Maryland lawmakers approve higher minimum wage

Maryland's minimum wage will rise to $10.10 by July 2018 under a bill granted final passage by state lawmakers Monday. The measure goes to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley for his promised signature.

Raising the wage above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour was O'Malley's top legislative goal during the final session of his eight years as governor, and in a statement he commended lawmakers "for giving so many Maryland families the raise they deserve.” 

Maryland became the second state this year pass a hike to $10.10, the mark set by Democrats across the country seeking to address income inequality. Connecticut approved that increase in March.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already have wages set above the federal rate. So far, President Barack Obama has unsuccessfully sought a federal hike. 

In a statement Monday, Obama praised O’Malley and state lawmakers, and said the move should prompt Congress to act on raising the minimum wage at the national level.

 “The Maryland legislature did the right thing for its workers today by increasing the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour,” Obama said in the statement. “Maryland’s important action is a reminder that many states, cities and counties -- as well as a majority of the American people -- are way ahead of Washington on this crucial issue.”

Once the Maryland measure is signed by O'Malley, the first of five incremental wage increases in Maryland will take effect on Jan. 1 2015, raising the minimum pay to $8 an hour. Six months later, it will go up by another 25 cents.

“This is huge,” said Matthew Hanson, campaign director of the grass-roots group Raise Maryland that pushed for the increase. “Our victory today means that hundreds of thousands of working Marylanders will receive a significant pay raise over the next several years. This will lift families out of poverty.”

Since January, lawmakers insisted that they would raise the wage, but the drama was in how quickly and how much it would go up.

The version given final approval by the House of Delegates Monday in a 87-47 vote incrementally increases the wage to the $10.10 mark O'Malley sought, but it does so two years later than the governor proposed. It does not tie future increases to inflation, but it lets counties set wages even higher than the state minimum.  Montgomery and Prince George's counties have already done so. 

The bill creates a "training wage" lower than the minimum wage for younger workers during their first six months on the job. It also boosts state funding for workers who take care of people with developmental disabilities, and issue that became the biggest sticking point in approving the bill when a key senator vowed to stall until the funding came through.

"It's the biggest victory we've ever had," said Laura Howell, one the state's leading disabilities advocates. "Including funding for developmental disability workers in the minimum wage bill is an incredibly strong statement that Marylanders with developmental disabilities matter."

Delegates used the final vote - necessary to adopt changes made by the Senate - as an opportunity to renew the partisan debate over whether the minimum wage helps the economy.

Republicans argued it was an unnecessary government intervention that would force some small businesses to shed workers or close up shop.

Del Michael A. McDermott, an Eastern Shore Republican, warned the measure would lead to the “demise of our state.”

“For us this is really the inflation bill,” he said. “You guarantee Maryland will be the leader in inflation for our region.”

But Del. Dereck Davis, the Prince George’s County Democrat who steered the bill to passage, said “don’t believe the hype.”

“If not now, when?” he said, contending the bill will help workers. “We don’t believe when they’re doing full-time they should be earning poverty wages.”

The issue is sure to factor into the Democratic primary race for governor, where the three leading contenders have each described themselves as champions for raising the minimum wage.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur were both early supporters of a wage increase and made it a central part of their campaigns. Each supported an increase that would have gone farther than the one approved by state lawmakers. 

Front-runner Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown released a statement immediately after the vote praising its passage.

"Every Marylander who puts in a full day’s work deserves to earn a family-supporting income, and raising the minimum wage to $10.10 will strengthen more of our families, helping them climb the ladder of opportunity out of poverty and towards success.”

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