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U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin led two dozen public officials, local business owners and community leaders in a roundtable discussion on the minimum wage Monday afternoon at the Charles County Board of Education in La Plata.

In response to a growing push nationally to raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour, legislation has been proposed in both Congress and the Maryland General Assembly that would set the minimum wage at $10.10 an hour.

Midway through the 2014 state legislative session, a minimum wage increase has become a flagship objective for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and many Democratic lawmakers.

Cardin (D) partly blamed the country’s shrinking middle class and the growing wealth disparity between rich and poor Americans on a stagnant minimum wage that has been outpaced by inflation. He said economists had determined that the bill before Congress would result in $30 billion in economic activity.

“You can’t have a healthy economy without a growing middle class,” Cardin said.

The senator also denounced as “two myths” arguments that minimum-wage jobs are solely entry-level positions worked by teenagers and that raising the wage is bad for the economy.

He cited statistics that the average minimum-wage worker is in her 30s, the majority are women, and about one-quarter are their family’s primary wage earner. He also said that past minimum wage increases were followed by historic upticks in economic productivity.

Cardin said a person with a family of four working at the current minimum wage would fall below the federal poverty line, while an increase to a $10.10 hourly wage would move them just above it.

“If you make the minimum wage and you work 40 hours a week, there’s not a state in this country where you can afford quality housing,” he said. “If you believe in a minimum wage, then it needs to be adjusted to be real, and this is not an adequate minimum wage.”

Charles County Chamber of Commerce Past President Craig Renner said the chamber holds a “fundamental disagreement” over the minimum wage and believes the best way in which to establish wages is through the free market.

Artificially raising the minimum wage would result in unemployment for those most in need of entry-level job opportunities, Renner said, adding that workforce training and development would do more to help lower-wage earners climb the income ladder.

Much of the momentum behind the current push to increase the minimum wage began with nationwide strikes by nonunionized fast-food workers. Ken Weikel, the owner of two Chick-fil-A restaurants in Waldorf, called some of the criticism aimed at the industry “warranted” but said he doesn’t employ people at minimum wage.

“I have people working for me in excess of $10.10, and they can’t afford housing,” Weikel said, adding that he does not believe in a minimum wage and thinks the focus should instead be on increasing access to affordable housing.

“I hear a lot about middle-income families, but I think about the homeless families,” said the Rev. Beatrice Edwards, the retired founding pastor of Mount Sinai African Methodist Episcopal Church in La Plata. “Even when they get a job, they can’t afford housing. They can’t afford to go to Chick-fil-A.”

When he opened Bobby Rucci’s Famous Italian Deli and Doughboys nine months ago, Charles County Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) said he started a few employees at minimum wage but quickly gave them raises. By the time he factors in the associated increase in unemployment taxes, as well as ever-rising food prices, it’s tough to make ends meet, Rucci said.

“It all sounds good until you get to the dollars and cents,” he said.

Waldorf real estate agent Dontae Carroll said workers who benefit from a wage increase will end up paying for it in the form of price spikes as companies look to pass the cost down to consumers.

“It’s almost like you’re squeezing from your right hand and into the left,” he said.

Cardin said $10.10 in 2014 has less purchasing power than the minimum wage did back in the 1960s.

“Here’s the disconnect ... Over the last several decades, productivity in America has gone up much faster than wages. It’s not even close,” Cardin said. “I don’t begrudge someone making a lot of money. I really don’t. But I think there’s a problem when productivity increases faster than wages.”

He raised the well-known example of Henry Ford once increasing his workers wages so that they could actually afford the automobiles they manufactured.

“Normally the market adjusts. You pay your workers because you make more money, but it hasn’t,” Cardin said.

Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said even someone making $10.10 an hour while working 40 hours a week — and thus taking home a $404 paycheck — would struggle to make ends meet.

“That’s not middle class in 2014,” Robinson said. “If people work, they shouldn’t have to be poor.”

Prior to the roundtable discussion, Cardin began his Charles County visit with a tour of the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative’s new engineering operations center in Hughesville and then a brief meeting with the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland at its office down the street.

Cardin asked SMECO President and CEO Austin J. “Joe” Slater Jr. what the co-op would like to see out of a dysfunctional federal government.

“That’s a loaded question. Harmony?” Slater answered.

Tour stops within the 165,000-square-foot building included the cavernous operations center, 55-terminal call center, and “storm room,” from which SMECO staff can direct its emergency response during extreme weather.

“This building is incredible,” Cardin said. “Your commitment to reliable energy is certainly not the standard in your industry.”

The senator said Southern Maryland’s congressional delegation — comprising himself, U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) — rarely gets calls about poor electric service in the region.

“The three of us are very proud of SMECO, and we brag about you all the time. We get very few complaints about SMECO, and that isn’t usually the case [with other utilities].”

During his meeting with the Tri-County Council, Cardin was briefed on the region’s transportation goals, recent Point in Time homeless count, rural broadband expansion and ongoing efforts to establish a program for distributing fresh farm produce to food banks and pantries.

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) noted the state recently has committed $56 million to early work on a Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge replacement but told Cardin federal funding would help speed the project along.

“We’ll get there eventually on our own, but any help we could get from the federal government would really expedite it,” Middleton said.

“All it takes is a flat tire on the Nice Bridge now for there to be a 20-mile backup,” Robinson said.

“We’ll be watching Ken on Friday evenings to make sure he’s not putting tacks down on the bridge,” Cardin said jokingly.

jnewman@somdnews.com