Region Cohesion Declines -- It's a "Progrexit"

A progressive high point reached two years ago when Prince George's, Montgomery and the District got together on a minimum wage increase has not been sustained since then, with fearful official behavior and truckling to business interests creeping back in to sabotage a pro-people agenda.

 /By Woody Woodruff <> PM BlogSpace/ Two years ago, three jurisdictions with common borders, similar political orientations and a diverse population showed some signs of the kind of solidarity that could collectively make them leaders not only in progressive political action and policy, but in reaping the results, in reduction of inequality and improvement of the lives of all their constituents, with thriving economies to boot.

The District of Columbia, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County elected officials acted in unison to raise the minimum wage, showing the clear benefits of working together as opposed to the ruinous beggar-thy-neighbor competition that would have had each one submitting the lowest (and worst!) bid to keep hypothetically fickle businesses from vacating.

They acted on the strength of their combined power as a bustling urban conglomerate that business could not ignore or leave. This regional solidarity brought a flicker of hope that the benefits of collective action on big, central components of the regional economy would be pursued, as with the original promise of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

That was then. Now the signs of “progressive exit” and remorse are turning up in each jurisdiction, with timidity and fear overtaking the genuine spirit of winning the future. The “brief shining moment” when a raise in the minimum wage in that city-state conglomerate would be followed by a requirement for paid sick leave and other moves to bring an underemployed and poorly housed working population into full participation in a more thriving regional economy is cracking apart everywhere we look.

For the fourth year in a row the General Assembly failed to pass statewide paid sick leave. Prince George’s, whose craven Council used the prospect of state action as an excuse for tabling its own sick leave proposal, now has lost that cover but doesn’t appear to be trying to revive its county-level version. Montgomery County is unilaterally moving toward the even higher goal of a $15 minimum wage but appears to be leaving behind the perennially shorted category of tipped workers. The District just last week actually approved a climb to an eventual $15/hr minimum wage but in doing so forestalled a November referendum question that would have included tipped workers in the advance, “fiercely opposed by the city’s powerful restaurant industry lobby” as the WaPo blandly reported. And, though Montgomery passed a paid sick leave ordinance, Council members are already talking about rolling back some of its provisions to satisfy its own restive business sector.

The dismal state of the Metrorail system is a more long-term piece of evidence that most of the spirit of collaboration has been missing for a long time in local governments. Nearly alone among major systems Metro has no dedicated, tax-based source of funding because the jurisdictions involved, state and local, have never come close to making such a move. COG, of course, was one of the most influential institutional voices calling for that coordinated transportation plan – COG is still the designated MPO, or Metropolitan Planning Organization, that is supposed to be the conduit for regional action. The fact that COG has declined to near-zero in power and influence – how many people have heard of it? – is another index of the low spark of regionalism in a metropolitan area divided among two states and a colony.

The Council of Governments was once an engine of informed progressive action by local governments in concert, supported as a vibrant think tank for change and a place where trust could be built and regional cohesion strengthened. Now, alas, it’s an afterthought, made moot by the insular behavior of suspicious local governments competing with one another for the crumbs of the business cartel.

This pullback from the progressive promise is nothing less than (apologizing in advance) the Progrexit. And, like the Brexit, it’s a failure of nerve. Short-term political gain prevailed over the strong evidence that a better-paid, better-housed and better-educated working class is the key to healthier local communities.

How do rollbacks like this start? When nobody’s looking, we begin to get tribal again, to pull back into our little enclaves and be systematically suspicious of unfamiliar ideas or people. Trump (and his Trumpism) are symptoms as much as a cause of that. We haven’t sufficiently emerged from the Great Recession to be permanently confident about the future, despite the opportunities that are there to be grasped. Local officials are seeking safety (and re-election) instead. Mouthpieces for the business cartel whine in their ears about the need for “certainty” – meaning, mainly, assurance that they will almost always get all they ask for. This slow-rolling collapse of resolve is how various kinds of malfeasance and misery become the new normal, and should be resisted.

Meanwhile, between legislative sessions, a business-beholden Republican administration working behind the smiling face of a supposedly nice-guy, popular governor is dismantling long-standing progressive initiatives through its control of executive agencies and decision-making boards. Sometimes they get caught. Last year, the Larry Hogan administration’s Department of Environmental Regulation casually reversed protections against dirty power plants put in place by the administration of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, despite outcries and informed testimony from affected citizens and environmental activists. This week the federal EPA debunked the newly complaisant state DER’s assurance that the plant’s emissions were “clean enough.” But that hasn’t stopped state officials from colluding with business interests to roll back health protections for people and for the Chesapeake Bay. State ag officials are listening to the boo-hoos of farmers and sewer plant operators who claim they are still not able to comply with a 2012 rule on Bay cleanup that they’ve had four years to get ready for. Hogan’s activism on the “business-friendly front” is happening in all of his agencies.

In all their weasel maneuverings, elected officials bucked strong evidence of public support. Unlike the stunning vote in the UK, no large public voted for this pullback from progress. If anyone, it was business types sitting around tables in expensive restaurants, “voting” among themselves, and then calling their favorite (and favored with campaign contributions) local and state officials. Those officials, in turn, either by omission or commission began, and continue, to dismantle this early promise of a better life for everyday folks in their jurisdictions. The Progrexit is under way, and should certainly be out in the light of day in hopes that it can be slowed or stopped. Elected officials should be held accountable for the loss of a collaborative public ethic of regionalism that would make the area a powerhouse rather than a, um, “pitiful, helpless giant.”