A group of D.C. residents and city officials yesterday kept their promise to sue the federal government for forbidding a commuter tax against Virginia and Maryland residents who work in the city.
“We’ve brought the lawsuit to say that it’s not just unfair, it’s also unconstitutional,” said Walter Smith, a lawyer at the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
The District’s inability to charge a commuter tax discriminates against residents, who lack voting representation in Congress, because all states can impose such a tax, the lawyers said. The complaint, filed yesterday morning in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, says 41 states have a commuter tax.
The D.C. Home Rule Act passed by Congress in 1973 prohibits a commuter tax in the District.
“We cannot survive without that ability — the same ability counties and cities all over the nation have,” said Malcolm Wiseman Jr., one of the 18 District residents listed as plaintiffs, along with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and all 13 D.C. Council members. The plaintiffs say nonresidents who work in the District use roads and other services, saddling D.C. residents with the tax burden.
The Brookings Institution has estimated that a 2 percent tax on the roughly 500,000 commuters would yield $540 million annually for the District’s coffers.
U.S. Reps. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat, and Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, have come out against a commuter tax. Officials in Fairfax and Prince William counties also oppose it, saying to allow it would rob their state treasuries, although they don’t explain how.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has passed a unanimous resolution directing County Attorney David Bobzien to take “any action necessary” to oppose the tax.
“This is a long-standing position for the board, so we reaffirmed it,” said Katherine K. Hanley, the board’s chairman. “Anything that affects the revenue stream to Richmond affects the funding for Fairfax, especially to education.”
Prince William County officials plan to issue a similar measure against a commuter tax.
More than 70 percent of personal income earned in the District is earned by nonresidents, and the D.C. government cannot manage appropriately without imposing on its residents an income tax significantly higher than those in states, the lawsuit states.
Iris Toyer, a plaintiff who lives in Ward 7, said she believes D.C. residents are being deprived of services available to those in Virginia and Maryland because the money the District would collect is going back to the states with the commuters.
“When I see tax dollars rolling across the lines, it says to me, if we had that tax money, our children would have the ability to sit in new schools like their counterparts in other states,” Ms. Toyer said.
Federal government officials have 60 days to respond to the lawsuit. Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle was assigned to the case.