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News Opinion Editorial

Jobs for city residents

Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson appears to have shot down a proposal to require businesses that receive large city contracts or tax breaks from City Hall to hire local residents for 51 percent of new jobs they create. Last week, Mr. Nilson said the bill could violate a section of the U.S. Constitution barring discrimination against job-seekers based on where they live. But the bill's sponsor, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, insists the measure is needed to address the city's stubbornly high unemployment rate.

Everyone agrees that creating more jobs for city residents is a worthy goal. The question is how best to accomplish that. Mr. Young's bill calls for unspecified criminal sanctions on employers who fail to meet the hiring threshold, but that could also scare off some businesses. There's also the matter of matching employers' hiring needs to the skills of city job applicants. Those questions, on top of the bill's potential vulnerability to legal challenges, have rightly raised doubts about whether a local hiring requirement represents the most practical approach to reducing city unemployment.

But there are alternative approaches. The city could set hiring goals for businesses that receive city contracts that don't involve criminal penalties, much the way it handles its efforts to encourage minority- and women-owned businesses. Companies could satisfy those goals by making a good-faith effort to hire a certain percentage of their workers from among local residents without fear of penalties for adjustments that take into account the the availability of workers with needed skills in the local labor pool. Financial or other incentives for hiring local workers could be built into city contracts, or contractors on large jobs could be required to open hiring centers in the city.

Moreover, Baltimore should look beyond using its purchasing power to increase the number of gainfully employed city residents. Baltimore already has an array of incentives for certain city employees, such as police officers and school teachers, to live in the city. Those could be expanded to appeal to other kinds of workers. Getting more such people to live in Baltimore — Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has set a goal of 10,000 new families over the next decade — could drastically lower overall unemployment and indirectly create new jobs by attracting businesses to neighborhoods undergoing revitalization. The city should also examine its licensing and regulation system to eliminate unneeded barriers to business creation in the city.

Mr. Nilson says a number of other cities around the country have approved local hiring requirements, only to see them struck down by federal court judges on constitutional grounds. Those that have not are in places where either the laws have not been challenged or the complaints were not brought under the Constitution's Privileges and Immunities Clause, which governs such cases.

If he is right that any measure mandating preferences for private employment based on residence is unlikely to survive constitutional muster, council members may well decide they don't want to go down that road, only to reach a dead end in court. But at the moment it's still unclear whether the city can't rewrite the proposal in terms that don't violate the Constitution — for example, by targeting job applicants' employment history or other attributes that don't specifically refer to residency.

What's certain is that the city's unemployment problem isn't going away, and that needs to be addressed. Mr. Young is to be commended for raising this issue. Now that the city solicitor has raised questions about his proposal, Mayor Rawlings-Blake should work with Mr. Young to find alterantives that can pass legal muster.

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