The Post’s View

How a D.C. wage bill — and the council’s hubris — threaten city development

“TRUST ME.” For some reason, that blithe reassurance from D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) about the imposition of a super minimum wage for large retailers doesn’t entirely reassure us.

“We don’t have to beg people to come to the District anymore,” Mr. Orange pronounced confidently. In fact, the measure backed by Mr. Orange will prompt companies to think twice about coming to the District, particularly to struggling neighborhoods that most need jobs and services. Existing businesses will worry they will be next in line for prejudicial treatment from lawmakers catering to special interests.

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The bill, tentatively approved by the council, would require big retailers to pay employees $12.50 an hour. That’s $4.25 more than the District’s minimum wage, which already is a dollar higher than those of Virginia and Maryland. The measure could lead Wal-Mart, the bull’s-eye being targeted by the bill, to scale back its plans for development in the District, including a store slated for Skyland Town Center in underserved Ward 7. Wegmans, the grocery chain the city is trying to lure to the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus, has also reportedly expressed concerns about the extra cost of doing business and the competitive disadvantage (i.e., higher prices) that would result from the bill.

The hubris of the Large Retailer Accountability Act is matched by its hypocrisy. Council members who backed the measure, first sponsored by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), claimed only to be looking out for D.C. workers struggling to keep pace with the cost of living in the District. Apparently they aren’t worried about people who work in fast-food restaurants, the unionized grocery stores carefully exempted or countless other businesses or, for that matter, about some of their own government employees who make less than $12.50 an hour. And if conditions are so dire, why the four-year lag in compliance for existing retailers (that is, not Wal-Mart) covered by the measure?

“If this is about sticking it to Wal-Mart, we should be honest and say so,” observed Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who joined four other council members in voting no. Ms. Bowser got part of the equation right. Another motive, according to council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), was to hand a victory in the nation’s capital to organized labor that it can cite in other jurisdictions. Mr. Evans voted for the bill — a departure from his normally sensible approach to economic development — and told us that he did so as part of a compromise to prevent the council’s approval of even more onerous measures. Mr. Evans said he traded his vote to limit the reach of the law and to win support for some sensible measures in a separate vote on the city budget.

Mr. Evans at least could offer a practical explanation for his vote, in contrast to council members such as Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Mr. Barry delivered a powerful statement about his ward’s need for food stores and other retail establishment — and then voted in support of a measure that works against those needs. The 8 to 5 vote is one short of being veto-proof, so if the council doesn’t come to its senses in its final vote on the measure Wednesday, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) should have an opportunity to prevent this bad bill from becoming law.

 
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