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D.C.’s real estate boom has spurred economic growth and enlivened civic debate on jobs, housing, healthcare, and education. And that debate is about to get even richer, with the pending launch of the D.C. Policy Center.
Incubated in the offices of the Federal City Council, the prominent “citizens committee” through which the District’s business and professional community advocates for civic improvement, the center will analyze the local economy with a broad demographic focus that is distinct from the issue-based advocacy that ushered in progressive reforms during the last D.C. Council session.
It’s also bound to challenge the work of the liberal D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which conducts research on budget, tax, and economic issues with a particular focus on low- and moderate-income residents. Loose Lips is a fan of lively civic debate and thinks it’s high time that D.C.’s liberal orthodoxy faces some competition in the forum of urban ideals and priorities. And with the Federal City Council’s imprimatur, which comes with the clout of former Mayor Anthony Williams and an impressive cast of power brokers, the center figures to shake things up around here.
“There are lots of advocacy groups concerned with housing, jobs, and health care, but very few are looking at demographics and economic realities,” says Yesim Taylor, who was recruited to run the center. “The District gets targeted by national advocacy groups to showcase ideas that are not always fitting to our local economy,” adds the former fiscal impact analyst for the Office of the Chief Finance Officer and author of the District Measured blog. “We need to approach these issues with our own policy interests in mind.”
The D.C. Council’s recent passage of the paid family leave bill is an example of why a broader economic analysis is necessary, Taylor says. The bill—which DCFPI and a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, and think tanks supported—provides the most generous leave in the country for sick employees, new parents, and workers with gravely ill relatives, a big win in the nation’s capital for employment advocates, she says.
But the initiative will require a business tax increase to raise the $250 million annual price tag. And while D.C.’s retail sector is driving job growth, it still accounts for just 3 percent of total jobs in the city, Taylor says. “If there’s a need for negotiating better employer-employee relationships, then that’s fine, but it’s not a good time to put constraints on that sector,” she says, cautioning that regional job competition is fierce. “We had ‘One City,’ and ‘Pathways to the Middle Class,’” she says of the last two mayoral slogans, “but right now the only pathway to the middle class is towards Fairfax County.”
Taylor says the center will offer a different economic vision than those of progressive organizations that are drawn to the District. But she stresses that its work will be nonpartisan and nonideological. “There is an element of an alternate worldview for us,” she says unapologetically. “But we are agnostic when it comes to politics. I’m an economist. I look at data. There’s nothing better for me than economic growth. Jobs, pay, etc., you can do none of these things without economic growth.”
Ed Lazere, executive director of the DCFPI, sees the more business-minded center as a positive force for stimulating discourse on tax policy and economics. “In the past, the business community has expressed opposition to issues [such as paid family leave] without a lot of analysis to back it up,” Lazere says. “Having a policy center will help them express opposition through a more research-based debate on how to keep the economy strong while allowing people to find jobs that enable them to live in the city.”
The center will launch at the end of February out of the Federal City Council’s offices, with a goal of going independent in about a year. “It’s a fantastic arrangement to be sitting next to Anthony Williams every day with the ability to pick his brain,” says Taylor, who expects to publish two or three policy blog posts per week as well as longer policy studies with a full-time staff of four and a dozen “fellows” versed in the art of data visualization. “Our work will be new, based on data and analysis, and engaged in showcasing the District.”