Best in Governance
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray
The issue of a minimum wage increase has received outsize attention in the past year. Conversations about widening inequality and persistent poverty have yielded momentum around an issue that has received popular support as well as backing from leaders like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Progress has been slow, though, especially at the federal level, where Congressional gridlock and pushback from the business community has stalled action on the issue. But last month, Seattle and its mayor, Ed Murray, made news by pulling off an impressive feat of governance. The city passed a historic hike to the minimum wage in the city and did it with the participation of a large portion of Seattle’s business community.
In the absence of a federal solution, Seattle’s effort is part of a larger trend of cities and states addressing the establishment of a living wage for workers, but Murray’s leadership, vision, and coalition-based approach may serve as a framework for other municipalities seeking to find a solution to a pressing issue at a local level. As a candidate for mayor last year, Murray made a $15 an hour minimum wage a key platform of his campaign, following up a controversial minimum-wage increase for airport workers in nearby Seatac, WA, and significant groundswell for a $15 minimum wage from local activists like socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant. In order to hammer out a sustainable and lasting compromise, Murray convened 24 civic leaders from the business, labor, and nonprofit communities on the Income Inequality Advisory Committee, charging them with creating a tenable solution within five months. With Sawant agitating for a ballot initiative in the fall that would immediately increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Murray and his committee came up with a solution that makes sense for employers as well as labor. The final version of the new legislation will see the minimum wage in Seattle immediately rise to $10 an hour for employees of smaller businesses (those with 500 or fewer workers) and $11 an hour for larger businesses. Wages won’t ramp up to $15 an hour for large businesses for another three years and five years for small businesses, and there are longer timeframes for businesses to adopt the new standard if employees receive tips and health care.
To be sure, Seattle is a bit of an outlier. The state of Washington already possesses the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.32 an hour, the Seattle region is fairly wealthy, and unemployment is relatively low compared with other metropolitan areas in the country. But its multisectoral compromise on the contentious minimum wage issue has earned praise as a potential Kennedy School study, and the process already has other cities considering how they might employ the same strategy to find a flexible solution of their own.
Worst in Governance
VA Hospitals Scandal
On Memorial Day last month, when the nation’s thoughts turn to the memory and sacrifices of its fallen soldiers, attention was focused on the dire and shocking circumstances facing many living veterans. At the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Phoenix, reports from CNN and the Arizona Republic revealed that veterans faced lengthy wait times, including an average of 115 days for a primary-care appointment, and at least 40 veterans died waiting for help. Worst of all, scrutiny of administrators at the Phoenix hospital exposed a heinous record-keeping scheme. VA administrators there created an elaborate system to hide the long delays faced by veterans waiting for help. A secret waiting list used by administrators documented the more than 1700 sick veterans waiting on care while an official list provided to federal officials instead created the illusion of timely appointments. Since the scandal has unfolded, other reports have emerged about similar practices in Fort Collins, CO, and mismanagement at VA hospitals in Atlanta and Pittsburgh. (For a good visual presentation of the extent of the VA’s problems, check out this map created by the American Legion.)
But the most shocking part of the scandal may be the revelations that many of the VA’s troubles, including its massive scheduling problems, were not being divulged for the first time. The lack of federal oversight of the VA, its outdated technology, and poorly designed scheduling policies have all been described in Government Accountability Organization reports from 2013 and 2014. While Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has served his country honorably over the course of an otherwise sterling career, his failure to heed these warning signs and move faster to address systemic problems in the VA like doctor shortages and perverse incentives for VA administrators have had tragic consequences for veterans. The country’s veterans demand better service and accountability, and with Shinseki’s resignation, there’s hope that he has opened the way for an administrator that will finally get Veterans the funding, attention, and care they need.