A Step Back in the City

It is unrealistic to expect that the march of reform will proceed without incident. Yes, both the state and the city have come a long way in recent years on a host of issues, ranging from tax policy to education reform. Mayors and governors understand that it is no longer acceptable to rely on tax hikes to pay for wasteful spending practices. That’s all good. Every now and again, though, we’re reminded of the kinds of policies that earned the city and state a deserved reputation as a difficult place to do business. The City Council this week is expected to pass a bill that will require developers to pay higher labor costs on projects that receive more than $1 million in subsidies. It’s called a “prevailing wage” bill, and it is nothing less than a sop to private-sector unions that have made this bill a top priority. Workers may receive as much double or even triple the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour on most subsidized projects. The bill grew out of the so-called “living wage” movement, which sought to mandate enormous increases in labor costs on projects receiving government subsidies. “Living wage” bills have been passed in several municipalities throughout the nation. Fortunately, the movement sputtered when it came to New York. The “prevailing wage” bill is a compromise, but while it is better than the “living wage” mandate, it still reeks of improper government interference in the free market. What’s more, it represents a political straddle on the part of Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who wants to be mayor and figures that she needs the support of the city’s politically potent unions. She could have killed this bill. Instead, she sought to please both sides, and likely will please nobody. Albany and City Hall are both trying to climb out of fiscal holes created by politicians who simply couldn’t say no to special interests. Mayor Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, have created a new template for governance in the city, while Governor Cuomo seems intent on doing the same at the state level. The trouble is that the old politics of special-interest payoffs has not disappeared, even if it has been discredited. Old paradigms never die. They don’t even fade away. They go into hiding, lurking in the shadows until they attach themselves to somebody willing to cut a deal in exchange for high office. Speaker Quinn has shown herself all too ready to make a deal rather than make a decision. We don’t need and can no longer afford that kind of “leadership.”