Setting a minimum standard

Our view: Democrats in Annapolis were gung-ho for a higher Maryland minimum wage seven years ago, so where are they now?

January 29, 2012

Last Tuesday, a Delaware state senate committee approved legislation to raise that state's minimum wage to $8.25 by 2014, making it $1 above the federal government's (and Maryland's) current standard. If the measure becomes law, the Diamond State would join 17 other states that require a minimum wage in excess of the $7.25 federal standard.

That Delaware, a state ranked in the top-quarter of states for its business tax climate (according to the Tax Foundation), should demonstrate such interest in raising the minimum wage adds to the evidence that it's not strictly a red or blue state or liberal versus conservative issue.

Indeed, the 17 high minimum wage jurisdictions include such GOP-rich states as Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Alaska and Colorado. Every region of the country is represented on the list, but it's particularly popular on the West Coast and New England.

So where's Maryland? Missing in action.

Seven years ago, Maryland Democrats raised quite a ruckus over the minimum wage when RepublicanRobert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor. They passed a bill to raise it to $6.15 (when the federal standard was $5.15) and, with much gusto, overrode Mr. Ehrlich's veto to make it law.

Mr. Ehrlich's lack of support for the higher minimum wage (as well as his opposition to other progressive measures in Annapolis) became a rallying cry for Democrats and helped propelMartin O'Malley into office. But since Mr. O'Malley was elected governor, efforts to boost the Maryland minimum wage have languished.

Last year, a bill to raise it to $9.75 over three years couldn't even get an up or down vote in a House or Senate committee. Apparently, raising the minimum wage is all the rage among Maryland Democrats when it can be used to bash the first Republican governor in a generation but not so much at other times.

Business groups like theU.S. Chamber of Commercetraditionally oppose increasing the minimum wage on the grounds that higher salary costs mean fewer jobs, particularly for young people. But many experts dispute this contention, and studies show businesses actually benefit when they pay workers a higher minimum wage because of reduced absenteeism, lower turnover and better morale.

More important, the boost in wages is good for the community. It helps poor families put decent food on the table and afford housing. It means less dependence on government assistance and helps reduce the gap (however modestly) between poor and affluent.

That doesn't mean that the wage should be off the charts. Nor is it a cure-all for poverty, but periodic, modest raises in the standard can be part of a broader effort (including better schools and decent health care coverage) to fight it. Admittedly, a relatively small percentage of Marylanders work for the minimum wage, but a reasonable increase would likely have a ripple effect on wages overall and help stimulate the economy.

After all, a low-income family that receives $20 or $40 more per week isn't going to put the money under the mattress, they're going to spend it locally in stores. And it's particularly helpful to women and minorities who represent a high percentage of workers earning minimum wage.

This is not socialism in action. The nation supported a higher minimum wage when Richard Nixon was president. Maryland's minimum wage would have to be raised to $10 or more to be the equivalent of what it was in 1968.

Maryland's cost of living is relatively high, particularly in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, so $7.25 doesn't go very far in places like Bethesda or Lutherville. That the state continues to adhere to the national minimum wage standard suggests a serious lack of interest in the economic challenges facing the working class.

Two or three years ago, lawmakers could say that the economy was too fragile to consider raising the standard. But that's difficult to argue today, especially as the rate of job growth continues to climb. Advocates note that consumer spending in Maryland could increase by $1 billion over the next three years if legislators approve a $9.75 wage.

If that sounds good, just imagine what it would mean to working families. To rebuild the increasingly frayed social safety net, states like Maryland could scarcely do better than raise the minimum wage and allow people to support themselves.

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