IT’S disappointing that some DC advocates will use almost any means, including deliberate manipulation of the public and withholding of critical information, in order to achieve their agenda. That was my reaction after reading a poll commissioned by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) and DC Action that seeks to ramp up support for a tax increase on the city’s upper-income residents in advance of a vote by the DC Council on the city’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 Budget and Financial Plan.
The DCFPI and DC Action asserted in a joint press statement that “80 percent of DC voters support raising taxes on incomes above $250,000 to support other residents facing hard times and to sustain DC’s recovery.”
“The [DC] Council should follow their lead and raise the resources we need to build back in a way that ensures greater security for all of our communities,” DCFPI executive director Erica Williams said in the prepared statement released earlier this month.
The poll was conducted from June 16-18 by Public Policy Polling. According to Williams, whom I interviewed earlier this week, the company used a “random sample of registered voters” reached by “landlines and cellphones.” She said the sample was “close to 2,400 voters,” which she sees as ample given the size of the District.
For context: as of May 31, there were 522,538 registered voters in DC, according to the DC Board of Elections website.
My interest in the administration and methodology of the poll was initially piqued by questions that asked respondents to press a specific number: If you are 18-29 years old, press 1, for example. That suggested there might not have been any interaction between pollsters and respondents.
A day after my interview with her, Williams sent a follow-up email, indicating the polling company used “Interactive Voice Response and text-to-web to reach a broad cross-section of residents quickly.
“There were no live calls,” wrote Williams.
In fact, 36% of respondents were reached by landline; the other 64% were reached on their cellphones via text.
How do we know for certain that respondents reached via texts were who they said they were? How do we know they were actual registered DC voters? The phone could have been lost or stolen; some people loan their phones to children or grandchildren to play games or use an app.
According to published results, only 55% of respondents in Ward 7 and 56% in Ward 8 “strongly support” the wealth tax to facilitate economic recovery, which was Question 3. Meanwhile, 60% of respondents in wards 1 and 6 strongly supported the tax.
In Ward 2, 62% of respondents said they strongly support the hike; in Ward 3, it was 63%. Ward 4 had the highest support: 65% of those surveyed indicated strong support for raising taxes on high-income residents.
Am I the only person puzzled by those results?
Hiking the income tax rate for the so-called wealthy in DC has become an obsession for DCFPI. It’s a tax and spend organization that has never been satisfied with the amount of money DC’s elected officials allocate for human services programs like affordable housing, homelessness prevention and public education; each year those areas make up the lion’s share of local expenditures, however.
Still, the DCFPI demands more. This year isn’t any different, although Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed an FY 2022 budget totaling $17.5 billion — a 4.9% increase in local spending.
I am unsurprised by the relentlessness of the DCFPI’s campaign. Nor am I shocked that other advocacy organizations — some of whom might benefit directly from an infusion of additional cash — have joined forces. It’s something we’ve seen before, and that I’ve previously called out.
Their approach disturbs me, however. In my view, it lacks integrity while bordering on being unethical and undemocratic; these organizations who claim they want to amplify the voices of residents in government actions appear to be advocating the council approve a tax increase without formal introduction of legislation and without any public hearing.
It’s all so Trumpian.
If council members care about the accuracy and quality of the debate over issues in the public square — not to mention the need to eliminate deplorable standards of behavior commonplace during the era of former President Donald J. Trump — they should resist the misleading poll and strong-arm tactics of DCFPI and its allies.
At least in this regard, “nothing says people on the far left are any different than people on the far right,” said one local political observer, underscoring my comparison.
Of course, Williams took issue with my characterization of the poll as faulty and unethical. “You are being dismissive,” she said, pointing to another sign of support — advocates and some residents testifying last Friday at the all-day public hearing called by the Committee of the Whole. Several expressed support for the wealth tax.
“There is nothing inaccurate in this poll,” added Williams.
Sometimes the sin really is one of omission. The poll did not even mention the total amount of the city’s budget. Nor did it mention the hefty spending increase in the coming year. You can bet that those omissions weren’t accidental. Pollsters surely understood that anyone hearing that information would be likely to question why more money is needed.
“I don’t think [mentioning] the size of the budget matters,” said Williams.
The poll also doesn’t specify that the District has received $3.3 billion from the federal government, stretched out over three of the four years in its proposed financial plan. Instead, the DCFPI poll noted in Question 3 that “These are temporary funds that run out in a few years.”
“That’s all accurate,” continued Williams.
The absence of the actual budget numbers and the wording about the availability of federal funds, however, give the impression the city might be on the precipice of fiscal collapse. It is not, of course.
Equally important, how is it possible to make an argument for a tax increase without sharing budget numbers? The only way to do that is to demonize — a ploy made famous and infamous by the former president.
Consider, for example, Question 5: “Child care workers are overwhelmingly credentialed Black and brown women, most of whom earn little more than $15 per hour, or roughly the minimum wage. Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose raising taxes on individuals’ income above $250,000 so we can raise wages for workers who care for and educate infants and toddlers?”
While DC has one of the country’s highest minimum wages — it increased this week to $15.20 per hour — the question entangles race and gender, hinting of possible white privilege or supremacy. There is little room to say no. In fact, there is little room to say no on any of the questions.
For Question 10: DCFPI’s poll leads in with, “Big corporations like Walmart and Amazon took home billions in profits last year, despite the economic downturn.” Then respondents are asked if they “strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose raising District taxes on profitable corporations who pay a lower income tax than middle-income residents?”
See what I mean about lacking integrity?
The tax being pushed by DCFPI and its allies would not be levied against corporations. It is on individuals. Second, given the high cost of living here in the District, the tax increase on residents making $250,000 or more, which is being embraced by advocates, would hit some middle-income residents as well as upper-income residents.
During an interview with me earlier this week, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson reiterated his position on the tax hike, “I have said to them, if you want to raise the rate on the highest income residents, then you should use the money to reduce taxes on middle- and lower-income residents.”
Mendelson also asserted that the income tax in DC is fair. “It is one of the fairest in the country.”
He declined to get into the minutiae of the DCPFI polls, noting only that, “They did essentially the same poll last year. They were criticized for leading questions designed to get one response.
“Then, they did the same thing this year,” added Mendelson.
Last year, 83% of the 500 respondents supported higher tax rates for the wealthy. Does the drop in support mean anything?
Williams couldn’t provide a single, definitive answer to that question. “It’s a different year. It’s a smaller sample size.
“I can’t explain to you all the differences,” she continued. “I don’t know if you want to play gotcha.”
That seemed an interesting allegation coming from the sponsor of a dubious poll designed to instigate the council assault some DC residents with an unexpected tax hike — one that would be buried in the densely written Budget Support Act, without a public hearing.
See what I mean about undemocratic?