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The end is near. The agenda for the D.C. Council’s penultimate legislative meeting last Tuesday included more than 100 items, from firearm safety to campaign finance reform to turnstile jumping to building a new hospital east of the Anacostia River, where quality healthcare has been lacking for years.
The four-hour marathon meeting was jam packed with classic Council banter. Ward 3’s Mary Cheh called Ward 2’s Jack Evans a “Scrooge,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson copped to his arrest record for civil disobedience, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman formed an unholy alliance with Evans.
“We have over 100 measures on the agenda tomorrow,” Mendelson said during a pre-meeting news conference a day before the votes. “And it’s hard to be sure that we’re getting all of them right.”
City Paper can’t cover all 100 items, but we’ve selected a few that bubbled to the top. The Council’s final meeting of 2018 is on Dec. 18.
Pay to Play: PASSED
A bill that brings sweeping changes to the District’s campaign fundraising system passed without so much as a snort from councilmembers. The bill, authored by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, bars corporations and their executives who have contracts or are seeking contracts with the District from donating to campaigns.
The bill aims to fix D.C.’s so-called pay-to-play culture, where lawmakers and the mayor approve contracts for people who donated to their campaigns. Contracts, tax exemptions, loans, and other types of financial agreements with the District must be worth at least $250,000 to qualify for the ban on donations, according to the bill.
The bill also establishes a board to oversee the Office of Campaign Finance, which is currently operating under the Board of Elections, and whose members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Council.
The bill now lands on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s desk. She has so far declined to say whether she supports the changes.
Fare evasion: PASSED
For the second consecutive meeting, a bill that decriminalizes illicit free rides on the D.C. Metro system stoked heated debate that pitted Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson against everybody else.
To Evans (who is also the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board chairman) and Mendelson, fare evasion is stealing, and stealing should be a crime no matter how small the amount. (It costs $2 to ride the bus.)
Evans says that Metro already loses an estimated $25 million a year in fare evasion on buses alone and argued that decriminalizing the act would only encourage turnstile jumpers (though there’s no evidence of that). Other councilmembers used Evans’ estimated losses as an argument that criminalizing fare evasion clearly isn’t working—why not try something else?
For Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the judiciary committee, evading a $2 fare should not mar someone with a criminal record. Currently, fare evaders can be arrested, face up to a $300 fine, and spend 10 days in jail. The bill switches fare evasion to a civil citation, like a parking ticket, and lowers the fine to $50.
The issue of racial discrimination was woven throughout the Council’s discussion, most prominently in the form of a statistic cited by Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who originally introduced the bill in July 2017. According to a report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Human Affairs, 91 percent of the criminal citations for fare evasion currently handed out by Metro police go to black people.
With that statistic in mind, At-large Councilmember Robert White referenced a recent article in TheWashington Post that described coordination between Metro and the white supremacist group that staged a “Unite the Right 2” rally in D.C. in August.
“I’m sad Metro is losing money,” Robert White said, “But I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.”
If the measure gets through the mayor and through Congress, it would take effect in 2019.
The deal for a new hospital in Ward 8: POSTPONED
Late in the legislative meeting, Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray moved to postpone, until Dec. 18, a vote on his bill to build a new healthcare network east of the Anacostia River. A flurry of amendments appeared to blindside him.
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman successfully added amendments against Gray’s wishes. In a moment of confusion, White introduced an amendment that would, in his words, require GW Hospital (which is the District’s preferred partner in building a new and desperately-needed hospital in Ward 8) to work with medical students and staff from Howard University Hospital. Howard University has testified that an exclusive deal between the District and GW Hospital would seriously jeopardize the future of Howard’s med school.
Gray and Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd had been expecting to co-introduce, with White, a weaker amendment that would have asked the city to conduct a feasibility study on creating some sort of partnership between GW Hospital and Howard.
Before White made his move, an amendment from Silverman passed to guarantee unionized nurses and other staff at United Medical Center in Ward 8 jobs at the new hospital at St. Elizabeths. The addition passed 8-3, but was opposed by Gray, who called it a “poison pill.”
“I’ve heard from leadership of the executive’s office and George Washington University Hospital, and if this amendment passes, there will be no deal,” he said.
The discussion fired up several councilmembers. “Anybody who votes against this is voting against the unions,” said Jack Evans, frequently noting his surprise to agree with his more liberal colleague Silverman.
Gray successfully amended his bill to add 50 more beds at the Ward 8 hospital, bringing its capacity to 200, and to shrink the size of GW Hospital’s proposed expansion to its Foggy Bottom location. The latter amendment envisions a 170-bed tower at GW, with 50 additional beds being added within the hospital’s current footprint. (To complicate matters, GW University opposes that expansion.)
Howard celebrated the addition of White’s amendment, which passed by acclamation. But Evans was cautious. “I just don’t know if you can make a private company partner with somebody else. … Good luck, it may work. I just don’t see how it works,” Evans said, nonetheless supporting it along with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
Moments later, Gray successfully postponed the bill.
Internet sales tax: PASSED
The Council passed a bill that will lower the commercial property tax rate for properties worth $10 million or more, frustrating some lawmakers and advocates who say the cut reneges on a promise from 2013 to devote more money to homeless services.
Five years ago, the Council pledged to split internet sales tax revenue in half: 50 percent would go to fund the Metro system, and 50 percent would go to a fund for homeless services.
But cities did not have legal authority to collect sales tax on items bought on the internet from businesses that did not have a physical presence in the District. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court changed that, opening the door to a new source of revenue.
But before the court’s decision, the Council raised taxes on commercial property owners in order to pump money into the Metro system.
With the new internet sales tax revenue, councilmembers faced a choice: Lower the commercial property tax rate back down, or use the new revenue as promised in 2013.
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau proposed an amendment that would have spread the new internet sales tax dollars to several programs, including homeless services and lowering the commercial property tax rate. But it failed on a 6-6 vote. (Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie was absent from this week’s meeting.)
Councilmember Jack Evans said the commercial property tax hike was always intended to be a temporary fix to fund Metro. Councilmember Elissa Silverman refuted that, saying “my staff has looked in the public record everywhere … and we cannot find any agreement by this body to undo the property tax increase when the Supreme Court allowed internet sales taxes.”
Ultimately, the bill passed and the commercial property tax rate will drop back down from $1.89 per $100 of assessed value to $1.85.
Councilmembers Silverman, Nadeau, David Grosso and Trayon White dissented.
Cuneyt Dil contributed reporting.