It was a divisive debate waged in public -- at rallies, on street corners and in political campaigns -- for the past two years.
But the compromise the Lawrence City Commission is seeking on the living-wage issue was forged behind closed doors by new city and business leaders trying to resolve the battle with the fewest possible losers.
As a result, the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce for the first time agreed to support the concept that companies that receive tax breaks from the city should pay a "living wage" of at least $9.53 an hour. That, in turn, shifts the debate from the merits of a living wage to how it will be put in place.
"A year ago, I don't think anybody would have conceived that the chamber would go on record as supporting a wage floor for tax-abated firms," Commissioner Boog Highberger said. "I think this is a big step for them, and I think it needs to be acknowledged."
The task of persuading business leaders to support such a measure started with a mid-July breakfast meeting between Highberger, a living-wage supporter, and Commissioner Sue Hack, who had opposed an ordinance. The meetings continued, growing to include Larry McElwain and Laverne Squier, the new chamber leaders.
The change of heart buys the chamber the ability to influence the final form of a living wage. Indeed, commissioners last week appeared inclined to accept a key point of the chamber counterproposal -- a policy requirement, instead of an ordinance written into law.
That doesn't sit well with members of the Kaw Valley Living Wage Alliance, who have campaigned for the requirement for more than two years.
"One of our fears is that this proposal of ours will become watered down or made toothless through amendments or other means," said Graham Kreicker, an alliance member.
For many political observers, it was surprising that compromise was part of the equation at all.
|A timeline of recent developments in the living-wage issue:¢ July 16: Commissioner Boog Highberger, a living-wage supporter, and Commissioner Sue Hack, an opponent of a living-wage ordinance, meet for breakfast to share views on the issue. The meeting lasts two hours.¢ Early weeks of August: Hack and Highberger meet with Larry McElwain, the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce chairman, and Laverne Squier, the chamber CEO, to discuss the issue.¢ Aug. 14: The two commissioners and two chamber leaders meet with two representatives from the Kaw Valley Living Wage Alliance and Dave Loch from the Manufacturer's Network.¢ Aug. 19: The entire commission meets to take up the issue publicly for the first time. Chamber officials publicly announce they're willing to support a living-wage policy for tax-abated companies, but not an ordinance. Living-wage supporters say they still want an ordinance, which they believe is more enforceable. A majority of commissioners indicate they're leaning more toward a policy instead of an ordinance.¢ Next 30 days: Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss will return to the commission with a review of the policy options.|
Living-wage supporters had enough votes on the commission that they could have muscled the measure through without taking note of the opposition.
Highberger, along with Commissioners Mike Rundle and David Schauner, were elected in April on a platform that included support for a living wage. Mayor David Dunfield already was a supporter, leaving Hack as the only opponent and a 4-1 victory for a living-wage ordinance.
But Highberger said he didn't want to disregard business concerns. He wanted to find a way to make the living wage less divisive.
"I thought it was important to listen to the concerns of the chamber and manufacturers, so that when we do this it wouldn't have a negative impact on existing businesses or on attracting new businesses," he said. "I think they have legitimate concerns about implementation."
In late July, soon after the issue was scheduled for the commission's Aug. 19 agenda, Highberger and Hack met for breakfast
"I knew that he felt very strongly about the living-wage issue," Hack said. "I just wanted to talk to him about it ... try to get a feel for how he got to the place that he was and to share my feelings about tax abatements in general."
They talked for more than two hours. A week later, the pair met with McElwain and Squier, the chamber's new board chairman and chief executive officer. The two were ready to find a compromise. The meetings continued.
"I think there was a four-way desire to come up with a positive solution for Lawrence," McElwain said, "not just something that was palatable to one side."
Ordinance or resolution?
Over time, chamber leaders indicated they were willing to support a living-wage requirement -- and Highberger signaled the requirement didn't have to come in the form of an ordinance; business leaders worried that the alliance's proposed ordinance was overly broad and would chase away new businesses.
It appears to be a winning solution. Three commissioners -- Hack, Highberger and Dunfield -- have indicated they want to adopt the requirement by resolution as part of the city's tax abatement policy. Rundle and Schauner continue to advocate passage of an ordinance.
Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss said Kansas courts have ruled that City Hall must obey its resolutions just as surely as it does ordinances. The main difference is that the city could seek criminal sanctions for violations of the ordinance.
Otherwise, city officials said, the differences are subtle.
Living-wage advocates figure if resolution is as enforceable as an ordinance, there's no reason to leave things to chance.
"Why not have an ordinance and stop kidding around?" Kreicker said.
McElwain, owner of a mortuary, said an ordinance would be scarier to prospective businesses, making it harder to attract companies and create new jobs in Lawrence. A resolution would contain penalties for noncompliance, he said.
"I don't think the chamber membership is against checks and balances," he said.
The chamber estimated the 14 companies now receiving tax abatements have a total of 145 employees -- out of more than 2,000 -- not being paid a living wage.
"This is not the singularly most important issue Lawrence will face," Schauner said. "However, it is an important symbolic issue."
It may make a difference in how future difficult issues are resolved.
"I really am hopeful this is a model," Hack said of the negotiations. "We have to figure out a way to tackle the community issues without attacking each other."
There could, however, be some political fallout for Highberger.
"I feel he's doing his best to make a compromise," Kreicker said. "I fear that in the process of doing so, he may be weakening the intent of a living-wage ordinance, and perhaps alienating a tremendous number of people who voted for him."
Highberger said he hadn't sold out.
"I still stand behind the principles I stated during the campaign," he said. "I'm doing the best to apply those in a way that happens in the best interest in the community."
McElwain, meanwhile, said the negotiations may offer proof that the so-called "smart-growth" supermajority of Dunfield, Highberger, Rundle and Schauner is not anti-growth or anti-business. Those commissioners, he said, are trying to help workers without hurting businesses.
"I found there are five commissioners, no matter what they've been branded, who are willing to share and to listen," he said. "We took the chance of trying to talk. It was worth the gamble."