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  Chamber Opposes "Extreme" Living Wage Proposal

By Jorge Casuso

Calling the measure "extreme," the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors on Tuesday voted to oppose an unprecedented living wage ordinance the City Council is expected to begin contemplating next month.

The chamber, which has formed a special committee to study the impact of the living wage proposal on business, is expected to wage a fierce, and likely costly, battle against what would be the nation's first living wage ordinance imposed by a municipal government.

"This drastic measure would constitute a severe economic problem for many chamber members, particularly restaurants," said Dan Ehrler, the chamber's executive vice president. "The chamber board is very concerned that a measure, which would more than double the current minimum wage, will result in a loss of business on the Third Street Promenade resulting in a loss of jobs and tax revenues."

A living wage proposal - championed by the local hotel and restaurant workers union and Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) -- would require large hotels and restaurants in the city's coastal zone to pay workers at least $10.69 an hour. The living wage would apply to those businesses with more than 50 employees located west of Fourth Street north of Pico Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard south of Pico.

Although Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, which controls five of the seven council seats, backs the concept of a living wage, it has not put forth a formal proposal. A majority of the council members, however, are expected to direct staff to study the issue next month, and several have expressed strong support for the union and SMART's proposal.

"It's hard because no one has seen anything in writing," said attorney Tom Larmore, who heads the chamber's special committee on the proposal. But Larmore warned that the measure will hurt many of the very workers it is designed to help.

"It's a 'leaving work' ordinance," Larmore said. "What will happen is that you'll have jobs lost, businesses will shut down, prices will go up, and we'll lose some customers. If you take a restaurant and make this kind of increase on its labor cost, they'll either try to reduce cost by cutting down on employees or automate things. It makes more sense to eliminate people. The entry level workers will be cut out."

Larmore said the committee is raising money from businesses "that have an interest" to fund studies of the legal and economic implications of imposing a living wage. The committee will not use money from the chamber's general fund.

Larmore dismisses concerns from proponents of the proposal that the living wage committee is embarking on a political fundraising effort. "It's a chamber committee and the positions this committee takes will be chamber positions," said Larmore who is a partner in the powerful local firm Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal.

"It has nothing to do with politics," Larmore said. "It's an economic proposal made by a political movement backed by unions and people who have this political agenda. The city is the one initiating all the actions. What to they expect people to do, just sit back?"

Larmore hopes the economic and legal reports the committee commissions will help sway a council he acknowledges would likely cast six votes in favor of the proposal if it were deciding the issue today.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Larmore said. But he added, "I'm not convinced they're unwilling to listen to reasonable arguments."

The council is expected to hold its first discussion of a living wage ordinance at its meeting Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day.

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