By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins
Most of the time this session, the Maryland House of Delegates seem has seemed a charmingly amicable group. They have given each other standing ovations to celebrate birthdays at the end of floor sessions, and cheered veterans in unison. They have worked together on bipartisan bills, and joked and bantered during committee hearings.
At a time of sometimes vituperative political division and hostility nationwide, most of the time, the Maryland legislature offers a pleasant contrast: a place where polarization gives way to politeness. Most of the time.
On Wednesday a bill to raise the minimum wage, HB295, came out of committee, and politeness was, for the most part, thrown out the Tiffany skylights. Seventeen different amendments were introduced and discussed for an hour and 45 minutes.
During the discussion, Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis was implicitly asked whether he was favoring the corporation Six Flags in the bill because it’s in his district (it is in a neighboring Prince George’s district).
Del. Michael McDermott then accused Davis of trying to extort a vote from him, and allegations that exemptions in the law left some districts favored over others were rife.
Ocean City paves the way in Baltimore
“It’s the revenues from Ocean City that honestly pave a lot of the roads in Baltimore City,” said McDermott, a Lower Shore Republican running to represent the resort city in the Senate. He argued for an exemption for Ocean City employees working less than 120 days a year. “It’s the revenue from Ocean City that does a lot in this state to help us move forward. We’re not keeping that down in the beach, we all share in that.”
“We all share in all the revenues that are generated in the state,” replied Davis. “I don’t think it’s fair or even accurate to single out one jurisdiction for funding another.”
Much of the reason the bill attracted such strong emotions -- and so many amendments -- is due to how much both sides feel is at stake.
HB295, an O’Malley administration measure sponsored by a coalition of 54 Democratic delegates led by House Speaker Michael Busch, aims to raise the state minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour over the course of two years.
Given that a living wage in Maryland can range from $10-$14 depending on where one lives, proponents feel that a minimum wage hike is long overdue. Opponents argue that the bill will damage small companies, and cause hiring to slow; thereby hurting the very people it is intended to help.
“My friends, this is not a minimum wage job bill, this is a minimum job killer,” said Del, Ron George, a Republican from Annapolis running for governor. “An increase in the minimum wage is a job killer... Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 in Maryland would lead to the loss of 11,500 jobs.”
Most of Wednesday’s amendments were direct products of this concern. Over half of them aimed to either mitigate the effect of the bill on companies -- small and large -- or to make special provision for younger and/or temporary workers who would use the wage as a supplementary income.
Del. Eric Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, offered an amendment to exempt all businesses within 90 miles of the state line so they would be protected from potential competition with companies able to pay lower wages.
Del. Susan Krebs, R-Carroll, tried to change the exemption for small businesses so that it covered those with a gross income of up to $500,000, rather than only $250,000.
“We say we want to help small business. We upped the minimum wage for inflation but we did not up the exemption amount for small business,” said Krebs. “If we had upped it, it would go to 1.7 million dollars if we really used the inflation-adjusted number. We keep saying we want to protect small business but this bill does not do that.”
Despite the impassioned arguments, in the end, all except for the initial three friendly amendments failed, generally along party lines.
No automatic increases
Del. Heather Mizeur, a Takoma Park Democrat running for governor, proposed automatic increases in the wage up to $11.23 per hour in 2023, but only eight delegates voted for that, eliciting some faint bomb-falling whistles in the chamber. Indexing of the minimum wage had been taken out of the bill in committee.
All but two of the amendments were offered by Republicans and aimed to lessen the bill’s effects should it pass. Those efforts having failed, all that remains is for delegates to make their final cases for or against the measure before the decisive vote on Friday. Given the wide margins against the amendments and the number of co-sponsors, the bill is likely to pass and be sent to the Senate.