Monday, March 16, 2009

State Legislators Look To Suffocate Living Wage

One operative in the Tennessee Capitol frequently refers to the Legislature as the Land of Oz, and if that is so, Germantown Senator Paul Stanley is the tin man.

He needs to find a heart.

More to the point, he needs to go on a quest for his core Republican beliefs, because at this point, he has all the earmarks of being a “sound bite Republican” – one of those party apparatchniks who can always parrot the party line while failing to apply it in his legislation.

Flunking Civics 101

For example, we thought Republicans hated mandates, we thought they believed fervently in local self-determination, we thought they hated government interference and we thought they believed that the best government is the government closest to its people.

That’s why we just can’t fathom why Senator Stanley and 17 of his colleagues are trying to force their personal political beliefs on our local city and county governments. Apparently, they are under the impression that a certificate of election endows them with the omniscience to decide from Nashville what our decisions should be here at home.

But that’s precisely what Senator Stanley is doing with his legislation to prevent local government from doing what local government does – make decisions about how our local tax dollars are spent. And in this case, it’s making sure that our taxes are used to require that our fellow citizens are paid a living wage.

Getting Out Of The Cocoon

It may be easy in Senator Stanley’s well-to-do district to think that such things don’t matter. We hope that he’ll take the time to drive out of Germantown and get acquainted with the working poor who have two or three jobs to reach the living wage.

We dare him to look into the faces of poor Memphians – 75% of whom are women and children – and tell them that their local governments shouldn’t have the right to require its vendors and people seeking tax freezes to pay a living wage.

If Senator Stanley does not believe that every person is entitled to a living wage, he should pass legislation that prevents the government he’s part of – State of Tennessee – but his action to force his personal beliefs on the rest of us who are proud of our governments’ action on the living wage is equal parts arrogance and paternalism.

The $10 Outrage

Here’s the outrageous action taken by Memphis and Shelby County Governments that upsets Senator Stanley’s sensibilities: our local legislative bodies agreed to pay their workers and required their contractors to pay employees $10 an hour with benefits or $12 without benefits.

In other words, Senator Stanley’s sensibilities are bruised by the idea that these workers, if working 40 hours a week, are earning the king’s ransom of $20,800. God forbid that those of us in Memphis and Shelby County should aspire to apply the “love thy neighbor” admonition in a way that at least guarantees that we hit this modest threshold.

That’s the greatest irony of all. Senator Stanley proudly proclaims that he’s an evangelical Christian, but he seems to engage in selective reading of the Gospel. After all, the central message of his faith is that it is proven by his service to the least among us.

Living Wage, Living People

Here’s the thing. Fighting poverty is not a Democratic priority or a Republican priority. It requires all of us – from the left and from the right - to act on our values. That’s precisely why we were so proud of the Workers Interfaith Network campaign that led to passage of the living wage by Memphis and Shelby County Government.

It reflected our values as a community, and as the metro area with the highest poverty rate in the U.S., this isn’t about political gamesmanship. It’s about survival. It’s about attacking the problem with every tool that we can find.

Just imagine. At a time when our community needs to compete for the knowledge-based jobs of the global economy, we have legislators that can’t even support $20,800 a year. As Congressman Steve Cohen has aptly pointed out, there is an oligarchy in Memphis that has benefited from the poverty that grips too many of our people.

On The Same Boat

That said, if nothing is done to change the trajectory of our city, it won’t matter if we are in the oligarchy or in the majority. All of us will sink together. There’s no special class of people when a regional economy collapses. We’ve pointed out repeatedly that the indicators for Memphis are headed in the wrong direction, and most of them relate directly to the malignant poverty in our midst.

That’s why the votes on the living wage were so crucial. But equally important, it represented democracy at its best – grassroots groups joining hands to advocate for a change in the way we do business and the way that we treat the working poor. Now, people 210 miles away want to tell us that we don’t have that right.

In its 18-13 vote to prevent any government in Tennessee from passing living wage rules, the Tennessee Senate has written the most shameful chapter in its recent history. Spreading the mythology that higher minimum wage damages the economy and kill jobs, the state senators have majored in demagoguery and minored in fairness.

Long Arm Of The State

In the end, it’s just hard to understand why Senator Stanley believes that he has the right for the long arm of state government to reach down into the affairs of city and county government and erase some small measure of justice for the poor of our community.

If this bill passes the Tennessee Legislature, we urge for an act in kind. We urge Congressman Cohen to propose legislation in the U.S. Congress that prevents state legislatures from mandates that limit the self-determination of local government to set their own wage levels.

By then, the Legislature would not only have proven that in Oz, there are still tin men looking for hearts, but more to the point, there are tin-eared senators who put their personal political opportunism ahead of fundamental democratic values.


Zippy the giver said...

So, from his office with 1 pen, he can attack the ability to create taxpayers instead of draining public resources. What a butthead.

There are thousands of us and only a few of them, let's go scream at him at his office and make him leave town forever.

Tom Guleff said...

The "home rule" genie escaped long ago, and she ain't going back in the bottle .....

I am questioning : Where's the past outrage over federal government, state government, and/or the court mandated action in community affairs ? I guess the outrage moved out of town. :)

Smart City Consulting said...


We've written previously about the addiction that state and federal governments have to mandates, particularly unfunded ones, which gives them the way to claim credit but without paying for it. But with this particular mandate, we're just amazed once again at how some people can say they believe in one thing while doing exactly the opposite.

Tom Guleff said...


I really enjoy SCM.

You are correct, there's always a remedy to any local issue offered by a politico higher on the food chain. That's how the game is played.

Here's the big question.

What's the proper role for the different levels of government?

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can have these state legislators look for new jobs next election. I think they could try living off minimum wage for a month and then make a decision about the living wage. I don't think these people have a clue about what it's like to be working and still poor barely making it from paycheck to paycheck.

The business people and contractors who don't want to pay a living wage should give back any tax incentives TN offered them to do business here. Perhaps creating living wage jobs could be one of the prerequisites before a business can qualify for tax breaks in our state.

Someone ends up paying for poor underpaid workers. It can be up front in the form of a living wage or it can be later when the poor citizen can't make ends meet and falls back on local government or food stamps or welfare or worse homeless and on the streets. Would these legislators like for TN to foot the bill at a later date? How much profit is enough for a big business to make? Could they go from say 22% profit to say 11-15% profit for the good of all? When did businesses get so stingy? When did legislators get so greedy? Maybe these legislators are making way too much money... the citizens of TN should look into this... deeper...This is an outrage!

Zippy the giver said...

I like that idea, let them live on minimum for a month or as long as it takes to see it is not humane, then they can vote, reach no decision and stay on minimum till they do.

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