wage may sound good, he’s concerned that it could have the effect of chasing businesses out of state and end up costing Maryland jobs for low-wage workers.

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