The Arrogance of the D.C. Council and Mendelson
The arrogance of the D.C. Council may have hit a high point with the recent slight-of-hand by Chair Phil Mendelson with his last-minute, only 18 hours before the vote, tax plan. But this isn’t the first time they have blatantly disregarded voters and residents on issues. The D.C. Council overturned term limits voted on by the people; they put off the election of an independent attorney general, which the courts are now remedying, and they consistently slip in last-minute budget items for one group or another often to advance their own political interests. While some of those last-minute items may be worthwhile, slipping them in without discussion constitutes a total lack of transparency and is wrong.
The arrogance of the Council chair was apparent when he said, “The burden is on the public to pay attention to what we’re doing,” when questioned about some of the last-minute provisions of the tax proposal he slipped into the budget. We pay Mendelson nearly $200,000 a year and Council members $125,000 for a part-time job as well as generous staff budgets so it is outrageous that he tells us to pay attention as an excuse for his wheeling and dealing behind closed doors.
The public has a right to expect better. The final report to the mayor by the Anthony Williams-led Tax Commission is 86 pages of detailed discussion and recommendations. The mayor made determinations on the appropriateness of the report to current tax policy and recommended a budget based on the set of recommendations he felt were appropriate at this time. He submitted his budget to the Council and held budget briefings for citizens in each of the city’s eight Wards. The Council held hearings on the budget and changes were made to the mayor’s budget.
What happened next is what is causing grave concern among many people in the District. Mendelson, maneuvering behind closed doors, made major changes to the budget he submitted to the Council for a vote. He apparently got clandestine agreement from a majority to approve this dramatically changed budget and agreement that no hearings were necessary. This clearly is not the way to run an open and transparent government. The question isn’t whether some of the changes were good, but rather that the Council chair and his minions should be required to make their case to the people and not proceed with this slight-of-hand.
It is my guess that Mendelson decided his seat was safe in the November election, and could coerce the Council members who are running in contested elections suggesting they couldn’t oppose tax cuts. Under his plan, millionaires will now get to pass on up to $5 million to their heirs with no inheritance tax.
In choosing which taxes to raise, Mendelson expanded the sales tax to a slew of new services but was careful to choose the ones he thought opponents would be less able to organize against. He decided not to tax law firms, non-profits and other businesses, which the Williams commission also suggested be taxed with a local services fee on non-government D.C. employers of $100 per employee per year. This fee would make up a little for the more than 1 million people a day who come into the District to work from Virginia and Maryland yet pay no taxes. It was designed to cover services they use such as police, fire/EMS and street cleaning.
One service Mendelson chose to tax was gyms, including trainers and yoga classes. He blatantly disregarded the fact that many people use these services for health reasons and often at the direction of their physicians. These services help seniors control their blood pressure and get off medication. They stem the growing diabetes epidemic, helping people get regular exercise and assistance in controlling their diet. I go to a trainer at the suggestion of my orthopedist after two knee replacements for regular and supervised exercise to help keep my knees limber and functioning. Regular exercise in a controlled environment can also stem the ravages of arthritis as people age.
Mendelson also disregarded the fact that the District already has a relatively broad sales tax base for services, covering 74 of a possible 183 services listed by the Federation of Tax Administrators. The District taxes far more services than Maryland (49) or Virginia (29).
I urge the Council and chair to rethink what they have done before taking the second vote on this budget on June 17. It is time to become truly transparent, which they all claim they want to be, and stop the slight-of-hand method of approving budget changes. If Mendelson feels confident these changes are what the people would approve if given the chance to weigh in on them, and he could be right, then have the guts to hold hearings giving the people their say.
This article was first published in the Washington Blade