State legislatures attacking community wealth building

Municipal policies for inclusive local hiring shouldn’t be illegal
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Ted Howard and John Duda

The eyes of the country turned this spring to North Carolina, where the state legislature passed the infamous HB2 “bathroom bill” in order to overturn the efforts of the Charlotte city council to make public bathrooms inclusive and safe for transgender individuals. HB2—with its extraordinarily broad attacks on LGBT individuals’ rights to equal protection under the law—has been roundly condemned by everyone from grassroots activists to some of our country’s largest corporations, not to mention federal leaders from the DOJ and the White House. But this isn’t the only assault on the power of cities to create inclusive policies to help their most vulnerable residents—across the country, state legislatures are working to make municipal efforts to leverage public spending for local job creation illegal.

Here in Ohio, for example, the state legislature passed a remarkably partisan bill this past Friday, May 13th; it is now sitting on Governor John Kasich’s desk awaiting his signature. HB 180 eliminates the ability of cities like Cleveland to create regulations like the 2004 Fannie Lewis law, which stipulates that public contracts greater than $100,000 need to hire 20% locally. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, urging Governor Kasich to veto the bill, underscores how it will set back important efforts to build a more racially and economically inclusive economy in Ohio :

Prohibiting local hiring will hamper Ohio’s economic recovery and contribute to segregation of cities by race and income. Our young people have increasing difficulty getting a start in Ohio’s workforce. These workers and the overall economy of Ohio will benefit from the local jobs created through the use of geographical-based hiring preferences on construction projects: jobs with apprenticeships, clear career paths, and quality on-the-job training.

HB 180 also threatens efforts like the 30% local hiring target attached to a large water/sewer improvement project in Akron, Ohio. State Representative Greta Johnson, who voted against the bill, is clear about how regressive the bill would be if enacted into law:

For Akron to have no control over who gets those jobs--it’s absurd […] this is a project that city taxpayers are funding. So it should be Akron residents that they see on the streets working on this project. We should be able to have a seat at the table when we are in fact the ones who are paying the bill.

Meanwhile, a similar fight is unfolding in Louisiana. With over half of African-American men unemployed in New Orleans, local job creation has been a key priority for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. Already unable by state law to set local hiring quotas, the city instead opted in its Hire NOLA program to establish ambitious local hiring targets for projects receiving public subsidies, building an inclusive job training and hiring pipeline infrastructure that could help the construction industry meet these targets. But all of this is threatened by a proposed state law that would nullify the city’s policy. For Ashleigh Gardere, senior adviser to Mayor Landrieu and director of the Network for Economic Opportunity:

...this is not only the fight for the values of local hiring and the ability to have a local hiring policy, but equally as important is that it is a law that was created by local leaders in response to real community challenges. The idea that the state could preempt that local law is really frightening.

Community wealth building is under assault in Nashville as well. Last year, a municipal ordinance—Amendment 3—was approved by voters. The law required at least 10 percent of jobs on city-funded constructions projects must go to low-income residents. Amendment 3 won more votes than any other initiative on the ballot. Yet within weeks, Republican state legislators introduced a bill to overturn the ordinance and to prevent other Tennessee cities from enacting similar laws. Reporting for In These Times , Spencer Woodman notes that in recent years, Tennessee’s state legislature has passed a number of “local preemption laws” barring localities from enforcing prevailing wages and requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. Jason Freeman, co-chair of the Economic Equity and Jobs Taskforce at Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, observes:

We’re trying to get a handle on how to address systemic poverty. But the best tools that are available are, one by one, being take away from us.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Republican-dominated statehouses working to eliminate key tools like local hiring in the local community wealth building toolbox. Leaked documents from the negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which the Obama administration is pursuing with his counterparts in the EU, indicate a desire to eliminate the power of cities and states—as well as public anchor institutions like universities and hospitals—to establish procurement preferences for locally-owned firms. As advocates for inclusive economies where local resources are used wisely and strategically to create and expand opportunities for local communities, we should oppose such counterproductive restrictions on local autonomy, whether at the state or international level.