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Legislative leaders cool to minimum wage raise

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton

ANNAPOLIS – Bills that would raise Maryland’s minimum wage to $9.75 an hour by 2013 enjoy the support of many liberal lawmakers, but appear destined to fail this year for lack of support among key legislative leaders.

“Now is just not a good time for the businesses,” said Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “It has fiscal consequences for businesses at a time when they’re struggling to survive.”

Middleton’s committee heard testimony on the bill last week. Groups that advocate on behalf of working families touted the economic benefit of putting more money into the pockets of low-wage earners.

“I think it heightened the awareness of the gap between the rich and poor,” said Middleton, D-Charles. But, he added, “I don’t see any appetite on the committee to pass the bill, myself included.”

Middleton’s counterpart in the House of Delegates, Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said he doesn’t want to move the bill this year “in this economic climate.”

Davis, whose committee heard the bill Tuesday, said many lawmakers have been focused on other issues swirling during the legislative session, from the $1.6 billion budget deficit to the same-sex marriage bill’s rocky road in the House and the governor’s bills that seek to create a market for offshore wind energy in Maryland.

The minimum wage bills, HB 988 and SB 716, would step the state’s minimum wage from the federally mandated $7.25 to $8.25 starting July 1. A year later, it would bump to $9 an hour, and in 2013, to $9.75. After that, it would be indexed to inflation.

The bill would also extend overtime rules to farm workers who work more than 48 hours in a week and raise minimum pay for employees who receive tips, from 50 percent of the minimum wage to 75 percent.

Supporters argue the legislation would inject an extra $1 billion in spending into the Maryland economy.

“Raising the minimum wage is the best tool the government has to stimulate the economy,” said Rion Dennis, executive director of Progressive Maryland, a liberal advocacy group.

Opponents, however, say the minimum wage hike would suppress hiring for entry-level jobs and hamper the state’s fragile economic recovery.

“Now is not the time to impose new wage mandates on the small-business community,” said Ellen Valentino, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “There are too many people making zero.”

Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard and Carroll, called the legislation “a terrible bill that will hurt people who are unskilled and young.”

Maryland last increased its minimum wage above the federal floor in 2007, and Middleton said lawmakers are hesitant to do so again.

“Typically, we’ve relied on the federal government to raise the minimum wage,” he said. “We don’t want to put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding states.”

Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wage rates that are higher than the federal level, although Maryland’s neighbors — Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — are not among them. The district’s minimum wage is set to automatically increase to $1 above the national level.

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