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Businesses Submit Charter Amendment to Take Living Wage to the Voters

By Jorge Casuso

A group of local business owners submitted a proposed ballot measure to the city Thursday afternoon that would effectively erase any living wage measure the City Council approves.

The proposed charter amendment, which applies only to businesses that have contracts or receive direct subsidies from the city, would "repeal existing and simultaneously adopted charter provisions, ordinances, rules and regulations," according to the wording of the initiative.

Sponsored by the newly formed Santa Monicans for a Living Wage, the initiative is designed to override a groundbreaking living wage ordinance the council is expected to consider before the November elections. The initiative -- which follows the pattern of 32 other local living wage laws across the nation -- must be signed by 9,000 registered voters by May 15 to get on the November ballot.

"This is something that is born out of frustration with the public process," said attorney Tom Larmore, who heads the Chamber of Commerce's Living Wage Task Force. "It (the living wage) is too important a measure to leave to a council that has acted in an unreasonable way vis a vis the business community.

"I have no confidence that they will do something reasonable, and the initiative is the only thing open to us," Larmore said. "This city has a long history of submitting significant and controversial matters to the judgement of its electorate. Any measure which would potentially drive local businesses out of town and significantly raise prices should be decided by the voters, not the City Council."

Proponents of the living wage proposal the council is considering were quick to blast the initiative, calling it "deceitful and undemocratic."

"This initiative is a theft of democracy, which insults our community by bypassing our civic process," said Councilman Michael Feinstein. "What is happening here is that a small group is trying to buy itself onto the ballot.

"The City Council commissioned a study so that fact, not fiction or fear, can inform our community dialogue," Feinstein said. "Then we can discuss - as a community - what specific proposal or proposals we might bring forward for consideration by the City Council. In that way, we can hear from all voices before formulating public policy."

The proposed charter amendment - which can only be changed or overridden at the ballot box - would:

· Require employers who receive at least $25,000 in City contracts for services to pay their workers a living wage of at least $8.32 an hour with health benefits, or $9.46 without, closely mirroring Los Angeles County's law.

· Require employers who receive direct City financial assistance for economic development or job growth of $100,000 in any year or $25,000 or more on a continuing basis the same living wage.

· Adjust annually the living wage to compensate for inflation by tying it to the Consumer Price Index for the Los Angeles Area.

· Require all covered employers to provide their workers with at least 12 paid and 10 unpaid days off.

· Require covered employers to inform their eligible workers of their right to the Earned Income Credit, a federal tax credit. Proponents say it would mean thousands of dollars in cash back for working families.

· Generally prohibit the City from establishing wage or benefit levels for private employers, and require any ordinances establishing wage or benefit levels for private employers to be submitted to voters.

· Exempt non-for profits.

Proponents of the living wage ordinance crafted by Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) and being studied by the council compared the proposed charter amendment to the tobacco industry running an anti-smoking initiative. The measure, they note, would not cover the low-wage workers in the city's hotels and restaurants targeted by SMART's proposal.

"This is a sham living wage ordinance put forward by the big hotels and anti-living wage lobbyists to exempt themselves and to cover as few workers as possible," said Stephanie Monroe, a leader of SMART. "The scope of this sham living wage ordinance is so narrow, the holes so gaping and the exemptions so numerous, we're not sure it would cover one red-blooded worker."

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