In recent months, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has fired some verbal arrows at the Utah State Legislature.

Tuesday, one senator shot back — with legislation that would cripple Utah's living-wage movement, a movement near and dear to Anderson's heart.

One Salt Lake County Council member openly wondered if the effort by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, was really about good public policy or designed to punish Anderson, who called state lawmakers "extremist Republicans" earlier this month.

"Is this really a bill to change public policy or is this a bill just to attack Rocky Anderson?" Councilman Joe Hatch said.

And while the measure may be aimed at Anderson, it's being panned throughout Salt Lake City — by City Council members, County Council members and living-wage advocates alike.

Stephenson on Tuesday introduced SB139 — legislation that would forbid cities, counties and towns from giving preference to contractors who pay "living wages."

The proposed bill is designed to close "Rocky's loophole," Stephenson said.

Last year, Anderson signed an administrative rule ordering the city to adopt a point system that gives preference to contractors who pay their employees a living wage, defined as $9.06 hourly (the federal poverty guideline for a family of four) with health benefits, or $10.56 without health care.

Contractors who were within a small percentage of the lowest bid and paid a living wage — when up against contractors who didn't pay a living wage — would be given preference, under Anderson's rule, which is set to go into effect this March.

Stephenson's bill would basically make Anderson's rule null and void for all city contracts signed after May 2, 2005. The Draper senator said he considers Anderson's rule a violation of federal law, which sets the minimum wage at $5.15 per hour.

"They're circumventing the law," he said. "The state statute is very clear. We intend to make it even more clear. We didn't anticipate these kinds of shenanigans in circumventing the law so we are proposing something that will close the loop, Rocky's loophole."

Stephenson, who also heads the Utah Taxpayers Association, which has deep ties to big business, said local restaurants and caterers, who often pay low wages, were most worried about Anderson's rule.

Stephenson spurred passage of legislation in 2001 that prohibits local governments from enacting living-wage laws — which force contractors doing business with those governments to pay a living wage — but it didn't prohibit cities from considering wage when awarding contracts.

Anderson said Stephenson's move was expected. He challenged the lawmaker, and any others who would support Stephenson's effort, to try to live on $5.15 an hour.

"In fact, the federal minimum wage is wholly inadequate for someone working full-time to provide decent housing, food and health care," the mayor added.

City Council Chairman Dale Lambert has Anderson's back on this one.

Lambert said it amazes him that the conservative Legislature, which often advocates for local control, continues to want to take away the rights of cities to engage in local control.

"It frequently surprises me that the Utah State Legislature takes actions to limit local control and decisionmaking, and this is another example," he said. "I'm also surprised at the apparent hostility on both a national and state level to things that have the effect of raising minium wages so that working people can — through the efforts of their own work — climb out of poverty."

Hatch echoed Lambert's thoughts about the apparent hypocrisy concerning local rule.

"Howard Stephenson absolutely hates it when the federal government micromanages the state's affairs," he said. "Why does he not see the same restraint in micromanaging the affairs of local government?"

Utah Jobs With Justice director George Neckel called the bill "a backward move on the part of Stephenson."

After all, the No. 1 cause of poverty in Utah is low wages, Neckel said. The state's cost of living is close to the national average, yet its average wages are only about 80 percent of the national average, he said.

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"These guys always say that they believe in the free market and the free market ought to set the price of wages," Neckel said. "But their employees are being supported by their church's food pantry and their children get their health care from CHIPS. (Low-paid employees) are not being supported by the market. They're being supported by the taxpayer."

Anderson said he may ask the City Council to allow one of the city's two paid lobbyists to fight the bill at Capitol Hill.

Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley City, who also heads the AFL-CIO, said he would fight the bill on the Senate floor after failing to route the bill away from the Senate Rules and Taxation Committee, of which Stephenson is a member.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com

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