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Living-wage bill defeated

Late defection by a co-sponsor angers supporters

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Allegheny County Council's heavily debated living-wage legislation went down to a startling defeat last night when one of the bill's co-sponsors cast the deciding vote against it.

Writing a surprise ending to a tense political drama, Councilman James Simms infuriated the scores of living-wage supporters who packed the meeting room, breaking ranks with his fellow Democrats with his vote.

Immediately after the vote, two county police officers rushed to Simms' side to protect him from a crowd that chanted "shame" and "traitor."

Simms, D-Hill District, remained calm, telling reporters minutes later: "I believe that's what leadership is about, going forward even if it's not popular."

Seven Democrats voted for the living-wage bill, all five council Republicans and Simms voted "no," and two Democrats abstained.

Under the county's home rule charter, legislation cannot pass without an affirmative vote of a majority of the 15 council members, which means the living-wage bill fell one vote short at 7-6.

Brenda Frazier, D-Stanton Heights, in her first meeting as a councilwoman, and C.L. "Jay" Jabbour, D-West Mifflin, still in his first month as a councilman, both abstained from voting on the complex 15-page bill.

The legislation would have created a new minimum wage of $10.62 an hour, or $9.12 if benefits are included, for a few categories of workers. It would have applied to the county government itself, to businesses that receive economic-development assistance from the county, and to companies and nonprofit groups that have contracts to provide services for the county.

A coalition of social activists, labor unions and student groups worked for more than four years to bring the bill to a vote, portraying the legislation as essential for pulling some of the county's working poor out of poverty. Coalition members filled the seats and stood in the aisles of the Allegheny County Courthouse's Gold Room last night, only to experience the bitter and stunning defeat.

"We expected to have the bill pass tonight," said Linda Wambaugh, leader of the Western Pennsylvania Living Wage Campaign. "Frankly, it shows the arrogance of power when elected officials feel they can thwart the will of the majority.

"It's appalling."

The bill's failure means county Chief Executive Jim Roddey won't have to follow through on his pledge to veto it. Roddey had sided with the business groups and nonprofit human services agencies that lobbied vigorously against the legislation.

Business leaders complained the law would have stifled economic development and nonprofit service contractors complained they wouldn't be able to afford to pay such wages.

In the end, the arguments of opponents persuaded Simms, one of four Democratic councilmen who jointly introduced the living-wage bill last year.

He didn't comment during the meeting last night, adding to the drama and shock of his "no" vote."

But in an interview, he said his vote should not have come as a complete surprise, since he began expressing serious reservations about the bill at a committee meeting last week.

Testimony opposed to the living-wage bill from Pittsburgh Regional Alliance President Ronnie Bryant made Simms more fearful that the bill would jeopardize efforts to attract new businesses to his relatively poor, predominantly black district.

"I'm not willing to put the development of the community I represent at risk," Simms said.

He also considered it folly to impose the living-wage requirement on nonprofit human-service agencies that rely on government funding.

"Passing legislation we cannot fund and making promises we cannot keep, I think, is irresponsible," he said.

The bill's other co-sponsors -- Rich Fitzgerald, Charles Martoni and Mike Crossey -- had made several changes to the legislation over the previous 72 hours in an attempt to address concerns like Simms'.

"I really thought it would pass tonight," said Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill. "I am disappointed. We put a lot of work into this bill."

Even if Frazier and Jabbour were to eventually vote "yes," it wouldn't matter. The county's charter requires 10 votes to override the chief executive's veto. Without Simms, the Democrats would only have nine.

Wambaugh vowed that last night's vote will still be fresh on the minds of her coalition members if Simms, Frazier and Jabbour run for re-election.

"We will campaign very hard against the people who betrayed us," she said.

Simms and Frazier could be on the ballot in 2003 and Jabbour in 2005.

Opponents of the legislation were celebrating an improbable win last night.

Said Brian Kennedy, public policy director for the Pittsburgh Technology Council, "I think this is a victory for common sense."

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