ANNAPOLIS — The chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee Tuesday came out swinging at opponents of his bill that would prohibit local governments from enacting their own wage and employment benefits laws.
Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s, said his bill would limit a growing and confusing patchwork of minimum wage laws that could endanger job growth in the state. Local elected officials said the law is a usurpation of their powers and that they are acting in the absence of federal and state leadership when it comes to increasing the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour.
But Davis, who cited his credentials on labor issues including working to raise the minimum wage in Maryland, said opponents have taken the fight to social media without ever discussing the bill with him.
“Our once-proud legislature has dissolved into little more than holding press conferences and going on Twitter, Facebook and Snap Chat and all the other forms of social media,” Davis said, adding that social media can be a useful tool but that “those in opposition haven’t bothered to call me or stop by the office and ask me what was I thinking or what was I doing. They ran to the social media.
“Had you asked me why this bill was before us, I would have told you,” Davis said.
The chairman’s comments were part of a sometimes terse back and forth between legislators and opponents of the bill.
The debate over whether to prohibit local governments from enacting their own minimum wage or employment benefits laws touched off a larger discussion and led to charges and countercharges between local and state government officials.
Davis’ bill, House Bill 317, proposes a prohibition on county and municipal governments when it comes to enacting their own wage and employment laws. Local laws not enacted by Jan. 1, 2017, would be superseded by state law.
Davis said his time on the Augustine Commission two years ago taught him that businesses are looking for consistency in laws and regulations that affect them
“My focus is strictly Maryland,” Davis said.
Currently, 24 states prohibit local governments from enacting their own minimum wage laws. More than a dozen bar local governments from regulating other employment benefits such as paid sick leave.
Currently, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties have enacted their own minimum wage laws. Montgomery also enacted a separate paid sick leave law but was unsuccessful last month in another wage increase to $15 dollars.
The bill, if enacted, would bar Baltimore City from raising its minimum wage to $15 — a proposal that was introduced this year but not yet passed.
Some business leaders said the law is needed at a time when labor groups and other progressive organizations are using local government to force changes at the state level.
“We’re not here to debate the pros and cons of minimum wage increases,” said Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of government affairs for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. “Labor advocates have been using local jurisdictions as incubators for labor policies they want to see enacted statewide.”
Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat who is the sponsor of the city wage legislation, called the proposal an overreach and said the city should be left to determine what is best for its residents and workers.
“We have given no just cause to this community of the General Assembly for pre-emption and request this committee to reject the lure of an unwanted intrusion on the traditional balance between the state of Maryland and its local subdivisions,” Clark said.
“We come here not as beggars,” Clark said. “We’re only asking you to leave us alone, if you would.”
Testimony on the bill drew several heated exchanges between Davis and other legislators and groups opposed to the legislation.
Bobby Bartlett, a Germantown resident, decried the recent veto of Montgomery County legislation that would have increased the minimum wage to $15 per hour in that county and compared County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett to Donald Trump and Paul Ryan.
“For those of you on the committee who are Democrats considering this legislation, Larry Hogan and Donald Trump both won their elections because too many Democrats stayed home,” Bartlett said. “If our own party will not take a stand against the massive inequality in our own state, why would they be motivated to do any differently when the next election comes around.”
Davis was quick to take exception calling it “fiery rhetoric” and specifically recalling Bartlett to the witness table saying “I got this one.”
“I find it offensive and objectionable that you feel you can sit there and say who’s a Democrat and who’s not,” Davis said.
When he finished, Davis and other committee members refused to give Bartlett and his panel an opportunity to respond.
In another exchange, a Democratic lawmaker pushed back when a member of the Montgomery County Council complained that the pre-emption law was an unwarranted reach into local government authority but countered that the issue could be resolved if the legislature simply raised the minimum wage to $15 on all businesses.
“You’re imposing something on us,” said Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich, who joined others from the county council to oppose the pre-emption bill. “The fact that some of us think and come to your legislative body for you to make a decision and say 15 is a good number, you all, no matter what we say, will make a decision that suits you.”
Elrich sponsored legislation that would have raised the minimum wage in Montgomery County to $15 an hour. That bill passed the council but was ultimately vetoed by County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett.
“I hope, that upon further consideration, you’ll withdraw this and maybe even make it moot and pass a $15 minimum wage with indexing for the entire state so they get their level playing field and certainty and people who go to work every day get the dignity they deserve,” Elrich said.
But Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles County, fired back that Elrich was contradicting himself and wanted lawmakers to impose a policy he desired on other counties.
“Basically you stand up here and talk about local usurpation and how problematic it was but you have no problem applying Montgomery County’s floor to the rest of the state saying, ‘Well, $15 an hour works for Montgomery County so it should work for the Eastern Shore and it should work for western Maryland and it should work for southern Maryland,” said Wilson.