Graham not sold on compromise over bar hours

Council member remains committed to excise tax on alcohol

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D.C. Council member Jim Graham is not abandoning his proposal to increase the excise tax on alcohol sales in place of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s money-raising plan to expand bar hours, despite the appeal of a compromise that could render the tax moot and keep the booze flowing until 4 a.m. on holidays instead of year-round.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown circulated a plan during the council’s budget work session on Wednesday that would raise nearly $2 million in expanded bar and restaurant hours and reallocate $1.2 million in specific-purpose revenue to cover the $3.2 million needed to forgo the mayor’s year-round plan.

But Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said an excise tax on wholesale alcohol purchases that could equate to 6 cents per drink would raise enough money to also restore funding to homeless services and other social programs. The council is steeped in debate over its fiscal 2013 budget, with spending for the District’s neediest residents among the hottest topics. A large contingent of advocates for affordable housing descended on the John A. Wilson Building to lobby council members for funding.

“We just had a rally here at the Wilson Building of homeless people,” Mr. Graham, chairman of the Committee on Human Services, which oversees alcohol regulation, said on Thursday. “The excise tax is still relevant. Whether I have a majority on the council, I don’t know.”

Mr. Brown’s proposal would allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m. and restaurants to serve around the clock during the week of the presidential inauguration in January, on seven federal and D.C. holidays and on four specific holiday weekends [-] New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.

All told, the expanded-hours portion of the council plan is projected to raise $1.96 million in fiscal 2013, according to numbers from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

The mayor’s plan is projected to raise $3.2 million by extending bar hours to 4 a.m. on all weekends and 3 a.m. on weekdays, but it only incorporated 24-hour food service during inauguration week.

“The mayor’s proposal was just extending the hours and was directed more at alcohol-serving establishments,” a spokesman for Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi said. “This proposal was estimated assuming a higher participation rate of restaurants.”

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs said zoning regulations generally do not prohibit a restaurant from staying open for 24 hours, unless it is part of a planned unit development with special restrictions. The CFO’s office noted the “food-service assumptions are based on experience with the 2009 inaugural and the World Cup special exceptions.

Mr. Graham’s committee voted 3-2 to reject the mayor’s expanded bar hours, citing the noise and potential crime that could extend deep into the night in neighborhoods surrounding the city’s night life hot spots. But nightclub owners and, more pointedly, alcohol wholesalers have decried Mr. Graham’s excise-tax plan to close the budget gap as an undue burden on their businesses and the local economy.

Mr. Brown said he sought to balance these concerns without subjecting residents to extended bar hours on every day of the year.

“I haven’t had any residents come up to me and say this is what they want in their neighborhood,” Mr. Brown said of the mayor’s plan.

The chairman’s plan is “obviously better” and may garner wide support among council members, Mr. Graham said, “but you’ve got to hear from the neighborhoods.”

Council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent and a member of Mr. Graham’s committee, offered support for the compromise, although he would also like to see liquor sales on Sundays.

“I’m opposed to the excise tax, so that seems to make a lot of sense,” he said of the chairman’s proposal.Mr. Brown also vowed to resurrect a compromise deal that would use fiscal 2012 funds to pay city workers for four furlough days they took in 2011 while dedicating about $10 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, which sets aside money to create affordable-housing units in the city. He wants to pay workers for two days upfront and compensate them for the other two days once revised revenue estimates arrive in June.

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