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Good intentions don't create jobs

Marta Mossburg says Baltimore City Council's local hiring bill is wrong-headed

Marta H. Mossburg

12:44 PM EDT, May 21, 2013

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Baltimore City Council members confused caring about unemployment with abating it by giving preliminary approval to a local hire law last week.

The legislation, which requires a final vote and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's signature to become law, requires businesses that are awarded city contracts over $300,000 or receive $5 million or more in city financing to hire 51 percent of new workers from within Baltimore.

In promoting it, City Council members sound like they are competing for the "most compassionate" prize. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young told WBAL that "Any company that would challenge hiring six out of the 10 workers to be from Baltimore City, I think they would show they are a company [that doesn't care]." Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke went so far as to say Monday on WEAA's "The Marc Steiner Show" that those who say there aren't sufficient skilled workers in the city are "racist" and "prejudiced" (an indirect assault on me, as I was also on the show and disagreed with her interpretation of the legislation).

Whenever those words are used, the end of the discussion has arrived because facts no longer matter. It's like mentioning "Koch brothers" in the company of those on the left or "George Soros" in the company of those on the right. The mere uttering of their names is invitation and permission to suspend critical thought.

But that is what City Council members needed a lot more of before they even considered the legislation. For starters, demanding that businesses hire workers who live in the city does not mean that enough workers with the particular skills needed to fulfill a city contract live in the city. Mentioning that those are separate issues is apparently racist and prejudiced, according to Ms. Clarke — but it is a fact.

Council members could have looked at the city's own statistics to see that local hiring isn't always easy. According to a report last July in The Sun, 47 percent of city employees live elsewhere. The fact that a large organization requiring a broad number of skill sets can apparently find only a little more than half of its workers in the city shows that highly specialized businesses would all but certainly run into problems meeting the regulation.

Besides, shouldn't businesses have the leeway to determine who best suits their companies' needs, based on more than their applicants' addresses?

Second, why are Baltimore City residents' lives more important than the lives of people who live in the rest of the state? Would City Council members like it if Howard or Anne Arundel or Baltimore counties passed similar legislation making it more difficult for city residents to find work in those jurisdictions? In that context, the legislation seems like a grasping attempt to help Baltimore residents at the expense of everyone else, regardless of how long someone has been out of work, their qualifications or life circumstances.

That issue also raises legal questions. An analysis of the legislation by the city's legal department found it unconstitutional for violating the Privileges and Immunities Clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents state and local governments from treating residents of other jurisdictions differently. Local hire laws stand in San Francisco and Boston, but the laws are more narrowly drawn and have not been challenged in federal court.

And we haven't even gotten to the unintended consequences of the legislation. As a December 2010 New York Times piece noted about the San Francisco legislation, "The original version … would have increased expenditures by $9.3 million annually, according to a city analysis, because contractors might have to pay more if they're drawing their workers from a smaller pool, or pay penalties if they don't hit the local hiring targets. (The administrative costs add up as well.)"

For all these reasons, the legislation is doomed to fail despite the good intentions of City Council members. Mayor Rawlings-Blake should veto the legislation, and the council should start focusing on ways, including drastically lowering the property tax rate, to make the city more attractive to employers. Calling people uncaring or worse may make City Council members feel morally superior, but it does not create jobs.

Marta H. Mossburg is a Baltimore-area writer whose work appears regularly in The Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.