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D.C. Council panel refuses to extend bar hours

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A D.C. Council committee on Wednesday delivered a blow to Mayor Vincent C. Gray's plan to raise $3.2 million in the coming year by allowing bars to stay open for an additional hour.

The Committee on Human Services voted 3-2 to reject the proposal that would have allowed bars to keep their taps flowing until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends, although it could resurface during future budget talks among the full council.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and chairman of the committee, led the charge against the proposal during a markup of various agencies' budgets for fiscal year 2013, citing the noise and crime that could extend further into the wee hours.

He also worried about a lack of public transportation options, because Metro trains would stop running before people were forced out of bars.

"I think we've got to strike the right balance between a vibrant nightlife industry, which is very much a part of the prosperity of the neighborhoods I represent," he said, "and the fact that people want to be able to live there."

He did indicate he is leaving the door open to a yet-to-be-determined compromise with his colleagues and Mr. Gray so the budget is balanced.

Club owners had offered a full-throated defense of the mayor's plan in testimony before the council, arguing patrons are going out later into the night. They said an additional hour would allow crowds to dissipate more evenly instead of hitting the streets all at once, and it would be a revenue windfall for the city and their businesses.

Mr. Graham, who resisted the proposal from the start, found support from committee members Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat; and Michael A. Brown, at-large independent; while colleagues Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, and Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, backed the mayor's initiative.

Mr. Barry approved the plan on the condition that city lawmakers agree to do "everything in our power" to prevent drunken driving.

The committee did approve the mayor's plan to extend service hours at restaurants and bars during the weeks surrounding the presidential inaugurations in 2013 and 2017 and to allow beer, wine and liquor stores to open at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m.

Liquor stores still cannot open on Sundays, but Mr. Graham has scheduled a hearing for June 12 to discuss the policy.

Mr. Graham acknowledged that the committee's disapproval of extended bar hours "puts our budget out of sync, out of kilter."

To fill the budget hole, the committee's report promoted an excise tax on alcohol sales that equates to 6 cents per drink.

Mr. Graham noted the excise tax could raise $20 million, covering the budget gap and potentially restoring cuts to social services, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Mr. Graham said the committee could play around with the actual amount of the excise tax, in case it wants to scale it back and forfeit some revenue.

If the council has an appetite for the new tax, Mr. Barry said, they might as well make it 10 cents per drink so he has additional funding for seniors.

Conversely, Ms. Alexander said she is "not going to raise any tax or fees in order to balance this budget."

Mr. Gray made a point of avoiding taxes and fees in the budget plan he submitted to the council in March. Rather, it relies on more creative revenue generators, such as expanded alcohol sales and a dramatic uptick in traffic cameras.

Through its Twitter feed, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday said it is "strongly against tax increases, including those that Jim Graham just put forth in his committee markup."

Even before the committee vote on Wednesday, Mr. Gray stood by his original proposal to extend bar hours. Other jurisdictions permit their taverns to stay open until 4 a.m., and the District's test-runs with extended restaurant and bar hours around the 2008 presidential inauguration resulted in "no untoward incidents," Mr. Gray said.

"I don't want to move to introduce a new tax when I said I wouldn't do that," he added.

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