- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates yesterday approved a first-in-the-nation living wage for state contracts, setting a wage of at least $8.50 an hour for employers seeking state jobs.

The bill, approved 88-50, sets an even higher wage of $11.30 an hour in the most expensive area of the state, the region between Baltimore and Washington.

If enacted, Maryland would be the first state to set a living wage.

In 1994, Baltimore became the first city to require the higher wage, and living wages now are required by more than 100 cities nationwide.

Maryland’s Democrat-controlled legislature passed a similar measure in 2004, but it was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

This year, Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, supports the living-wage proposal.

Mr. O’Malley’s efforts were credited for reviving the bill in recent days after it appeared doomed for the year. It still must pass the Senate by Monday, when the legislative session ends.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where top lawmakers have signaled it should pass.

If the bill is enacted, the wage rules would take effect in October and affect only contracts worth at least $100,000.

On the bill’s second day of debate in the House, supporters argued the living wage would ensure that government workers aren’t so poor to require state services such as food stamps.

“Help people escape from the tight grip of poverty with their dignity intact,” said the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Herman Taylor, a Democrat from Montgomery County, which also has a local living-wage law. “We can help eradicate the vicious cycle of poverty.”

Republicans, all of whom voted against the idea, took issue with several parts of the bill.

Especially prickly was the provision that some areas of the state would have higher wages than others. That provision brought several complaints, especially from rural and suburban Republicans.

“I got to go back to my folks and say, you know, we’re not bringing you out of poverty. You’ve got to go 10 miles down the road,” said Republican Delegate Barry Glassman of suburban Harford County, north of Baltimore.

Another Republican from the lower-wage region, Delegate Addie Eckardt of the Eastern Shore, argued the tiered-wage system “creates artificial disparities.”

Democratic supporters pointed out that when Mr. Ehrlich vetoed the 2004 living wage bill, he cited differences in the cost of living across the state.

Delegates on Thursday rejected an amendment to erase the two levels.

Advocates who have long pushed for the living-wage bill cheered the House vote yesterday.

“It’s a good day for Maryland’s working families,” said Sean Dobson, director of Progressive Maryland.

Business groups weren’t so pleased. Ellen Valentino, director of the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the wage law could make it harder for small businesses to compete for state contracts.

However, she added, “passage appears imminent” for the measure.

For that reason, she said business groups were working to tweak provisions of the bill, such as the possibility of criminal penalties for employers who retaliate against employees who report noncompliance.

“We’re looking over the next 48 hours to soften the blow for small business,” she said.

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