Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Report to DC Voters: "Politics and Taxes: a Problem of Democracy"

On January 5, 2014, semi-retired journalist Edward Cowan (NYTimes 1962-86), shared "Politics and Taxes: a Problem of Democracy", part of his intermittent "Report to DC Voters."   The report is reprinted here.
Report to DC Voters
From: Edward Cowan
January 5, 2014

Politics and Taxes: a Problem of Democracy

With a mayoral election looming in 2014, electoral politics will permeate nearly everything the District's governors—the mayor and the 13-member council—do in the coming months.

That is clear already in a bill scheduled to come before council on Tuesday. It is a bill sponsored insistently by a new council member, Anita Bonds (At Large), who is up for re-election this year. She seeks a legislative trophy.

The bill would relieve about 4,300 older District home owners from paying real property taxes, starting October 1. These men and women already enjoy a 50 percent tax concession. The Bonds bill would give them a complete tax holiday—100 percent—if they are 75 years old, have lived in the District for 15 years, and have household income of $60,000 or less.

The bill is supported by council's chief tax writer, Jack Evans (Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, who is running for mayor. With Evans presiding and with little debate, the committee approved the bill on December 16.

Evans hopes that the Bonds bill will sail through council on Tuesday without opposition or modification. In my opinion, modifications are in order, for several reasons.

A Sense of Entitlement
It is a bad idea, generally, to remove from the tax rolls people who are not destitute. It encourages disengagement and, sometimes, a sense of entitlement.

Home owners with $60,000 of household income have significant means. Having reached age 75, many probably have paid off their mortgages. They should not be removed entirely from the real property tax rolls. They already get the 50 percent reduction available to all property owners 65 and older with less than $100,000 of income ($125,000 in 2015).

There is no reason to reduce their taxes to zero just because they have reached age 75.

Seniors Continue to Use City Services
They will continue to have their supercans emptied by municipal employees. They will continue to get police and fire protection. They will continue to have access to the city's parks and swimming pools, to take their grandchildren to the city's playgrounds..

According to Bonds, her bill would remove 4,362 taxpayers from the real-property tax rolls, with an average saving to each of $1,158. The revenue loss would be $5,049,305 a year. (These estimates come from the Office of Revenue Analysis. Bonds's press release erroneously attributed them to the Office of Tax and Revenue.)

When I asked Evans why he supported the bill, he said, "It's meant to benefit senior citizens who have lived in the city a long time, who have contributed to the prosperity of the city. In their golden years, let's give them a break. We can afford to do it."

Mary Cheh (Ward 3) told me she supported the bill because "They have paid their dues." However, when I pointed out that senior citizens continue to use and benefit from city services and that it is a bad idea to take people off the tax rolls entirely, Cheh said that she was willing to consider modifications.

By "we can afford it," Evans meant that the city's revenues are rising. He might even have said that $5 million is a fraction of one percent of local revenues.

There is another way to look at it. How much would $5 million a year buy? If highly trained, experienced special-ed teachers are paid $80,000 a year, $5 million would pay for an additional 62 of them. That might further reduce what the District must spend to send special-needs children to private schools because our public schools lack the sufficient teaching talent.

A Problem of Democracy
This is a problem of democracy. Bonds, who faces challengers in an April 1 Democratic party primary less than a year after winning her seat, wants a legislative trophy to demonstrate that she can get things done—not just anything but something that benefits people in her core constituency, Wards 5, 7, 8, which embrace the city's poorest neighborhoods. .

In the April 23, 2013 special election, Bonds achieved her only majorities in those three wards—58.9 percent in Ward 5, 76.43 percent in Ward 7 and 75.75 percent in Ward 8. The three delivered 14,603 votes for Bonds, or 81 percent of her city-wide total of 18,027.

It is germane that Evans is one of four council members vying for the Democratic nomination in the primary, as are the incumbent mayor, Vincent C. Gray, and several less known contenders who do not hold public office. (To see the names of those who aspire to the Democratic, Republican, Statehood-Green and Libertarian party nominations for all offices, go to www.dcboee.org http://www.dcboee.org.)

It is also germane that when Bonds, the chairwoman of the DC Democratic party, won her At Large seat last April, standing next to her in the newspaper photo showing her celebrating her victory was Jack Evans. Making his second bid to be mayor, Evans evidently seeks the support of the woman who controls his party's local organization. (Whether the chairwoman will endorse any candidate is open to doubt.)

This problem of candidates pandering to voters by giving them special tax relief was manifest at the Committee on Finance and Revenue. The original Bonds bill would have required 25 years of residence to qualify. But committee member David Catania, who also aspires to be elected mayor in 2014 (as an Independent), proposed 15 years. His amendment was accepted.

DC Voters who think that the Bonds bill needs modification—a lower income ceiling, less additional tax relief, a longer residence requirement—can make their views known to council chairman Phil Mendelson and to the other members, and especially to Evans, who will manage the bill in committee.

The format for e-mail is PMendelson@dccouncil.us, or MCheh@dccouncil.us mailto:MCheh@dccouncil.us. Evans uses JackEvans@dcouncil.us mailto:JackEvans@dcouncil.us. A complete list of members can be seen at www.dccouncil.us.

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