Thursday, March 1, 2007

Living wage hearing packed

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ANNAPOLIS — Three years after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoed a living wage bill, supporters say now is the time to fight poverty through wages paid by state contractors.

Family advocates, economists, union representatives and state Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez called for the General Assembly to pass a living wage bill during a hearing last week in the House Economic Matters Committee.

‘‘We have a governor who’s for it, who campaigned on it and put it in his State of the State speech,” Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring said after the hearing. Hucker has testified on the bill since 1998 in his role as executive director of Progressive Maryland.

The bill would require businesses holding state contracts of more than $100,000 to pay employees at least $11.95 per hour beginning in fiscal 2008, which begins July 1.

‘‘The basic premise of this is the state government is not subsidizing poverty,” said Del. Herman L. Taylor Jr. (D-Dist. 14) of Ashton, the bill’s lead sponsor. ‘‘We know that people making a substandard wage cannot make it in the state of Maryland.”

More than 120 localities around the United States have adopted a living wage rate, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore city. Maryland would be the first state to do so.

‘‘I can assure you, if you did what you did in 2004 and put a bill on the governor’s desk, the governor will sign it enthusiastically because a central tenet of Governor O’Malley’s administration is to strengthen and grow the middle class,” Perez told the committee.

Bill opponents cite its unknown costs to the state.

‘‘Eleven-ninety-five an hour for any business owner is not a low benchmark,” said Ellen Valentino, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. ‘‘What I heard, even from the secretary of labor ... is I don’t think we know what are the $100,000 contracts. Who holds them? Where are the geographic areas? And what are the wages being paid in those areas?”

Maryland’s minimum wage is now $6.15 per hour. About 28,000 Marylanders were paid the minimum wage in 2005, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

About 548,000 residents — 9.8 percent of Maryland residents — live below the federal poverty rate, according to the fiscal note.

‘‘This bill does not fix the minimum wage,” Hucker told the committee. ‘‘It does not cover all employers, only a small percentage of them. It won’t end poverty in Maryland. ... This bill ends our bad habit of using tax dollars to create more poverty in Maryland and then funding more social programs to mitigate its effects.”

Dennis C. McCoy, a lobbyist who represents the Association of Builders and Contractors, said the increased labor costs ‘‘won’t come out of my client’s pocket. It comes right out of state taxpayers’ pockets if you decide to do it.”

The organization’s 600 members, some of whom built recent additions to the House and Senate office buildings in Annapolis, also oppose a provision of the bill that would increase the wage annually according to the consumer price index for all urban customers in the Baltimore-Washington region.

‘‘This simply means that for construction of this building, there would be an increase in what was bid by every constructor,” McCoy said.

Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis took lobbyists testifying against the bill to task for not providing examples of how the bill would adversely affect their clients.

‘‘How can you come here and oppose the bill and not have that information to provide to us?” asked Davis (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro. ‘‘It’s almost like you’re providing it philosophically.”

‘‘I admit my client [has] a philosophical difference,” McCoy said.