Mayor Anthony A. Williams envisioned that his "Way to Work" program would help District workers benefit from the city's development boom by requiring employers that gain from government incentives to pay a "living wage."
Since Williams (D) unveiled the initiative in March, it has been caught in a test of wills between the city's labor and business communities.
Today, the D.C. Council's Government Operations Committee is scheduled to vote on changes that could dramatically expand the program. The panel's action could foreshadow the influence of labor and business as the city enters an election year, those involved in the debate say. Four of the five committee members are running for mayor or for reelection.
"Something will likely be passed," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and a member of a task force that explored the issue over the summer. "The question is what."
More than 130 communities across the country have adopted similar living-wage legislation, including Alexandria and Arlington and Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Williams's original legislation would have covered an estimated 11,000 workers, providing a wage of $9.25 an hour with health benefits or $10.50 without. Only workers employed by city government or private companies that get government assistance or incentives would be eligible.
It also would have required businesses to put up 10 percent of the value of their government contracts or $200,000 until they proved that 51 percent of their new hires were District residents. Labor groups said the requirement is necessary because employers are not living up to hiring provisions that are on the books.
The business community fiercely opposed the 10 percent holdback.
"There are already penalties in place, and we don't feel it's necessary to penalize people on the front end and on the back end of the deal," said Chris Knudson, spokesman for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, a coalition of labor and community groups pushed for its own changes.
"The business community wanted to weaken the bill, and we wanted to strengthen it," said Madhu Wijesinghe, an organizer with the Living Wage Coalition.
Over the summer, a task force made up of labor, business and nonprofit representatives met to work out a compromise. Williams took some of the task force's suggestions and introduced a new version of the Way to Work bill that created a single living wage level of $11.25 an hour, made exemptions for part-time and other workers and eliminated the 10 percent holdback.
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), a mayoral candidate and chairman of the Government Operations Committee, said the latest version of the bill strikes a good balance.
But three of the five committee members, Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), say they will try to put back some of the tougher provisions and raise the wage at today's session. All three face elections next year and are courting union supporters. The fifth member is Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).
To avoid being outvoted in his own committee, Orange has up to now delayed holding a vote on changes. When members of his committee forced him to hold a markup of the bill last month, Orange scheduled the meeting for a Saturday afternoon, only to cancel it at the last minute, leaving a hearing room full of fuming residents.
Orange then tried to bring the bill directly to the full council, where it was less likely that the measure would be significantly strengthened. Orange said he did so to try to get the bill enacted more quickly. His effort was rebuffed.
Graham said the business community is continuing to aggressively press its views.
"They are with me right now in my office," he said.