September 14, 2013

MAYOR VINCENT C. Gray’s veto of a bill that would have required certain large retailers to pay a super-minimum wage was grounded in hard business logic, basic fairness and the best interests of the District. Enactment of the measure would have tarnished the District’s reputation as a place to do business, costing it development and jobs. Let’s hope the D.C. Council has the sense to sustain Mr. Gray’s veto.

Let’s also hope that if there is to be new debate about an across-the-board hike in the minimum wage, as Mr. Gray (D) and others have promised, officials do their homework and consider all factors rather than — as was unfortunately the case with the retailer bill — make shortsighted decisions based on political and emotional appeals from special interests.

The council on Tuesday is set to try to override Mr. Gray’s veto of legislation that would require large retailers, such as Wal-Mart (the main target of the bill), to pay employees a minimum of $12.50 an hour (minus the cost of some benefits), more than $4 above the D.C. minimum and more than $5 above the minimum wage in neighboring Virginia and Maryland. Nine votes are needed to override the veto. If the five council members who initially voted no stand firm, the override attempt would fall one vote short.

But discussion about wages is not likely to go away. Sentiment is building for some increase in the city’s minimum of $8.25 an hour. Mr. Gray’s veto message rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of a bill cynically purporting to advance “a living wage” only applying to a fraction of city workers and said he favored a “reasonable” but unspecified increase in the District’s minimum wage for allworkers.

D.C. would not be alone in considering such a boost. The California legislature last week voted for a hike that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) promises to sign, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is said to be considering an increase part of his legislative agenda for the upcoming General Assembly session. The preferable approach would be for Congress to adjust the federal minimum wage of $7.25, set in 2009, and index it to inflation, but that’s not likely to occur, thus giving impetus to local efforts like that in D.C. or the one being drafted in Montgomery County.

A spokesman for Mr. Gray told us that the mayor wants to study the issue and consult all stakeholders before making any recommendation. That’s good to hear. D.C. must be mindful of its regional competition and weigh the advantages of raising incomes against the risks of discouraging job creation.

Council members clamoring for attention in an election year may seek to run ahead of the mayor and ram through legislation as hasty and ill-conceived as their last attempt. Mr. Gray should recommend to the council the appointment of a joint group to study the matter and make recommendations.