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Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton is the sponsor of Senate Bill 890, which proposes to increase the increasing the state reimbursement for hourly wages paid to direct support staff to a rate that is at least 50 percent higher than minimum wage. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Senators grapple with minimum wage bill

ANNAPOLIS — Progress in the state Senate on a bill that would increase the minimum wage in Maryland hinges on a deal to increase wages for people who care for the developmentally disabled.

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said Wednesday that minimum wage bill being considered won’t move before legislators find a way to increase wages to caregivers.

“To say that they should just be at a minimum wage salary, I think is wrong,” Middleton said. “So I am tying the two together.”

Middleton is the sponsor of Senate Bill 890, which proposes to increase the increasing the state reimbursement for hourly wages paid to direct support staff to a rate that is at least 50 percent higher than minimum wage.

The chairman of the 11-member Senate Finance Committee said Wednesday that he now hopes to lock in a rate that is 35 percent higher than the minimum wage increase that he believes will be passed by the legislature this session. Currently, support staff earn 36 percent more than the $7.25 minimum wage.

Middleton and others were expected to meet with staff from the governor’s office Wednesday afternoon to discuss the costs associated with an increase to caregivers.

“It’s a significant fiscal note,” Middleton said, but he declined to discuss specific costs associated with his 35 percent proposal.

At 50 percent, as Middleton originally proposed, the increase would cost the state an additional $15 million annually if the $10.10 minimum wage is adopted. Changes in the percentage of increase to caregivers or minimum wage rate would change those projected costs.

With less than three weeks left in the General Assembly session, committee members charged with crafting the Senate version of the minimum wage bill do not seem to be in a rush to complete their work.

“To the extent that I don’t want to move a bill until the we resolve the (caregiver wage), yeah, we are stalling,” Middleton said.

A Senate Finance Committee work group on the issue, which was attended by near all the members of the full committee, met for an hour Wednesday to discuss issues including phasing in an increase over five years, training and seasonal wages, increases for tipped wage employees and pre-empting local governments from setting their own minimum wages.

“There’s so many ideas,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick and Carroll a member of the committee. “It’s all over the place. I’m just opposed to (the minimum wage increase).

“Just in the last 24 hours, I thought we might leave it at [$]10.10 and just stretch out the phase-in. I don’t think anybody knows what is going to happen,” Brinkley said. “There are 11 different opinions on the committee. Exactly what coalesces remains to be seen.”

The work group meeting Wednesday morning amounted to a mini version of two earlier bill hearings with supporters and opponents restating previous testimony and what they hoped for in a bill.

Middleton said he would like to keep the $10.10 minimum wage that is in the House bill, which is favored by Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, but phase it in over five years rather than the three currently proposed.

“I don’t want to see us get there as quickly as the House did,” Middleton said. “I’m getting the sense that this is where the committee wants to be, too.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the slow progress in the Senate is not a surprise.

“We’ve heard that all along,” Busch said. “I think that the governor has got to engage with the Senate and move the bill.”

The legislature still needs to complete work on the operating and capital budgets and bills sent over from the House. Additionally, Middleton said, another work group meeting will be scheduled in the next week. All of that could mean that the committee’s final recommendation won’t be sent to the full Senate for seven to 10 days or more. There, legislators can debate and even attempt to amend that recommendation.

“It’s the possibility that it will become a Christmas tree on the floor and then goes to the House and clogs things up there,” Brinkley said.

Any changes in committee or even on the floor of the Senate would mean the bill would have to return to the House. Final passage in both chambers may not come until very late.

“Maybe the last day,” Brinkley said. “It could be a sine die issue.”