THE DISTRICT’S debate over making selected retailers pay a super-minimum wage has seen its share of overblown rhetoric. Witness the preposterous boast from D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) that the city doesn’t need retailers, “retailers need us.” Now Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has invoked the legacy of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to justify this retaliatory and shortsighted legislation.
Belatedly transmitting to the mayor a bill that would require certain large retailers to pay salaries higher than the city’s minimum wage, Mr. Mendelson referred to the recent commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington and King’s support for an increase in the minimum wage. “The cry for freedom and justice recognized that economic equality is essential, too,” Mr. Mendelson wrote in urging Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to sign the Larger Retailer Accountability Act that the council passed seven weeks ago.
We wouldn’t presume to guess what King’s stance would be on this bill, but there’s a vast gap between his fight for freedom and justice and a bill so small-minded that it actually would have the effect of depriving the city, including struggling neighborhoods, of desperately needed new jobs. Selectivity — not equality — is the aim of a bill that would require these retailers (Wal-Mart being the obvious target) to pay their employees more than $4 an hour above the D.C. minimum wage. The bill would do nothing for the vast majority of hourly workers, including some who work for the city government, and the creation of an uneven playing field would likely discourage new businesses from investing in the District. That, in turn, would mean fewer jobs, fewer retail choices and higher prices for residents.
Wal-Mart officials have already said that, if the bill becomes law, they will abandon plans to build three stores and reassess options for three under construction. That would translate into the loss of 1,800 retail jobs and about $15 million in tax revenue. The District, as Mr. Gray made clear at a Tuesday news conference, is already feeling the effects of the federal cutbacks known as sequestration and can ill afford policies that would retard job growth.
The delay in getting the bill to Mr. Gray’s desk, Mr. Mendelson recently admitted, gave supporters of the bill — mainly labor unions and grocery stores exempted from the measure — the opportunity to lobby the mayor to sign the bill. Mr. Gray should resist pressure from special interests that want to use government to hobble their competition; the mayor should veto the bill and urge the council to sustain it.