By Daniel Menefee
For Maryland Reporter
Montgomery County and Baltimore City officials expressed outrage in Annapolis yesterday over a bill that would bar local governments from increasing the minimum wage above state levels.
Opponents say the move is a crack-down on jurisdictions joining a movement to set the wage floor at $15 per hour, which gathered steam during the presidential bid of Bernie Sanders.
But the lead sponsor, Del. Dereck Davis, chair of the House Economic Matters Committee said the bill, HB317, was about ensuring uniformity and security for Maryland’s business climate in pursuit of higher wages for all Marylanders.
“It’s not about fiefdoms,” Davis said at Tuesday’s hearing. “It’s about how best we market ourselves.”
Baltimore already has the authority to set a minimum wage, and did in 1964, said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
“We’ve given no just cause to this committee or the general assembly for preemption and request the committee to reject the lure of unwarranted national intrusion and the traditional balance between the state of Maryland and its local subdivisions,” she said. ”Baltimore City must act responsibly to close the growing economic gap between the haves and the have-nots in our city’s workforce.”
Clarke’s comments come as the Baltimore City Council is on the cusp of passing incremental increases to reach $15 by 2022, and 2026 for companies with fewer than 50 employees.
“This is an unwarranted and unwise preemption of fundamental local government responsibility,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, who said one set of standards ignores unique circumstances to each jurisdiction “Our county is not the same as Garrett County, and Baltimore City is not the same St. Mary’s County. Local wages and benefits should be responsive to local conditions.”
“The cost of living in Montgomery County is obviously a lot higher than in other parts of the state,” he said.
Berliner voted against a minimum wage increase that passed County Council in a 5-4 vote on Jan. 17 — and later vetoed by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett.
Business representatives in support of the bill said wage variations across multiple jurisdictions would be a management nightmare.
“The cost of trying to keep appropriate track of different wage and benefits schemes in different jurisdictions has the ability to tax our accounting and payroll systems to the breaking point,” said Carville Collins for DavCo Restaurants, a Wendy’s Franchisee with 101 locations in Maryland. “Only the most robust and expensive systems can track multiple wage bases and [sick] leave policies.”
He said many employees rotate between different jurisdictions in a given week.
“It really makes no sense to foster competition inequality between Maryland counties,” he said.
Collins said without passage there would be a “civil war” among local jurisdictions and asked for an amendment to reverse wage hikes enacted in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in 2013 that will climb to $11.50 in July.
He said the grandfather clause in the bill should be struck down if lawmakers are committed “to a single set of requirements.”
Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland blamed organized labor for using local governments as “incubators” to advance an agenda to change labor policy at the state level.
“Prohibiting local jurisdictions from enacting their own [wage] laws will reduce the pressure on state lawmakers” to raise the minimum wage, he said in support of the bill.
He said uniformity would ensure a level playing field for all Maryland businesses.
Dan Menefee can be reached at email@example.com