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With Veto Override, Maryland Becomes 6th State to Enact $15 Minimum Wage

Under the minimum wage legislation, businesses with 15 or more employees will follow a schedule that reaches $15 in 2025, while smaller companies will have to pay $15 starting in 2026.

By Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood

Maryland's General Assembly took swift action Thursday to override Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill that will gradually increase the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The override of the minimum wage bill was never in question and came by wide margins: 96-43 in the House of Delegates, followed by a 32-15 vote in the Senate. It takes 29 votes to override in the Senate and 85 in the House.

Lawmakers also overrode a veto of a bill that strips State Comptroller Peter Franchot's alcohol and tobacco enforcement authority, moving it to a new commission. And they took a step toward overriding Hogan's veto of a bill that would overturn the governor's order that public schools must start the academic year after Labor Day.

Under the minimum wage legislation, businesses with 15 or more employees will follow a schedule that reaches $15 in 2025, while smaller companies will have to pay $15 starting in 2026.

In vetoing the bill Wednesday, Hogan said in a letter to legislative leaders that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour will "cost us jobs, negatively impact our economic competitiveness and devastate our state's economy."

The Republican governor had offered support for an increase to $12.10 instead.

"We are obviously disappointed that the legislature completely ignored the governor's reasonable compromise proposal to protect jobs and small businesses," Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a statement. "So much for olive branches."

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, argued too many Marylanders are trying to live on poverty wages. As a business owner, Wilson said he understands Republicans' concerns about the legislation's impact on small businesses, but he argued it was the right thing to do to help low-wage workers.

"We have to do something," Wilson said. "Doing nothing is unacceptable."

Hogan's proposal to increase the minimum wage to $12.10 also would have allowed further increases only if surrounding states raised wages, too. Pennsylvania and Virginia follow the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Delaware and West Virginia have a minimum wage of $8.75, with Delaware's scheduled to increase to $9.25 this fall.

There's been a national push to increase the minimum wage. Many major employers have pledged to increase wages and several Democratic presidential hopefuls have put a $15 wage in their platforms.

Twenty-nine states have minimum wages higher than the federal rate. California, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia have passed laws that phase in increases to reach $15, according to nonpartisan analysts from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

Republicans joined Hogan Thursday in opposition to the $15 an hour legislation, arguing it will hurt rural parts of the state. Lawmakers should instead focus on how to grow the economy, they argued.

"Areas of the state have begged us not to do this to them," said Del. Nic Kipke, the Anne Arundel Republican who is House minority leader. "I stand in support of our governor. I stand in opposition of this 'Fight for 15.' ... What helps is a roaring economy."

As in the House, senators revisited their earlier debate themes on the issue. Supporters of the increased wage talked about how it will help families and does not spell doom for businesses, while opponents said minimum wage jobs are meant for entry-level workers and that $15 an hour salaries will devastate local businesses.

Sen. Cory McCray, the bill's Senate sponsor, peppered his comments with the estimate that 573,000 workers will benefit from the increased wage.

"They don't want a hand out, they want a hand up," said McCray, a Baltimore Democrat. "And while there are those of us that can go to work every day and they can do everything right, the reality is that there were thoughtful leaders before us that put in protections to make sure that we lift all people, which is what we are doing today."

Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Washington County Republican, warned against raising the wage at a time when another recession is in sight.

"When it happens," he said, "it's going to crush the small businesses that are living on tight margins."

Other Republicans said education, job training or "motivation" is what's necessary to help workers to move up to better-paying jobs.

"That's how you will raise these people out of poverty, not just by putting this up to $15," said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

With the veto overridden, the first increase is scheduled for Jan. 1. That will bring the minimum wage to $11 per hour.

The override was cheered by supporters of increasing the wage and criticized by business groups.

Ricarra Jones, leader of the state's "Fight for $15" coalition, said the governor's veto amounted to him "turning his back on hundreds of thousands of workers who can't survive on $400 a week" -- the amount of a week's full-time pay at $10.10 an hour.

Mike O'Halloran, state director of National Federation of Independent Business, said his group was disappointed by the move, saying it will "send Maryland in the wrong direction."

"The small business community has been clear throughout the debate that this legislation would be devastating to them," he said.

Both the House and Senate voted to override Hogan's veto of the legislation to establish an Alcohol and Tobacco Commission. It would replace Franchot by July 2020 in overseeing his field enforcement division, which has about 60 staffers and investigates violations of state regulations pertaining to tobacco and alcohol sales, among other duties. The governor will appoint the members of the proposed commission. The House override vote was 98-39, followed by a 30-15 vote in the Senate.

Franchot wasn't available Thursday for comment, but Deputy Comptroller Len Foxwell said the change was the result of corporate influence on the General Assembly's leaders.

"There is virtually nothing that rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers won't do when under orders from (state Senate President) Mike Miller and (House Speaker) Mike Busch, that we live in a state where powerful corporate lobbyists can literally handpick a new regulator if they don't like the one they already have, and that we have enough taxpayer money in the state's coffers to burn $50 million merely to settle a personal grudge," Foxwell wrote in a Facebook post.

Franchot has said it will cost the state $50 million to create the commission. Nonpartisan analysts estimated it would cost the state $4 million in the first year to set up the commission.

Democratic Del. Dereck Davis of Prince George's County argued the bill was good policy, not political payback against Franchot for his criticism of General Assembly leadership.

"The state of Maryland does not revolve around Peter V.R. Franchot," Davis said. "Can he be an irritant? Yes. But that doesn't mean the bill is about that. ... It's a bipartisan effort."

The Senate also voted to override Hogan's veto of the bill that would return authority to decide when to begin the academic year to local school districts -- legislation that would undo the governor's 2016 executive order mandating a post-Labor Day start.

Sen. Paul Pinsky termed the governor's order a "fiat written in stone" that was more focused on helping tourism than students.

"The word 'instruction' does not appear once in the executive order," said Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. "That should tell you something."

The House of Delegates is expected to vote Friday on that veto override.

(c)2019 The Baltimore Sun

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