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D.C. lawmakers seek more cash to spend

Candidates work for tax increases

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There's no getting around the fact that the District is a blue city. It has voted for Democratic presidents since becoming part of the Electoral College in the 1964 elections, and it has elected only Democrats as mayor and congressional delegate since the 1973 home rule act granted limited self-governance.

While fiscal conservatism has been espoused on occasion by D.C. lawmakers, profligate spending has been the rule of thumb for occupants of City Hall. 2010 is shaping up to be more of the same as eight of the 13 members of the D.C. Council — all but one Democrats — face election battles.

The council's chairman, Vincent Gray, is running for mayor against incumbent Adrian M. Fenty. At-large member Kwame Brown is running for council chairman, and two other at-large members are seeking re-election. In addition, four of eight ward members are running for re-election.

The mainstays of urban living — such as education, public works and taxes — are key to the agendas of candidates who have loaded the District's $5.3 billion fiscal 2011 budget plan with hundreds of millions of dollars for programs that expand the safety net and raise new revenue to pay for government subsidies.

But even lawmakers who are not in the throes of an election are patting themselves and their Democratic colleagues on the back for restoring $30 million in social service cuts made by Mr. Fenty.

"While we were not able to get all that we wanted for our most vulnerable residents, we were able to get a substantial amount of services restored that will lessen the burden that our residents face, especially during these dire economic times," at-large council member Michael Brown, an independent, said Thursday. "I thank my colleagues for their support and compassion and look to them to continue the fight with me because there still remains a need in our city that will likely not be sufficiently met, even within this much improved budget."

In 2009, the nonpartisan Bay Area Center for Voting Research ranked the District as the fourth-most-liberal city in the United States.

Here's a recent snapshot of some of the city's lead players and their big-government spending priorities.

• Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, is seeking re-election to a third term. During a May 7 public hearing, Mr. Graham managed to get City Administrator Neil Albert to commit to much of his agenda, which includes tax increases, mass transit, public works and jobs projects.

• Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, is running for a second term. She is the chief lawmaker behind the soda tax proposal, which would subject Gatorade, Red Bull and other sugary drinks to the city's 6 percent sales tax. The proposal would found her Healthy Schools Initiative, whose mandates reach deep into school policy, dictating everything from where produce is bought for feeding programs to registering children's heart rates as they exercise.

• Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, introduced a measure that would tax D.C. government workers who do not live in the city. Mr. Thomas, who also is seeking a second term, says his bill is "not a commuter tax" but a measure that would tax income at its source and generate about tens of millions of dollars.

• Tommy Wells, a Ward 6 Democrat running for a second term, oversees most of the city's entitlement programs. He uses such terms as "fair budget" and "share the burden" to seek funding for that safety net. Mr. Wells also oversees the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which is under constant fire because youths under the agency's purview often abscond and become repeat offenders or become victims of violence.

• David Catania is an at-large member who, as chairman of the Committee on Health, oversees 27 percent of the city's spending. The Republican-turned-independent has helped usher through such legislation as the controversial HPV vaccination for little girls and women, and measures for drug-treatment-on-demand, HIV/AIDS programs, medical marijuana, same-sex marriage and needle exchanges, as well as health-care services for the uninsured and under-insured.

To pay for these and other programs, Mr. Brown said he hopes his fellow lawmakers will revisit using tax increases to fund a stronger safety net.

Mr. Brown wanted the council to raise income taxes on residents who make $250,000 or more. Mr. Graham on Wednesday proposed raising the income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 8.9 percent and levying the new rate against people who earn $350,000 or more.

The council voted against the Graham measure.

Mr. Brown remains hopeful.

"I am pleased that the council was able to work together to create a budget that supports those in our city who are struggling the most," Mr. Brown said, "and I hope that as we approach the next budget process my colleagues will keep an open mind to progressive tax increases if they are necessary to maintain these crucial programs."

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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