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In the Wilson Building, it’s all rhetorical fun and budgetary games until someone’s feelings get hurt.
That, at least, was the case during the mark-up session the D.C. Council’s committee on finance and revenue held on Thursday for the District’s fiscal year 2019 budget, which the Council will finalize over the next month. Toward the end of this hearing, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs the committee, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman laid into each other with accusations of chicanery.
It was a rupture in the usual decorum the Council strives to project when working in public view. The confrontation was also, perhaps, a surfacing of ideological tensions between two councilmembers who tend to express different opinions about how public dollars should be spent.
Evans, who is the longest-serving sitting councilmember and the chair of Metro’s board, often paints himself as one of the legislature’s most fiscally responsible and pro-business members. Silverman, who began her term in 2015, usually espouses progressive policies and values.
What’s unclear is whether their
TIF tiff on the dais broke out because of anything else. Both councilmembers say they smoothed over matters after the hearing finished—but not before they described each other’s actions as not “honest.”
It started off innocuously enough, with Evans calling the session to order and making a joke. “I have a lot to read about our budget,” he said. “At the end, I expect everyone to say yes, and we’re out of here. OK?”
Silverman perked up. “Are we already going to a vote?” she asked.
Evans made a qualification to the five-member committee, on which Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, and At-Large Councilmember Robert White also sit. “Elissa will be saying no,” he said. “So everyone will say yes, except Elissa who will say no, and then we’re out of here. It will be 4-1 Elissa. But there we go.”
“That’s not 12-1,” retorted an amused Silverman, alluding to full Council votes where she has been the lone wolf against certain measures.
Ultimately, both of them were correct. After debating a handful of items, the budget package for the agencies that the committee oversees—including the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and sports authority Events DC—as well as various tax changes passed largely unchanged. Silverman voted against it.
That sets up the package for further discussion involving all 13 councilmembers and additional aspects of D.C.’s proposed $14.5 billion budget for next fiscal year. (Budget negotiations are scheduled to take place on Tuesday, and then formal votes on the consolidated budget will occur in the coming weeks.)
Among the matters that the committee members debated on Thursday were dedicated funding for Metro and taxes on cigarettes.
In a break from Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s budget proposal submitted in March, Evans’ committee tweaked a prospective increase on the taxes that ride-hailing services pay, which currently equate to 1 percent of the gross receipts of all trips that originate in the District.
Bowser had pitched a 4.75 percent tax (so an increase of 3.75 percentage points) to go into effect in October. But after companies like Uber, Lyft, and Via expressed concerns that the higher tax rate would harm their customers, the finance committee established a two-tier system: Pooled rides would continue to be taxed at 1 percent of gross receipts, while private rides (think UberX) would be taxed at 5.35 percent of all receipts.
Silverman opposed bifurcating the proposed tax increase, arguing that having lower taxes for shared rides would still encourage people to take cars instead of public transportation, while Metro seeks to increase ridership. “I have to say, Councilmember Evans, as chair of Metro, I’m surprised to see you support this recommendation,” she said.
Evans responded that the transit system has not lost riders because Uber and Lyft cost less than Metro, but “because of reliability.” He said on-time performance for Metro has increased to 90 percent, as opposed to 70 percent when he began as chair of Metro’s board.
“So I believe that will bring people back to Metro, not whether we charge 30 cents for a car ride or not,” Evans argued. “So I think your entire logic on that is wrong.”
The committee members also split on whether to raise D.C. taxes on cigarettes by $2 per pack (from $2.50 currently to $4.50), a measure proposed by Gray. It would have generated an estimated $5.2 million in revenue next fiscal year, which would have underwritten smoking-cessation efforts. Gray framed the move in terms of geographic equity.
“Smoking disproportionately impacts the East End of the city, and we know that it leads to a veritable plethora of deleterious effects,” said Gray, using a term for neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. He said 27 percent of residents on the East End of the District smoke as compared to 10 percent of residents on the west side.
Evans opposed the tax increase, saying he agreed about the goal of reducing smoking rates, but shared the concerns voiced by “small vendors” about “the ramifications” of higher cigarette taxes, like possible increases in bootlegging and crime.
“Now whether any of that will occur, I have no idea,” Evans admitted. “In the perfect world, I would rather not have any cigarettes. … My only reason for not supporting this is I don’t believe I’m ready or we’re ready to deal with whatever the ramifications are, if any.”
The proposal failed 3-2, with Gray and Silverman voting for the tax increase, and Evans, White, and McDuffie voting against it. Silverman said the issue was personal—her grandmother “smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes and she died of emphysema.”
(In a statement on Friday, White said he voted no because he “had no information to determine the impact an additional tax on the purchase of cigarettes would have on the rate of smoking in the District where we already have the highest tax in the region.” City Paper has reached out to McDuffie’s office and will update this post should the councilmember provide comment.)
But the debate that resulted in Evans and Silverman questioning each others’ good faith dealt with development. The committee had included a measure in its draft budget recommendations that would make up to $50 million over 10 years available to developers who transform offices into apartments in the Downtown and Golden Triangle Business Improvement Districts, provided that those developers create some affordable housing.
Silverman said there was no need for such government subsidies, citing “several successful office-to-residential conversions downtown [that] didn’t need a dime of public dollars.” She also said the $50 million investment could produce more results in the District’s main fund for affordable housing, the Housing Production Trust Fund, rather than through the budget measure, which she said would produce relatively few affordable units.
“I’m even more disappointed to see its huge cost hidden in a budget trick,” Silverman alleged, referring to how the draft committee report allocated the funding several years in the future to disguise its true cost. “We simply push it out of the budget window. That’s just not being honest. … When we put something in legislation and we don’t fund it, it just confuses the public and I don’t think it should be included.”
Evans replied: “Frankly, Elissa, ‘not being honest’? That’s a comment that’s unnecessary. And you may believe that, but I’d say that about you, you’re not honest either.”
“So I think that’s a very uncalled for thing,” Evans continued. “And when councilmembers—we have discussions about this constantly, about saying things about other councilmembers—so don’t say ‘not being honest.’ And I don’t appreciate that at all.”
Following the hearing, Silverman approached Evans on the dais and spoke with him. Both say she apologized for her remarks and they shook hands.
“I told him that it was a poor word choice, and in no way did I mean to say he was not being honest,” Silverman says. “I just didn’t think it was good budgeting.” As for Evans’ clap-back that it was Silverman who is dishonest, she explains: “I didn’t take it personally.”
Evans calls Silverman’s characterization of their side-conversation “dead right.” “In the environment we found ourselves in recently, we should all be more cordial to each other,” he says. “When she said ‘not honest’—she should not refer to her colleagues as ‘not honest.’ She came over and apologized, and I accepted it.”
The Wilson Building, it seems, has come a long way from the Great Evans-Silverman Fist Bump of 2018.