Minimum wage increases with maximum drama -- Gazette.Net


Before the Montgomery County Council voted Tuesday to raise the county’s minimum wage, one councilman alleged that he was told the president of the Maryland Senate could torpedo the effort.

Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said a Montgomery County senator told him that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. had a message for the council: the higher the new wage, the more likely the state would try to take away its wage-setting authority.

He later said the senator might have told him it was a message from Senate leadership, not Miller.

But Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, when asked about the allegation, released a statement saying he “respects” Montgomery County’s right to set its own wage level.

In a statement to The Gazette, Miller did not directly address Riemer’s allegation.

“While I believe that one uniform wage is the most effective for the state, if Montgomery County chooses to proceed in this manner, they are within their rights to do so,” Miller said. “We have different formulas for school funding and other matters in our state because of the high cost of living and I can understand why urban areas feel a need for wages to be higher there than in Southern Maryland, Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore.”

Riemer said Wednesday he didn’t remember exactly what words were used to relate the message, but its intent was clear: The state didn’t want the county to raise the wage on its own.

“The higher you go, the more likely we are to pre-empt you,” Riemer said he was told. He declined to reveal the identity of the senator, because the conversation was private.

Seven of Montgomery County’s eight senators said they did not give such a message to Riemer. The eighth, Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Dist. 15) of Potomac, did not return calls for comment.

Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said he gives Miller credit for supporting the county, and doesn’t believe county wage autonomy was ever in doubt.

The County Council voted Tuesday to increase the minimum wage in the county to $11.50 per hour by 2017, after a nearly four-hour discussion that featured several frosty exchanges among council members as they attempted to promote or beat back various proposals.

On Wednesday, Prince George’s County voted to increase the minimum wage there, also phased in over a four-year period.

A similar increase is in the pipeline in Washington, D.C.

Elrich, who authored the Montgomery County bill, said his bill had been the victim of a deliberate effort by some people to create misinformation about several aspects of the bill in the weeks leading up to the vote, none of which turned out to be true.

Rumors said Miller wasn’t happy with the legislation, but no one could ever confirm them, Elrich said.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has said he plans to make a minimum wage increase a priority and Maryland is expected take up a bill in the 2014 session to raise the statewide minimum wage to $10.10.

Part of the Montgomery discussion hinged on whether the council should postpone its bill until the General Assembly takes action. The state’s minimum wage now is $7.25 an hour.

Councilman Phil Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg argued that acting ahead of the state meant the county would be “flying blind,” while Council Vice President Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown suggested the council put off action until late January to see what the state legislation will look like.

Even if members of the Senate wanted to pre-empt Montgomery’s wage authority in favor of the state’s action, most of the county’s Senate delegation say such a proposal is unlikely to gain momentum.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase said the General Assembly will be focused on its own efforts.

“I’d be very surprised if the state took actions based on Montgomery County,” he said.

It would not get support, Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village said.

Montgomery is also not the only county to raise its local minimum wage, Sen. Roger Manno (D-Dist. 19) of Silver Spring noted.

“Counties have broad, broad authority, granted by the state,” Manno said. “I haven’t heard anyone suggest that the counties shouldn’t have autonomy over their wage rates.”

Others found the threat that Riemer raised not so far-fetched.

Sen. Richard Madaleno said, that even though he hasn’t heard it mentioned, he would not be surprised if someone were to propose a bill to pre-empt the county’s ability to set a local minimum wage.

“The state, obviously, has a role to play to make sure that none of the local governments go in a direction that is bad for the state or detrimental to the state,” Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington said. “We put in all sorts of ranges and limits and prohibitions on other issues.”

However, he said he hopes the legislation would not come from Montgomery’s delegation.

Such a bill would not shock Sen. Jennie Forehand either, who has spent 35 years as a Maryland lawmaker.

Many issues divide Maryland’s counties, among them wages and cost of living, Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville said. “I think that a living wage in one county is so different from a living wage in Montgomery County,” she said.