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Business Group Set to File Living Wage Initiative

By Jorge Casuso

A group of local business owners calling itself Santa Monicans for a Living Wage is expected to file an initiative with the city Thursday it hopes will derail an unprecedented ordinance being contemplated by the City Council, The Lookout has learned.

According to sources, the initiative will closely mirror the Los Angeles County Living Wage, which requires that businesses which have contracts or receive direct subsidies from the county pay their workers $8.32-an-hour with benefits or $9.46 without.

Santa Monica's pioneering ordinance would break from those of 32 other municipalities across the nation by requiring businesses without contracts and direct subsidies to pay the living wage.

Santa Monicans for a Living Wage -- which includes the Chamber of Commerce, hotel and restaurant owners, and community members -- must gather 9,000 valid signatures from registered voters to place the initiative on the November ballot.

"Local businesses and community activists are trying to find a way to come up with a compromise that is not the extreme proposal the council is counting on," said Mark Mosher, a powerful San Francisco consultant who is helping craft the ballot measure and run the campaign. "The local folks did most of it. This is homegrown."

Mosher declined to discuss the particulars of the initiative, saying only that it will include a tax credit for low-wage workers, as well as "other tools to alleviate poverty that are not being discussed by the council."

Attorneys for the group were busy late Wednesday tweaking the wording, Mosher said.

"It's going to live," said Mosher, who helped raise $1.4 million for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's reelection. "It's on the operating table. We're doing a little liposuction."

Chamber representatives acknowledged an initiative was being prepared, but declined to comment. "I can't talk about it right now," said attorney Tom Larmore, who is heading the chamber's campaign to oppose the city's proposal.

Proponents of the living wage proposal before the council - which requires that businesses along the coast with more than 50 employees pay workers at least $10.70-an-hour -- called the ballot measure a "surreptitious" effort to circumvent the process.

"They have been going around the city process for studying the ordinance and getting community input," said Vivian Rothstein, an organizer for Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, the group behind the council measure. "Now, they're completely going around it. They never respected the city process in the first place.

"They've decided they are going to disempower the City Council," Rothstein said. "It's big business trying to manipulate a social movement. The people who have the money are able to sway the voters. I think they're trying to buy an election."

Rothstein said opponents of the ordinance have never tried to improve the economic plight of their workers.

"They have never shown any interest in trying to help the people the living wage is intended to help," Rothstein said. "It's transparent. If they really believed in the living wage, they'd make an effort to pay it.

"We're trying to deal with wage inequality in an innovative way," she said. "Their motivation is to make it (the city's proposal) as ineffective as possible."

Mosher countered that the city has not engaged in a fair process. He noted that the council hired Robert Pollin, an economist who backs the living wage, to conduct the city's study.

"I think what they're talking about is illegal, not right and will end up costing the people it's trying to help their jobs," Mosher said.
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