I'm becoming a big fan of Carol Schwartz.
We've had our spats in the past, Carol and I, most recently over developer Douglas Jemal. But in recent weeks, the venerable Republican member of the D.C. Council has been the reliable voice of reason among the cacophony of special-interest pandering and socialist posturing.
Let's start with Carol's lone vote against the so-called "Way to Work" bill, which would mandate an $11.75 minimum wage at any business that receives contracts, tax breaks or subsidies from the city. That list includes most hospitals, clinics, developers, large building contractors and hotels. The bill would also strengthen and expand the reach of the First Source program, which requires those enterprises to hire District residents for half of all their job openings, after checking with the Department of Employment Services to see if any qualified candidates are available.
This is the sort of political symbolism that energizes labor unions and activists and gives the appearance of doing something about economic injustice, while in fact accomplishing very little.
The District's chief financial officer estimated the higher wages for employees and contractors would cost the city about $3 million a year. By my calculation, that works out to a significant pay hike for less than 2,000 workers, many of whom aren't even District residents.
On the other hand, if you believe estimates of "living wage" advocates that say tens of thousands of workers will get a big pay raise, then you have to worry with Carol about the additional hit to the city's budget and the loss of jobs at District firms rendered uncompetitive by the new cost structure imposed on them by the commissars at City Hall.
First Source, meanwhile, is widely regarded as a joke by everyone involved with it. The only employment it has generated is for the city bureaucrats who dutifully date-stamp the monthly hiring reports required of employers and file them away in boxes, never to be looked at again.
Meanwhile, 15,000 District residents remain chronically unemployed, primarily because they lack the skills and work habits needed to get and keep a job, even in one of the country's tightest labor markets. The blame for that does not lie with employers who discriminate against District residents. If it lies with anyone, it is with council members and other officials who preside over a failing school system and job placement and training programs that are among the worst in the nation.
A telling little example: Last weekend, the FBI held a job fair at Tysons Corner, hoping to sign up people for 1,000 openings in the Washington region. Many of those openings are for entry-level jobs, and all were listed with the city. How many District residents did the crackerjack staff at DOES turn out for the job fair? Two.
My friend Carol is also to be commended for her lonely stand against the ordinance banning smoking everywhere in the District except private homes (and, believe me, that's next). We can argue about how many premature deaths will be avoided by this extraordinary infringement on individual liberty -- not many, is my guess. But you can bet a carton of "Fenty for Mayor" bumper stickers that many more deaths could be avoided if the council would focus on the alarming increase in diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and asthma in many of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
District solons are also rushing to cancel a planned cut in the income tax rate, while raising the commercial property tax rate, to finance $2 billion in badly needed repairs for the public schools. And once again it fell to my friend Carol to demand that, before such vast sums are committed, the school system and council agree to a plan to right-size a system that now has twice as many schools as it needs.
"Why are we so slow to make our schools look like we want to educate our children?" asked candidate Adrian Fenty in urging swift action on the initiative.
Let's be clear about the answer to Fenty's question. The reason why District schools are in decrepit shape is not because voters and business interests have been unwilling to provide money: By almost any measure, District schools have been lavishly funded.
Rather, the reason is that past attempts to systematically repair the schools have been thwarted by politicians who insist on putting a host of other priorities ahead of educating children. These include providing lifetime employment to large numbers of public employees, even if they can't or won't do their jobs; giving contracts to small, minority-owned contractors, whether or not they are the best choice for the job; stroking the egos of every elected official and community leader who thinks he or she should have a say in every decision; and accommodating the political, racial and ideological agendas of any group that can turn out 25 people and a TV camera to a community meeting.
The other members of the D.C. Council believe that these other goals do not get in the way of repairing District schools. What my friend Carol knows is that they always do.
It's not too late to submit nominations for my annual holiday column on corporate charity. If you know of a company that has contributed extraordinary amounts of time, money or materials to a worthy cause over the last year, send a brief description of who did what to email@example.com. Include your name and phone number, and write "Holiday column" as the subject line. The deadline is Monday. Thanks.