- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

It's not even a week since tax day, and already the politicians have their hands out, demanding more again. In this case, the politician in question is D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton who will introduce a bill in Congress that would establish a commuter tax on non-residents who work in the city but live in the outlying Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The proposed levy is subtle; rather than extracting the money from taxpayers directly, Mrs. Norton's plan calls for the redirection of 2 percent of each taxpayer's federal income tax payment to the District generating a revenue stream estimated to be worth about $400 million annually, according to the financial control board. This would give the city "its fair share" of taxpayers' money, according to Mrs. Norton to be used to finance all the worthy and efficiently-run city services for which Washington is so famous.

But a tax once established is hard to get rid of indeed, it is virtually impossible. And to imagine that it will not grow from the 2 percent proposed by Mrs. Norton is the height of folly. And more ominously, it could morph into a direct levy on pre-tax income a goal of Washington politicians from former Mayor Marion Barry to Mrs. Norton herself. It's doubtful the federal government will long tolerate the loss of 2 percent of "its" tax revenues; how long before taxes are raised to compensate for the loss of cash effected by Mrs. Norton's bill? This "redirection" of federal taxes could be just an end-run to establish a precedent for a more direct commuter tax. Once it's there and people get used to the idea, modifying it will prove far simpler than getting rid of it. Before you know it, area taxpayers will have another form to fill out every April 15.

Fortunately, the bill faces strong opposition from lawmakers such as Virginia's Rep. Tom Davis. Commenting on the bill put forward by Mrs. Norton, he said "it is unlikely it would happen … I think they're overreaching." Mr. Davis has long opposed any form of commuter tax. Giving the city more money would only throw gasoline on an already mighty blaze and impose none of the much-needed fiscal discipline the city so desperately needs.

District politicians don't seem to grasp that the path to economic prosperity for the city is not to raise taxes (on commuters or residents) but to lower them and make the city a more business-friendly place. Add to the tax (and regulatory) burden, and people will flee to greener, less onerous pastures. Decrease it, and you've created a climate for small business and entrepreneurship which means more revenue, all told, than heavier and higher taxation. Mrs. Norton and her fellow tax-and-spenders could profit from the example of Virginia and Maryland, where lower taxes and a friendlier to business environment have generated tax surpluses for local government.

The last thing Washington needs is a commuter tax. Mrs. Norton's idea should be deep-sixed per Mr. Davis' recommendation.

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