WE DIDN’T think there was anything more the District could do to further its image as a place hostile to business. A D.C. Council committee proved us wrong by taking a bad piece of legislation targeting large retailers and making it worse. If this bill becomes law, it would give pause not just to those who would be directly affected but also to those contemplating or doing business in the District; the next harebrained idea of lawmakers catering to special interests might very well target them.
Legislation headed to the full council after approvallast month by the council’s committee on business and regulatory affairs would make large retailers pay full-time and part-time employees higher wages than those required of other businesses and organizations. Any business whose parent company grosses at least $1 billion annually — with exceptions carved out for franchises and firms with employees covered by collective bargaining agreements — would have to pay workers a minimum of $12.50 an hour. That’s more than $4 above the city’s minimum wage ($8.25), which in turn is $1 higher than the federal minimum wage, paid in neighboring Virginia and Maryland.
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), chair of the committee, said these businesses can afford the salary cost; others who voted for the measure said they don’t see businesses leaving or not locating in the city. Really? Council members seem not to appreciate that gross revenues don’t necessarily translate into profits and that their poorly researched ideas may have adverse effects. Will city residents looking for employment be disadvantaged by competition from suburban residents lured by the higher wages? Will D.C. stores end up losing business because their prices will be higher than those in the suburbs? What’s the likelihood of underserved communities getting new businesses when the city is making it more expensive to operate here?
The Large Retailer Accountability Act, first sponsored by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), got four votes in committee, and its prospects for passage are, unfortunately, good. It’s been heavily pushed by labor groups, which council members are loath to alienate, particularly with elections coming up, including a mayoral contest that has so far attracted three sitting council members. But now that the legislation was changed in committee to affect far more businesses than its original targets (Wal-Mart being the bull’s-eye), perhaps other businesses — as well as residents who will end up paying the price — will speak up.
If the message doesn’t get through to the council, we would urge a veto by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who a spokesman said is concerned about the legislation’s impact on economic development. Even if the votes are stacked against him, someone needs to take a stand against bad policy.