- The Washington Times
Thursday, March 16, 2017

The District’s business community is exercising its voice through a new think tank focused on the city’s place in the region’s economy.

The D.C. Policy Center was launched last week under the direction of economist Yesim Sayin Taylor. Former Mayor Anthony Williams and other former members of the D.C. Tax Revision Commission founded the think tank at the Federal City Council, the nonprofit that promotes economic development in the District.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of good research on the District’s economy in the region, especially the effect of rising taxes on businesses,” Ms. Taylor said. “So Tony Williams was interested in increasing research capacity in the city.”

The D.C. Policy Center, she said, will aim to produce research on a wide variety of policy issues, but always with a focus on how those policies affect the city’s economy. Ms. Taylor stressed that the group would conduct its research free from outside influence and partisan priorities.

“The best metrics for the city is growth in the sense of the more residents and jobs we add, the better,” she said. “We look at every proposal through that lens.”

Ms. Taylor came to the head the think tank after 10 years of work in the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer. As the office’s director of fiscal and legislative analysis, she scored some of the city’s most costly legislation, including last year’s paid family leave bill.

“She has spent 10 years getting to know D.C. well and telling the truth to [lawmakers] and mayors about what things will cost,” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “She stood up for what was right and took the slings and arrows.”

Mr. Lazere said he welcomes another economic policy shop in the District. In a city full of national think tanks, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute has long been the only local-focused analysis provider in town.

Having more research from different points of view, especially during public hearings before the D.C. Council, can only strengthen the debate, Mr. Lazere said.

He conceded that his think tank and the D.C. Policy Center could clash over issues due to their differing perspectives. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute generally supports progressive policies such as the recent paid family leave and the $15-an-hour minimum wage laws, offering research that shows how such policies would help low-income and minority residents.

However, the D.C. Policy Center’s board of directors includes organizations and businesses that opposed those two pieces of legislation last year.

The think tank’s list of donors represents just about every sector of the city’s economy: The D.C. Building Industry Association, D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Hotel Association of Washington D.C., Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, Monumental Sports & Entertainment and energy giant Exelon have made contributions.

Ms. Taylor said progressive advocates have done a good job in pushing policies they favor but the businesses have had trouble finding a consistent voice.

“The business community doesn’t like talking as much as advocates and academics,” she said. “But we worry that goals of District don’t always match the needs of the District.”

The D.C. Policy Center, she said, will strive to offer research that shows how city policies will affect the region and alternative solutions for various problems.

Ms. Taylor noted a bill proposed last year that would have barred employers from asking about job applicants’ salary histories, citing the legislation as an example of the wrong way to tackle a problem.

The bill was intended to help close the gender pay gap by not revealing the salaries of men and women applying for jobs. But Ms. Taylor said research shows there are better ways to do that. The pay gap starts at an early age and snowballs into a much bigger gap, she said.

“That means better intervention would be at the beginning of their career,” she said.

Ms. Taylor’s economic acumen, as well as her knowledge of navigating City Hall, could give the business community a more visible boost.

That’s not a concern for Mr. Lazere, though. In fact, he thinks it will force businesses to use research to back up their claims.

“Often when we make an economic argument for a particular issue you get comment on the other side from a business owner who isn’t a researcher,” he said. “Hopefully, this means the debate will move to ‘research versus research’ rather than ‘research versus anecdote.’ Then we can have a fair legislative fight based on quality of research.”

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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