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Baltimore City Councilman Stokes says no to $15 minimum wage

Carl Stokes (Maximilian Franz/ The Daily Record)

City Councilman Carl Stokes says he will vote against a $15 minimum wage bill, a stance that could be the death knell for the proposal. It was given preliminary approval by the council Monday night. (Maximilian Franz/ The Daily Record)

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who as recently as Monday night was the one vote needed to pass a $15 minimum wage bill in Baltimore, said Tuesday that he will vote against the bill next week.

“I don’t think we should be $4 to $5 ahead of everyone else in the state,” said Stokes, who abstained on the council vote Monday night that provided preliminary approval for the measure.

He added that the city’s business community is already “burdened” with higher property taxes and a range of fees. “We weigh them down with unnecessary taxes and fees,” said Stokes, adding that this is money employers could use to reinvest in their business.

City Hall officials familiar with the matter say there will be intense lobbying on both sides until next week’s final vote, a situation that is not unusual for major controversial bills. For now, officials say the vote could go either way.

Stokes is seen as a crucial swing vote.

The veteran councilman said Tuesday he would support a $11.50 minimum wage and a phased-in wage increase based on the current economic climate. However, he does not support predetermined increases.

“I think that’s basic economics, frankly,” said Stokes.

Councilwoman Helen Holton, who also abstained from voting on Monday, unsuccessfully introduced an amendment on the floor to limit the minimum wage hike to $11.50 by 2020.

The bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022 for some Baltimore workers passed a major procedural hurdle in the council on Monday, but bill sponsor Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke still needs to find one more yes vote by next week to send the bill to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has said she will sign the bill if it makes it to her desk.

Seven council members voted in favor of the measure, four voted against and three abstained on Monday. Councilman James Kraft was absent from the vote.

At Monday’s council meeting, Stokes said he had reservations about the bill’s “unintended consequences,” arguing that Baltimore’s youth is not prepared to make $15 an hour at entry level jobs.

“Eighty-nine percent of our fourth graders are below proficiency.  Go see the kids who are graduating or not graduating from Baltimore city schools. They are not prepared,” said Stokes at Monday’s council meeting.

Clarke, who sees this bill as a way to level the playing field for city workers, argued that a higher minimum wage is a motivator.

“My theory is that if you have opportunity for those children and their families, they will reach and grow for it; and if they don’t see it, they’re going to be depressed and discouraged.”

The bill includes amendments to exempt businesses with fewer than 25 employees and an annual gross income of less than $500,000. Maryland Zoo employees, commercial truck drivers and participants in the City’s Hire One Youth program would also be exempt.

Clarke introduced the bill in April, following the passage of similar legislation in California, New York and the District of Columbia. In recent years, more than two dozen states have boosted their minimum wage above the federal rate of $7.25. In July, Maryland raised its minimum wage to $8.75 as part of a phased increase of the state’s minimum hourly wage of $10.10 by July 2018. Montgomery County is also considering a $15 minimum wage.

Daily Record reporter Adam Bednar contributed to this article.