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Enabling the Unaccountable in DC

When Black comedian Flip Wilson performed some outlandish, wholly funny routine on his television show in the 1970s, he ordinarily punctuated the laugh line with “The devil made me do it.” He may be dead, but DC Council members have been replicating his script — except wealthy or white District residents are collectively cast as the evil one.

Legislators have accused them of not paying their fair share, thus leaving the government without sufficient funds to aid the poor and vulnerable. In reality, upper-income residents have helped finance a large portion of DC’s $16.9 billion budget. In 2020, they helped provide $4.5 billion for public education and human support services; that comprised more than half of the city’s $8.6 billion local budget, according to official government documents.

Blaming the wealthy or raising the racial inequity flag has become an acceptable dog whistle. Of course, council members won’t agree they are engaging in such behavior. However, when people hear the rhetoric, they understand the dominant message, if not the subtle but false implication that there are no rich African Americans in DC.

The blame-and-divide game recently surfaced, once again, with the introduction of two legislative proposals focused on reforming the District’s Clean Hands Act. That law, first established in the 1990s, was designed to ensure DC didn’t get stiffed. The city’s abominable financial management at that time made it an easy mark. Thousands of people failed to pay what they owed the District — even contractors who were feeding at the public trough.

Under the current law, anyone who owes $100 or more can be denied the opportunity to obtain or renew permits or licenses — unless a payment plan has been reached. According to the DC Office of the Chief Financial Officer, there were 2,024 such plans in fiscal year 2020. The most recent estimates say the city is due $97 million for traffic fines and fees owed by DC residents.

That’s money the District can use.

Undoubtedly, any decades-old public policy should be reviewed for possible reform. The latest proposals presented by Council Chairman Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie and others, including at-large members Elissa Silverman and Robert White, are troubling, however. The language and assumptions that wrap these efforts are even more unsettling.

Racial and economic discrimination is a reality in America. Increasingly, though, terms like “racial inequity” and “wealth gap” are being thrown around recklessly. They are fast becoming the hand tool of ambitious politicians.

McDuffie used equity in the title of his bill: the Clean Hands Certification Equity Amendment Act of 2021. He raised concerns about the broad scope of the existing law and its many restrictive triggers. In a letter to the secretary of the council, McDuffie said his bill would “make it less burdensome for individuals to obtain licenses” while helping “aspiring small business owners and low-income residents, as well as returning citizens, get the licensure they need to open a small business and improve their ability to pay off and avoid debts.” Under his proposal, the “minimum threshold for allowable debt” would increase to $5,000.

Last week, Silverman and White introduced the DC Driving to Opportunity Amendment Act of 2021. That bill was co-introduced by Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Brooke Pinto (Ward 2), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4), Anita Bonds (at-large), and Christina Henderson (at-large). Charles Allen (Ward 6) is listed as a co-sponsor. Five of those legislators — Silverman, Nadeau, Cheh, Bonds and Allen — are running for reelection in 2022, as is McDuffie.

If approved, the Driving to Opportunity bill would completely repeal the portion of the Clean Hands law that gives the executive authority to deny a driver’s license or renewal of such a license to anyone with outstanding traffic fines and fees. Two years ago, the council snatched from the government an enforcement tool that suspended driving privileges for debtors.

Notably, driver’s licenses were not part of the original 1990s law. When traffic adjudication was added in 2001, there were at least half a million unpaid tickets with a value of $53 million, according to a report — “Driving DC to Opportunity: Wealth Should Not Determine Who Gets to Keep Their Driver’s License” — published recently by the legal advocacy organization Tzedek DC. Most violators then, as now, were motorists from Maryland and Virginia. Those regional governments apparently had been lax in helping DC collect outstanding fines from their residents who had violated DC traffic rules and regulations.

Absent such adherence, this category in the Clean Hands law was intended, in part, to reach scofflaws who lived outside the city but would be seeking DC licenses or permits of some sort.

The spin around the Opportunity act — and likewise the key contention of the Tzedek DC report — is that DC has operated a “wealth-based license system” that also discriminates against people of color.

“Denying a driver’s license simply because someone can’t afford to pay a fine puts some of our residents into perilous circumstances, such as losing a job or driving illegally and risking arrest just to take care of a parent or child,” Silverman said in a prepared statement last week.

“Wealth shouldn’t determine who gets to have a driver’s license in our city.” she added.

Interestingly, the Silverman-White legislation bears a title similar to the Tzedek report. That’s indicative of the incestuous relationship between DC officials and nonprofits or lobbyists — or nonprofits acting as lobbyists.

Regardless of who used the dog whistle first, it’s a manipulative approach. Additionally, aspects of the report appear deliberately misleading.

Tzedek DC and council members claim a racial bias in the law or in its application. There is no direct evidence to support that assertion — just read the report: “The DC government refuses to collect data on the number and demographics of DC residents who are unable to obtain or renew a driver’s license due to the Clean Hands Law, despite calls for it to do so.”

A spokesperson for the city’s CFO confirmed that that office likewise “doesn’t keep” such demographic information.

When I asked Silverman about the misrepresentation, she doubled down on her positions via an email from her chief of staff: “In the District, income inequality is tied to race: The median white household in DC has 81 times more wealth than the median Black household. Given this, residents who struggle to pay a fine or fee and risk not being able to get or renew a driver’s license are more likely Black than white.”

That is the controlling, foundational mantra of the political far-left, even in the absence of evidence.

White did not respond to my multiple requests for comment.

According to the Tzedek DC document, between Jan. 1, 2016, and Feb. 28, 2020, there were 2 million unpaid tickets at a value of $440 million. It appears $284 million of that amount came by way of photo enforcement.

Do the traffic cameras automatically turn off for white drivers?

Tzedek DC also cited statistics about actual traffic stops to bolster its claim of racial discrimination. There is little disagreement that traffic stops have been deployed disproportionately in Black communities as policing and public safety tactics. But is it accurate to use that information to make sweeping statements about the city’s licensing and permitting system?

Finally, data also aren’t available on the economic status of people who have paid or have not paid fines and fees. The report uses anecdotes featuring a preponderance of voices of low-income and African American residents to advance its argument. For example, Anne, a grandmother who transported people with disabilities, is described as having “over $1,000 in outstanding parking tickets for violations such as parking in a restricted zone too early in the day and for additional penalties and doubling of fines for missed payments.”

Should there be any accountability?

The ways to avoid receiving a traffic ticket seem obvious to me: Don’t run red lights; stop at stop signs; park only in legal spaces; and feed the meters.

Tzedek DC offered two solutions to what it perceives as the problem. Short of a full repeal, it suggested ending the practice of “withholding of driver’s licenses from DC drivers who lack the ability to pay, as confirmed by their receipt of public benefits.”

The latter sounds reasonable to me, notwithstanding my concerns about the rhetoric used to advance the issue.

Most disconcerting about all of this is that council members consistently push the argument, perhaps unwittingly, that people of color — conflated as meaning the poor among us — shouldn’t be held to the same civil and civic responsibility and accountability as others. That has translated into: Poor people can’t pay the Metro fare, so it’s understandable that they jump the turnstile. Don’t want to pay traffic fines, although you need your driver’s license to get to work? Forget about the rules of the road; you don’t have to pay for your violations.

Want to open a business and perhaps get a government contract, but you can’t afford to pay the government money you owe? Don’t worry about any of that. We got your back.

Establishing rules of engagement is critical. Ensuring they are followed is equally important for creating a social standard and contract. They help set the pattern of behavior for our children and their children. They help create the kind of environment in which we want them to live, grow and thrive. Through some of their legislation, council members consistently suggest that people of color can’t — and perhaps even shouldn’t — be expected to adapt to a basic standard of operation.

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