Senate approves measure to require `living wage'

House likely to follow, but Ehrlich veto looms

General Assembly

April 07, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Michael Dresser | Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The state Senate voted yesterday to require most state contractors to pay their employees at least $10.50 an hour, but the governor opposes the so-called "living wage" bill and even supporters doubt its chances of becoming law.

Senators voted 30-15 in favor of the measure, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the bill's fate was bleak: "Knowing the governor and his conservative bent, I'm confident he'll veto the bill."

Greg Massoni, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., declined to say whether the governor would veto the bill, but said it doesn't have his support. "The likelihood of it becoming law is small," he said.

Now all eyes turn to the House, where 80 of the 141 delegates have signed on as co-sponsors of similar legislation. Affirmative votes from 85 delegates would constitute a veto-proof majority. The Senate vote was one more than necessary to override a veto.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said his panel could vote on a House version of the living wage bill as early as tomorrow.

"Even though it's gotten over a few hurdles already, we still have a ways to go in a relatively short period of time," Davis said.

Opposition fell along party lines in the Senate, where all 14 Republicans cast votes against the measure.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, told colleagues a guaranteed $10.50 hourly wage would cost jobs.

"We can't repeal certain things about the laws of economics," he said. "If you make something more expensive, you are going to get less of it."

Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, urged passage of the bill for "the little people."

"Lift up that person who would, after we finish our work, be here to clean up after us," McFadden said.

The living wage concept has garnered the support of religious organizations, unions and some economists who describe a "trickle up" effect in some of the 120 U.S. cities and counties where higher-than-minimum wages are mandated. Advocates report that paying the working poor more reaps rewards in higher morale, lower turnover and fewer demands on state and federal assistance.

But the possible bottom-line impact on state coffers and small businesses has mobilized foes of the legislation.

"It's tough enough now for small businesses to compete for our dollars," said an exasperated Boyd K. Rutherford, secretary of the Department of General Services, one of the state agencies that would be directly affected by the wage requirements. "It's gonna increase our costs, particularly at this time when our budgets are tight."

Another agency, the Department of Budget and Management, contracts with hundreds of small businesses that employ about 7,900 workers, a quarter of whom currently earn an average hourly wage of $7.80.

"We're talking security guard service contracts on the Eastern Shore, snow removal contracts in Western Maryland, maintenance, food service and janitorial contracts in Harford County and the rest of the state," Rutherford said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who shepherded a living wage requirement in his county, said the costs are worth it. "It does cost more money, but it's helping us with the working poor in our county," said Duncan, a Democrat.

Fred D. Mason Jr., chapter president of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, who submitted written testimony in support of the bill, concurred. "The state should not be in the business of supporting corporations that don't pay people enough to live on because that causes the state to expand its bureaucracies to bridge the gap," Mason said. "A living wage allows people to work and take care of their families."

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