Senate to vote on living-wage proposal today

Bill targets those working for contractors with Md.

General Assembly

April 06, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

A decade ago, Baltimore became the first city in the nation requiring municipal service contractors to pay their workers a living wage. More than 100 other cities and counties - including Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Detroit - have followed suit.

Now the state Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill that would make Maryland the first state to require that living wages be paid to the employees of its largest contractors.

A bill set for a final Senate vote today would affect about 600 employers with state contracts for services valued at more than $100,000 and subcontractors who provide more than $25,000 in services each year. Their workers would receive hourly wages of $10.50, up from hourly wages that hover around the federal minimum wage of $5.15.

Costs concern Ehrlich

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not indicated whether he would veto the bill, but spokesman Henry P. Fawell said the governor is concerned about its potential costs.

"Conceptually, he has never viewed the living-wage idea as sound economics," said Fawell. "There's the potential for enormous increase in cost of government contracts at a time when the state can least afford it."

The Senate gave the bill preliminary approval yesterday, opening the door to wage increases that could lift some of the state's working poor from beneath the $18,850 federal poverty line for a family of four to an annual salary just above it, $20,160.

Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, which has focused its energies on winning living wages for state contract workers, said he is hopeful that the bill will become law this year.

"Who would this affect?" asked Hucker. "It's janitors, it's parking attendants, it's landscapers, it's food service workers - people that you see everyday."

During two days of heated Senate floor testimony, lawmakers made nearly a dozen attempts to weaken the bill, including introducing one amendment that would have lowered the mandatory wage to $6.50 per hour.

The amendments were defeated by a 2-1 margin.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, introduced several of the failed amendments. His reasoning: Higher salaries would cost workers in the long run by causing them to forfeit federal safety net programs that help the poor with income tax credits, food stamps, public housing and Medicaid.

"It sounds good until you actually put a face to it," Harris said. "You remove benefits. That's the problem with living wage."

Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat, discounted Harris' argument.

"I am totally surprised to hear my colleague from Baltimore County say we want to keep them on welfare," she said.

`It's good business'

Arnold M. Jolivet, president of the Washington-based American Minority Contractors and Businesses Association, said employers should consider other factors, though the living wage might cost more in wages.

"But it's good business. That way you get good, solid people who will stay with the company," Jolivet said. "The net benefits are worth it. It pays dividends.

"Contractors can be socially conscious, too," Jolivet said. "All of our contractors come from humble beginnings, a background where they got where they are because they were able to make a decent wage. They want to be able to pay their workers a living wage as well."

Yesterday's action

OPEN MEETINGS: The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to a bill that would permit any citizen to sue over violations of the state's Open Meeting's Act. The bill stemmed from a Howard County Circuit Court decision that dismissed an open-meetings case brought against the Howard County school board because the judge said the plaintiff failed to show the alleged violation adversely effected him, which the judge construed to mean having had a property right damaged. The bill has passed the Senate.

SCHOOL BUSES: The House passed a bill that would increase the maximum penalty for a driver who passes a school bus that is stopped and has its warning lights activated. The bill, which has passed the Senate, increases the maximum fine to $1,000 from $500.

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