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THE GREAT D.C. FIRE SALE
Suburban politicians, like vultures circling an old carcass ready to pick the last remnants from the blanched bones, are salivating over their biggest feast on the impaired District since Congress returned the western third of the nation’s capital to Virginia 151 years ago.
Under the guise of rescuing the financially challenged District government and its constituents, suburban members of Congress are organizing a liquidation of D.C. assets and home rule. Not since the 1995 closing of the beloved Woodie’s downtown department store have bargain hunters pawed so shamelessly over the ruins of a failed institution.
The Journal newspapers in the Virginia suburbs refer to the D.C. rescue plan introduced by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) last week as “the Lorton bill” because it finally brings home a trophy for Northern Virginians: closing the District’s troublesome prison at Lorton and eventually putting its 3,000 acres back on Fairfax County’s tax rolls. The suburban media mention the legislation’s provisions to save the District from financial ruin only in passing, or not at all.
Fairfax County officials are so eager for the raid on D.C. that they are not even waiting for congressional approval of the plan fashioned by Davis, the former Fairfax County board chairman who now chairs the House Governmental Oversight subcommittee on the District. Even before Davis put his bill in the hopper June 19, Fairfax officials were finishing a 32-page report on prospective uses for the Lorton land.
Besides fulfilling Northern Virginia’s dream of getting rid of the District’s 6,000-prisoner correctional complex, the Davis bill contains additional windfalls for the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
The Davis bill wards off a specter that frightens suburbanites as much as Anacostia: a commuter tax. Davis and other suburban lawmakers feared that President Bill Clinton’s D.C. rescue plan, which served as the basis for Davis’ bill, would have heightened pressures for a commuter tax by eliminating the city’s current $660-million annual payment from the federal government. The bill, however, aims to end-run cries for a commuter tax with a compromise $140-million annual “federal contribution.”
The federal contribution, Davis hopes, will mute the likes of D.C. financial control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer, who suggested a commuter tax, and Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), who introduced a bill to impose a “nonresident tax” on D.C. government workers to pay for school repairs. Suburban skeptics viewed Jeffords’ bill as “the camel’s nose under the tent” that would eventually allow the commuter-tax camel to come inside. Davis counters that the $140 million in the federal contribution will compensate the District for services and tax revenues denied D.C. because the federal government owns 41 percent of the land in the city. However, former New York City budget director Carol O’Cleireacain, in a report done for the Brookings Institution last January, concluded that a true payment-in-lieu-of-taxes to D.C. would total $382 million annually, nearly three times what Davis is offering.
In addition to closing Lorton and standing ground against the dreaded commuter tax, the Davis bill contains other goodies for the planned-community set. The bill, which is expected to sail swiftly through the House, protects the full pension benefits of D.C. police, firefighters, teachers, and judges, the majority of whom live in the suburbs. The plan puts the federal government in charge of the District’s $9-billion pension system$4.8 billion of which is unfunded at present. The city’s savings from the pension adjustment would amount to $307 million annually.
In return, the federal government would get at least $3 billion of the $4.2 billion in assets the District government has accumulated, through careful investment of pension funds, since it was handed the totally unfunded system by Congress in 1979. Critics of this provision, led by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chair of the House civil service subcommittee, complain that the Davis solution merely staves off more costly problems with the pension system until the middle of the next decade.
But by then it will be the federal government’s problem, not the District’s.
Suburban tycoons would benefit from the provisions in the Davis plan creating a mighty $50-million Economic Development Corp. (EDC), which would supplant the District government and gobble up land by eminent domain for economic development. The new entity would be empowered to hand out $325 million in tax breaks, and its nine-member board would be open to suburbanites who own businesses in the District. The corporation was included in the White House rescue plan but is adamantly opposed by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee on District affairs.
EDC, moreover, has the enthusiastic backing of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the former Alexandria mayor who has ridiculed the flat-tax plan for D.C. residents proffered by D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Moran pans the Norton tax plan for benefiting only the rich, who will stay put in Spring Valley or move back to get tax breaks. He wants those millionaires to reside in Northern Virginia but to have the luxury of crossing the Potomac, getting tax breaks while plundering the District, and then returning to his state with their untaxed loot.
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Suburbanites could also benefit from Davis’ decision to retain the 1913 federal law requiring congressional oversight of utility mergers in the District. The congressman had planned to repeal that law with his D.C. rescue bill, but yanked that provision at the last minute.
Davis claimed on the June 20 broadcast of WAMU’s weekly D.C. Politics Hour that he pulled the provision at the insistence of D.C. councilmembers. But during a briefing at the council the day before, Davis said he had changed his position because of strong opposition from “the downtown real estate folks,” according to those present at the briefing. These “folks,” many of whom live in the suburbs, fear that the proposed merger between Baltimore Gas and Electric and Pepco will push up energy rates. And they apparently feel they’ll get better treatment from Congress than from the D.C. Public Service Commission, which would have more power over the merger if the 1913 law were repealed.
The suburbs got another plum from Davis in the form of increased criminal penalties for blocking bridges that connect the District to Northern Virginia. Angry commuters were ready to impose the death penalty against Justice for Janitors demonstrators, who blocked the Roosevelt Bridge two years ago.
As the Davis plan steamrolled through committee last week, District boosters got busy analyzing its payoff in dollars and cents. In addition to the $307 million in pension payments absorbed by the feds, the plan would save the city $306 million in 1998 outlays by federalizing the prison and court systems. In return, the city would be forced to impose stiffer federal sentences for drug offenses, meaning that marijuana smokers in D.C. could face prison time instead of the slap on the wrist meted out by D.C. Superior Court judges.
The District would also be forced to stiffen sentences for other crimes to reflect the tougher sentences handed out in federal court, or risk having a federally appointed commission rewrite its criminal laws. The Davis bill remains silent on efforts to restore the death penalty in D.C.
Another boon for the District is the Davis provision upping federal payments to the city’s Medicaid program from 50 percent to 70 percent. But the District may never see that windfall: The Medicaid program falls under the power of Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, who has opposed the move.
All told, the District is expected to save about $917 million next year if the Davis plan becomes reality. But it will surrender $772 million through the reduction of the current federal payment and the feds’ annual contribution to the pension plan. The net savings in 1998 will total only $145 million.
The benefits to the suburbs have not been calculated.
Suburban interests are well protected by the Davis subcommittee, which is staffed almost entirely by Fairfax County residents. Homeowners from McLean to Greenbelt have nothing to fear as long as Robert Dix, who also sits on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, takes his red pen to legislative drafting sessions. Davis has said he sees no conflict of interest in the two public hats Dix currently wears. But Dix clearly is on the subcommittee to look out for Fairfax County, not for D.C.
The lone non-Virginia resident on the subcommittee staff is general counsel Howard Dennis, who served as a Maryland state senator from Montgomery County from 1978-94. Dennis currently co-chairs the Montgomery County campaign of Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ellen Sauerbrey, and has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Sauerbrey when she takes on Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening next year.
With all these suburbanites working overtime on District affairs, don’t be surprised if the next D.C. budget contains funds to build a prison for Fairfax felons at 1 Judiciary Square.
Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. was too busy crowing over new powers he uncovered in the fine print of the Davis legislation last week to take notice of the bill’s overall impact on the District. The legislation reserves three seats on the nine-member board of the new EDC for three D.C. representatives: the mayor, the D.C. Council chair, and a Barry appointee.
The legislation also requires a “supermajority” vote of seven of the nine board members to condemn land in D.C. and seize it for economic development. Barry figures he can wield power over the corporation by controlling the three D.C. votes and preventing eminent-domain actions until he gets what he wants. That way, he can grab back some of the power that has been taken from him by Congress and the financial control board since his return to the throne…
The head of the presidentially appointed Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which last week delayed approving plans for the city’s new convention center, is sending a letter to members of Congress and the Washington Convention Center Authority denouncing the conduct of convention center lobbyist Ibrahim Mumin. An angry Mumin confronted advisory council chair Cathryn Slater at the end of the June 20 meeting after the council raised concerns about the new center’s impact on Shaw residents and businesses.
According to Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Beth Solomon, a convention center foe, Mumin cursed Slater and called Advisory Council staffer Ralston Cox “a motherfucker.” June Hirsh, staff member to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the leading advocate for the new convention center, was present for part of the meeting but says she didn’t hear Mumin curse Slater or Cox. Hirsh doubted that Mumin did so because, “he always acts like a gentleman.”
She said Mumin was justifiably upset because the Advisory Council let opponents testify but refused to listen to the many convention center supporters present. Cox, who confirmed Solomon’s account of Mumin’s outburst, said supporters had failed to sign up to testify at the meeting…
During the June 13 weekly broadcast of D.C. Politics Hour, host Derek McGinty sought to correct the show’s irrepressible “political analyst” Mark Plotkin, who had mistakenly said D.C. Rottweiler Marie Drissel had run for mayor.
“I’m the political analyst, I should know,” Plotkin told McGinty.
Drissel ran for council chair in 1993, as McGinty said. Perhaps the two, the odd couple of local radio, should switch roles.
But some of the program’s listeners didn’t catch Plotkin’s error. They only heard, or thought they heard, that Drissel was running for mayor in 1998. Since the broadcast, she says she has been besieged by supporters.
But Drissel, an also-ran who finished well behind winner Dave Clarke in the 1993 special council chair election, says she has no plans to make another try for D.C. office.CP
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