Bowser de­fends choice on leave bill

De­ci­sion re­veals her re­duced sway on D.C. Coun­cil

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY AARON C. DAVIS AND PETER JAMI­SON

In the first real test of her power in the face of a new left-lean­ing D.C. Coun­cil, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser dodged a showdown over the city’s paid-fam­ily-leave bill.

Bowser was op­posed to the leg­is­la­tion, among the most gen­er­ous paid-leave poli­cies in the coun­try, for sev­eral rea­sons. She was con­cerned about the $250 mil­lion an­nual tax it would im­pose on em­ploy­ers. She wor­ried that it would ben­e­fit city work­ers who lived in Mary­land and Vir­ginia more than her own con­stituents. And she felt it was im­pru­dent to ex­pand gov­ern­ment when the city may face cut­backs un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The busi­ness com­mu­nity, even more op­posed to the law, was count­ing on Bowser to block it.

But Bowser didn’t veto it. And she didn’t sign it, ei­ther. She let the bill be­come law with­out her sig­na­ture and then sent a let­ter to the D.C. Coun­cil, main­tain­ing that she had “grave con­cerns” about it.

The move left busi­ness lead­ers, who had spent weeks lob­by­ing coun­cil mem­bers to back up a may­oral veto, scratch­ing their heads, and the lib­eral law­mak­ers who passed the mea­sure newly em­bold­ened.

Bowser’s in­ac­tion drew crit­i­cism from both sides.

“She’s out there by her­self — com­pletely alone right now — and that’s not a good place to be,” said Jim Dine­gar, head of the Greater Wash­ing­ton Board of Trade.

Dine­gar, along with the heads of ev­ery ma­jor busi­ness group and as­so­ci­a­tions

rep­re­sent­ing D.C. restau­rants, col­leges and hos­pi­tals, had urged Bowser to veto the “deeply flawed and un­nec­es­sar­ily ex­pen­sive” bill.

Aides to the mayor said she ran out of time to build con­sen­sus around an al­ter­na­tive plan that could get enough votes to sus­tain a veto.

“To put a veto on it, the mayor knows that doesn’t mean any­thing un­less you have the votes to sus­tain it,” said a high-rank­ing aide to the mayor who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss Bowser’s de­ci­sion.

But by not us­ing her veto power, Di­neger said the mayor lost the force of ar­gu­ment that she was do­ing ev­ery­thing she could in the city’s best in­ter­ests. Di­neger was also crit­i­cal of the busi­ness com­mu­nity, say­ing it should have done more to help Bowser find the votes needed to sus­tain a veto, since with­out it “she can’t claim the man­tle of fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Bowser (D) also couldn’t win praise from pro­gres­sives in her own party who have been push­ing for fam­ily-leave ben­e­fits na­tion­wide.

“I’m dis­ap­pointed she didn’t sign the bill. It’s just the right thing to do,” said coun­cil mem­ber Elissa Sil­ver­man (I-At Large). “I have been hop­ing the mayor would change her mind and em­brace it and work with us. I’m still hop­ing.”

In a phone in­ter­view late last week from New York, where she was at­tend­ing Jesse L. Jack­son’s an­nual Wall Street Project Eco­nomic Sum­mit, the mayor de- fended her in­ac­tion.

Bowser said she was con­fi­dent that she would still be able to prod the coun­cil to im­prove the law.

“My goal was never to kill paid fam­ily leave, but to get a bet­ter bill,” Bowser said. “I think this is the best way to get there so we don’t make the next step a veto fight, but work with the coun­cil to craft a bet­ter bill for D.C. res­i­dents and D.C. busi­nesses.”

The new law will take ef­fect in late March bar­ring in­ter­ven­tion from Congress.

The D.C. law pro­vides for up to eight weeks of paid time off to new par­ents, six weeks to work­ers car­ing for ailing fam­ily mem­bers and two weeks of per­sonal sick time. Work­ers could be­gin tak­ing the ben­e­fit in 2020. To pay for it, the city will levy a new 0.62 per­cent pay­roll tax on em­ploy­ers.

Bowser’s de­ci­sion not to veto the leg­is­la­tion laid bare her di­min­ished power on the coun­cil since Novem­ber, when three of her al­lies lost their seats to chal­lengers who were openly crit­i­cal of the mayor.

To sus­tain a veto, Bowser would have needed five votes, and ob­servers said those would have had to in­clude Ward 8 coun­cil mem­ber Trayon White (D), who de­feated Bowser protege LaRuby May, and for­mer mayor and Bowser neme­sis Vin­cent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).

In sep­a­rate in­ter­views in the hours be­fore Bowser an­nounced her de­ci­sion, Gray and White said they sup­port fam­ily leave but were open to less-ex­pen­sive al­ter­na­tives that would keep more money in the Dis­trict. Be­fore tak­ing of­fice last month, Gray had said that Bowser would have to per­son­ally ask for his vote. Nei­ther Gray nor White said he heard from Bowser di­rectly.

Top aides to the mayor, how­ever, had talked to both and were re­port­ing back to Bowser that there was no cer­tainty she would get five votes.

“The busi­ness com­mu­nity is dis­ap­pointed, and the busi­ness com­mu­nity is look­ing for a cham­pion to get a re­spon­si­ble pai­dleave pro­gram through the process,” Vin­cent B. Or­ange, the Cham­ber of Com­merce’s pres­i­dent and a for­mer D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber, said Thurs­day. “Clearly, we may have to look else­where for that lead­er­ship to re­ally get folks to the ta­ble and ham­mer things out.”

By Fri­day, it looked like busi­ness lead­ers had found their new cham­pion.

With Bowser still in New York, D.C. Coun­cil Chair­man Phil Mendelson (D) said he would in­tro­duce a new bill in com­ing weeks to re­open the fi­nanc­ing dis­cus­sion. Al­though he was the ar­chi­tect of the fund­ing plan in the bill that was ap­proved in De­cem­ber, Mendelson said he be­lieved en­act­ing it would go more smoothly if the busi­ness com­mu­nity is sup­port­ive.

Mendelson’s bill sounded al­most iden­ti­cal to the one qui­etly pro­posed last week by sev­eral in the busi­ness com­mu­nity. But it was un­clear how far he would go in sup­port­ing the idea.

With the threat of her veto gone, Bowser will also have less clout to ne­go­ti­ate changes.

Au­thors of the new law said Fri­day that while they would be open to tweak­ing how the ben­e­fit is funded, they would not ac­cept any re­duc­tion in ben­e­fits for work­ers now in the law.

Bryan Weaver, a for­mer coun­cil can­di­date and an Adams Mor­gan neigh­bor­hood ac­tivist, said it is hard to en­vi­sion a po­lit­i­cally win­ning sce­nario that re­mains for the mayor.

“The pas­sive­ness on this, I think, could come back to haunt her,” Weaver said. “Ei­ther you’ve tossed your hands up in the air and are walk­ing away, or you’re just kind of pas­sive and what­ever hap­pens in the coun­cil hap­pens. Nei­ther one of those, I think, makes her look au­thor­i­ta­tive as the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the city.”

Coun­cil mem­ber Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a vo­cal op­po­nent of the bill, said he thinks the mayor could have lined up five votes to sus­tain a veto if she had si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­posed a vi­able al­ter­na­tive.

“It would have put the pres­sure on the coun­cil,” he said. “Now it’s just go­ing to go into law.”

Joanna Blot­ner, cam­paign man­ager for the D.C. Paid Fam­ily Leave Coali­tion, said the ad­vo­cates will push to im­ple­ment it in its orig­i­nal form. “We cer­tainly can’t take our eyes off the ball,” she said.

Blot­ner said she also re­mains hope­ful that Bowser can be per­suaded to sup­port it.

“Hope­fully, this is some­thing that the mayor de­cides is ac­tu­ally in her in­ter­est and that she does want to show lead­er­ship on,” she said.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who nei­ther ve­toed nor signed the paid-fam­ily-leave mea­sure, “can’t claim the man­tle of fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said Jim Dine­gar, head of the Greater Wash­ing­ton Board of Trade. Busi­ness lead­ers hoped she would block it.

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