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Gray still mum on future of D.C.’s ‘living-wage’ bill

Mayor did discuss effects of sequesters on city’s job growth

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2013

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Tuesday lamented the effects of sequestration on the District — from a decrease in government jobs to a slight uptick in unemployment — but he declined to say how the economic stumble might affect his pending decision on a bill to raise minimum hourly wages at large retail stores.

Mr. Gray has 10 business days to decide whether to veto or sign the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which critics say will drive businesses out of the District. Day One began with the mayor playing coy at a city hall news conference.

"I'm not answering that question today," Mr. Gray said when asked about how the sequestration figures would affect his decision. "If I had been prepared to answer that question today, I would have said we were having a press conference on the Large Retailer Accountability Act. But we're not."

The mayor noted that the D.C. Council, which passed the bill July 10, took 50 days to send it to him. He said he would take his time considering it.

Instead, he addressed the across-the-board $85 billion federal budget cuts that took effect in March, saying they "flattened the District's job growth and trajectory at this stage," Mr. Gray said.

From January through July, city officials said the number of government jobs available in the District decreased by 7,000, to 234,500, while private sector jobs increased by 3,400 to 496,600. Unemployment had declined from 10.3 percent in August 2011 to 8.4 percent in December but inched back up to 8.6 percent in July.

"Though the increase is only two-tenths of 1 percent, we believe it is the first indication of the impact of sequestration," Mr. Gray said, calling on Congress to end sequestration and balance the federal budget.

Part of the Gray administration's five-year plan to boost the number of jobs in the city includes creating a "retail-friendly environment" in the District. But retailers have argued that the bill the mayor is considering unfairly targets certain employers — specifically those without union labor that occupy in excess of 75,000 square feet and whose parent companies gross $1 billion or more.

It would force those retailers to provide pay and benefits worth $12.50 an hour — a so-called "living wage" for workers — but could potentially curtail retail expansion in the District as affected businesses that oppose the law locate elsewhere. The current minimum wage is $8.25 an hour.

Wal-Mart is projected to bring about 1,800 jobs to the District with the opening of six stores in the city, but if the bill is signed into law executives said the corporation will bail on three of the planned stores.

The standoff has put Mr. Gray in a tough spot, since he is considered an ally of labor unions but also enticed Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to build the stores — including two in Ward 7, where he lives.

While Mr. Gray forcefully denied that they were related, his announcement of the decline of government jobs and an increased reliance on private sector employment opportunities suggested his administration was making a case for a veto.

"We have to keep the momentum going in the right direction," said Victor L. Hoskins, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. "We don't want the government sequestration to create a drag that we can't overcome."

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