Last May, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil thought he had harnessed a winning campaign theme for the 1998 mayoral race. Standing before a crowd of supporters at Watkins Elementary School, Brazil tied his fortunes to resentment of D.C.’s oppressive tax burden, citing his triumphant record of negative votes against overspending and fiscal mismanagement. “They didn’t listen. They passed unbalanced budgets anyway, and now we have a control board. I have the dubious distinction of saying, ‘I told you so,’” said a proud Brazil.
The hulkiest plank in Brazil’s mayoral platform was a tax break ranging between $800 million and $1 billion for every sector on the rolls: individuals, businesses, and property owners. The candidate pitched the proposal all over town, at candidate forums, in stump speeches, and during his self-proclaimed blitz to reach the average guy on the street. Unfortunately for Brazil, the average guy didn’t seem to care.
As the campaign wore on, tax rhetoric bought Brazil a few contributions from local businessesas well as a secure spot at the bottom of the polls. Before long, he all but dropped the tax plan. Brazil wound up with 4 percent of the vote in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary.
Given his ill-fated romance with supply-side economics, it’s no surprise that Brazil ceded the tax-break pulpit to colleagues Jack Evans and David Catania. On April 15, the pair introduced the Tax Parity Act of 1999, which goes after the city’s revenue structure with all the gusto of Brazil’s campaign kickoff. The bill would slash taxes for D.C. residents of all incomes by at least 31 percent and take down commercial and property taxes by comparable margins.
“Due to the significant budget surpluses estimated over the next few years,” said Evans, who has a “veto-proof” total of nine councilmembers, including Brazil, behind the plan, “the District can financially afford these long-overdue tax reductions.”
Mustering nine votes for a major initiative came easily to a council determined to show the mayor that there is muscle in the legislative branch. If Williams were king, the only tax change this year would be a modest small-business tax cut.
Williams’ unspoken opposition to the Evans-Catania bill created some tension at Monday’s council hearing. The tax-cut twosome strained to impugn numbers supplied by Deputy Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi depicting fiscal peril associated with the Tax Parity Act’s proposed revenue drop. “You came up with revenue scenarios that are not based in fact,” Catania ranted at Gandhi and Williams’ tax policy specialist Julia Friedman.
Instead of burying their heads in the budget office’s calculations, however, Catania, Evans, and other councilmembers should take a closer look at a clearer set of numbers: 50 and 66. Those are Williams’ citywide percentages from last year’s primary and general elections, respectively, indicators of a mayoral romp greased by the promise of improved city servicesnot tax cuts.
Monday’s hearing on the tax bill drew about 30 witnesses, mainly corporate types, along with big-shot tax theorists like Jack Kemp and Grover Norquist. Contrast that showing with the turnout for a Feb. 10 hearing on the city’s eradication of nuisance properties, when 55 everyday D.C.ersadvisory neighborhood commissioners, concerned parents, kidsflocked to the council chambers to finger their blocks’ nastiest eyesores. The testimony went on for nearly 12 hours, and the council ended up with a list of more than 500 nuisance properties.
It is other, relentlessly local issues, like trash-transfer stations, community policing, and alley cleaning, that prompt broad-based civic activism. Voters who have stuck it out this long in high-tax D.C. care more about proper deployment of their heavy burden than about initiatives to lighten it.
Indeed, natives can’t help but think that the real beneficiaries of the tax-cut plan are the wealthy suburban poseurs Evans and Catania would love to have among their constituents. “Reducing taxes…would bring more tax-paying residents, more businesses to the city,” said At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz at the hearing.
Schwartz and fellow Republican Catania turned the council session into a Republican National Committee retrospective on Reaganomics. Catania stepped nicely into the role of former Vice President George Bush, who routinely flacked for the Gipper’s defunding of education initiatives. “Simply spending more money doesn’t make the schools better or the streets safer,” said the councilmember, justifying the tight spending plan that the tax-cut plan would require.
And LL couldn’t tell whether Schwartz was reading the lines of former budget Director David Stockman or the Gipper himself. “When we bring in more residents with more taxes, we will have more money for drug prevention, for housing, for social services,” said Schwartz. She seemed to be suggesting that less equals more, more or less.
When she was finished pumping up the supply side, the councilmember retired to her Northwest ranch to cut away underbrush.
Amid all the talk of tax justice, few seemed bothered that D.C.’s richest tax bracket still begins at $20,000 a year. But then again, protecting the working poor from the bite of regressive taxes was never part of the ’80s tax mantra.
John Cougar Mellencamp-era economic theories will prove equally unappealing to District citizens, the control board, and the CFO’s office. In his testimony, Gandhi projected that the Evans-Catania legislation would cost the city no less than $1.3 billion over four years. Even the normally conciliatory Evans jousted with Gandhi over his findings and their political implications. “If we are to predict the future in gloom-and-doom terms,” said the councilmember, referring to Gandhi’s projection of a deficit from the legislation, “then I think we should predict the future in rosy terms as well.”
Gandhi stuck with the number cruncher’s hearing script: “All we do is basically provide analysis to the council, the mayor, and the control boardthat’s all we do and without an ax to grind.”
In turn, Catania pressed Gandhi and his associates in an attempt to find errors in their budget calculations. Although his questions challenged their targets, Catania ultimately failed to discredit Gandhi’s analysis and was forced to speculate that CFO staffers had cooked the numbers to please their buddy in the mayor’s office.
Instead of scouring the bean counter’s work for errors, perhaps Catania should take a closer look at his own. In his opening statement, Catania noted that the flight of residents and businesses from the District is “getting worse.” Wrong: Population flight from the District has been shrinking for three years straight after reaching its decade peak of 14,000 in 1995, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It’s not an idle point. The city started its rebound long ago, amid no promises of tax relief. Although a tax cut may expedite the recoveryand no one would argue that D.C. taxes aren’t highit may also scupper the process if it isn’t judiciously managed.
Whatever appropriate tax rates may be, the city certainly needs relief from the notion that tax policy governs people’s behaviora school of thought articulated on Monday by tax-cut proponent Sharon Ambrose.
“When I left home today, I said hello to two new neighborsthese days you can’t find a home for sale on Capitol Hill,” said the councilmember. “Now, some people would say it’s a new mayor, but I’d say it’s the $5,000 first-time homebuyer credit. That is what is bringing people back to Ward 6.”
Allow LL to suggest some other candi-
dates: Sprawl. The Wilson Bridge. Gridlock. Samuel Sheinbein.
•Members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6A had no problem putting up with Chair Daniel Pernell’s moodiness and strong-willed approach to their monthly meetings. They even stuck with him during a crisis over the commission’s office space, when commissioners couldn’t access records locked up in a neighborhood medical facility.
Several of the ANC’s representatives, however, aren’t willing to forgive Pernell’s latest transgressionallegedly soliciting a $20 contribution from a constituent with a pending matter before the commission and depositing the sum in his personal account (Loose Lips, “Checkbook Diplomacy,” 4/16). The disaffected members, who reportedly number around seven, are now circulating a resolution to strip Pernell of the chair.
“The illegal and improper conduct by [Pernell]…has prevented [the] commission from conducting its business, significantly jeopardized the credibility of the membership as a whole, and restricted the commission in its capacity to serve the residents of ANC 6A,” reads the resolution.
“We’re doing this for credibility purposes,” says commissioner Angela Cox, who is now drumming up support for the putsch. Cox says the check should convince the required majority of the commission’s 14 members to boot Pernell.
Pernell did not return a phone call on the matter.
•Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is having trouble hearing the referee’s whistle. For most parties involved in the two-month-long dispute over a proposed new building at the corner of Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue, the final whistle appeared to have blown two weeks ago, when the Historic Preservation Review Board approved a final design plan. And the game looked over for good last week, when the Commission of Fine Arts approved the same design.
For Graham, though, the rulings were a call to arms. With the support of an enclave of Ward 1 residents west of the Duke Ellington Bridge, Graham is now orchestrating a third design review of the building, which is to be occupied by the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA). The complaint is that the building is not sufficiently oriented toward the majestic, rounded corner of Calvert and Connecticut. “The main entrance faces Calvert Street,” Graham told LL this week.
Graham said that he will meet soon with the building’s architect and AAHSA to express the residents’ objections yet again. If Graham manages to wring meaningful design concessions, the amended plans will have to undergo another review by the relevant boards.
The councilmember’s crusade pleases locals who dread the look of their imminent neighbor. “Without his help, we wouldn’t have made the limited progress that we’ve made,” says Woodley Park resident Pamela Aycock, who claims that the community’s threat to picket the building’s groundbreaking forced AAHSA to hold the event indoors.
Of course, Graham’s venture outside of standard approval channels doesn’t sit too well with officialdom. “Mr. Graham fails to understand his role or the public’s role in the process,” says a member of the Historic Preservation Review Board. “I would strongly suggest that there are more pressing matters in Ward 1 than the corner design of Calvert and Connecticut.”
Yeah, like the pending city review of four proposals to redevelop four large plots on 14th Street in Columbia Heights. “Ask him what he has to say about Columbia Heights. I guess he’s too busy at Connecticut and Calvert,” says activist Dorothy Brizill.
Graham says he’s maintaining “strict neutrality” on Columbia Heights, which is probably the most important development deal in Ward 1 history, but adds, “I plan to be very involved in design issues.”
•Last fall, Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen announced that she would endorse the position of ANCs in her ward and oppose construction of a prison at Oxon Cove. The announcement was bad news for the Corrections Corporation of America, which had contributed generously to Allen’s 1996 campaign against Eydie Whittington and lobbied for the prison project for longer than two years.
Allen, however, hasn’t irreparably harmed her standing with the country’s controversial largest operator of private prisons. On Wednesday night, Allen hosted a debt-retirement fundraiser for her failed 1995 quest to occupy the council seat vacated by Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. Among the co-sponsors was Joe Johnson, a member of CCA’s board of directors and head of National Corrections and Rehabilitation Corp., a CCA subcontractor.
Allen, who was out to erase $6,000 worth of debt, says Johnson’s help wasn’t buying any political favors. “Joe and I have been friends for years,” she says. “My opposition to the facility is still in place.” Johnson did not return a call for comment.CP
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