Living wage becomes Md. law

Apology for slavery, ground rent bills among 205 signed

May 09, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a first-in-the-nation "living wage" law yesterday, setting a higher minimum wage for those employed by state contractors and putting Maryland in the forefront of a national debate over government's role in fighting poverty.

"What this bill simply says is, `If you're working on a contract funded by the people of Maryland, we are going to treat you in a fair and just way so you can put food on the table for your family after a day's work,'" O'Malley said.

The living wage bill was one of 205 measures the governor signed into law yesterday, including a formal apology for Maryland's role in slavery - the second such action in the nation - and a series of seven laws designed to end the seizure of homes over unpaid ground rent. A Sun investigation last year found that some Baltimore residents had lost their homes over initial debts of as little as $24.

He also signed laws freezing tuition at University System of Maryland campuses for the 2007-2008 academic year; giving counties and municipalities more authority to require the development of affordable housing; and allowing consumers to freeze their credit reports to help prevent identity theft.

Backers of living wage legislation have succeeded in cities and counties nationwide since Baltimore enacted the first such law in 1994. But amid concerns about the costs to government and predictions that living wage laws would interfere with the free market, all other statewide efforts have failed.

Many states, Maryland included, have pursued general increases in the minimum wage, but supporters of living wage laws say governments have a duty to ensure that they expand the middle class rather than widen the ranks of the poor.

It is unclear how many workers will be affected by the Maryland law, which sets minimum wages for employees of government contractors at $11.30 an hour in the Baltimore-Washington area and $8.50 an hour in the rest of the state. Advocates say that tens of thousands of families will be helped, but the state has not yet been able to produce exact figures for the number of state contract workers who earn less than the new minimums.

An important step

Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Thomas E. Perez, who is charged with enforcing the law, said the statewide standard is an important step no matter how many workers are directly affected because it will put pressure on employers to pay a living wage.

"It doesn't make sense that they will differentiate wages depending on what contract you're working on," he said.

The living wage law puts Maryland squarely back in the national spotlight over its business regulations.

The state became an object of scorn for conservatives after lawmakers passed legislation that would have forced Wal-Mart to pay more for health care (the measure never went into effect because it was blocked by the courts), and business groups cried foul over a $1-an-hour increase in the minimum wage that the General Assembly approved last year.

But Maryland's living wage legislation has drawn less attention, in part because other states do not appear ready to follow. Business groups, advocates and neutral observers who watch the issue said that while other states have considered living wage laws, none is on the verge of enacting one.

The living wage has played out as an "extreme extension" of the minimum wage debate, said Marc Donohue, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, a small business trade group that opposes both minimum-wage increases and living wage laws.

"There is a downside to mandated wage levels," Donohue said. "If you do it to an extreme, you're going to damage your business climate, you're going to damage your small employers and you're going to hurt many of the people you're trying to help. I think that kind of policy consensus still exists, so I don't imagine you're going to see a rash of living wages being enacted into law."

Maryland's legislature passed a living wage bill years ago, but then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed it. Rather than try to override his veto, state Democratic leaders decided to pursue a minimum wage increase, which they reasoned would affect more people. When Ehrlich vetoed the measure last year, lawmakers overrode the veto, raising the state's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour.

O'Malley breathed life into the issue when he announced his support for a living wage law during the State of the State speech in January, but even so, the bill languished for much of the legislative session. Del. Herman L. Taylor II, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the measure, said he pleaded to keep the bill from being killed in committee in the hope that O'Malley would be able to find a way to save it.

With a few days to go in this year's session, the governor brokered a compromise that set up the two-tier wage system for urban and rural areas.

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