THE BARRAS REPORT: The Delusional Life of the DC Council

January 9, 2017



START with these facts: The District government, unable to properly and sufficiently operate its emergency medical services, chose to contract with a private company; recently there has been talk of extending the contract to include fire fighting. Street-cleaning and façade maintenance in major and neighborhood business corridors already are managed by business improvement districts funded principally by companies and residents who live in those areas.  In the not too distant past, some communities have hired private security companies to reduce crime and enhance overall safety on their streets. After decades of being unable to educate children from poor and working-class minority families, the city turned to privately operated, but publicly funded charter schools.


 In other words, there is irrefutable evidence the District government is having a difficult time providing basic, core services to its taxpaying residents and businesses.


Still, 11 members of the DC Council believe the city can establish a totally new bureaucracy that could cost as much $80 million. They also believe that bureaucracy could effectively collect a newly imposed tax of 0.62 percent on all District employers that would finance the Universal Paid Leave Act (UPLA).  And, they think the new bureaucracy could enforce the law, ensuring money is given out to workers as required--absent waste, abuse, and wrongdoing or general mischief. 


Call those legislators delusional.


The council is expected to take a final vote on UPLA later this month. If it reaches Mayor Muriel Bowser’s desk, she should veto the measure.


Not only would implementing the law, as currently proposed, place undue burden on a government already struggling to deliver basic, core services, the UPLA would disproportionately benefit residents who live in Maryland and Virginia—not those who live in the District.  Equally important, it would cast the council as labor union, imposing non-negotiated, contractual benefits for workers on private employers while manipulating the market in a way that is dangerous for the business community and the overall economy.


Let’s step back for a minute. More than a year ago, in 2015,  At-large council members Elissa Silverman (D) and David Grosso (I) introduced a paid leave bill that would have provided  16 weeks of time away from work for employees to care for sick relatives or  a new born or adopted child. Since joining the council the duo, either separately or as a team, have pushed a national progressive agenda that has included everything from increasing the minimum wage, legalization of marijuana, forcing employers to schedule temporary workers, to public financing of political campaigns. They have pushed those issues with little regard for their long-term effect on the city--its finances and its culture.


In celebrating preliminary passage of the paid leave bill, Grosso called it “good for society. As a country we lag behind the rest of the world on family leave but as a city we will be a leader. Our success will provide further evidence of its benefits to jurisdictions across the country.” (See what TBR means about national agenda.)


The initial bill as approved by the council earlier this month would provide 8 weeks of family leave, 6 weeks of child care and 2 weeks of leave for personal medical reasons. “This is a historic day for the health and welfare of everyone in our city,” said Silverman. “Through this legislation the District will take a significant step toward ensuring that our workers have equal access to paid family leave and medical leave—a benefit that until now was mainly enjoyed by the city’s highest earners.” 


According to the bill, workers at private companies making up to $46,800 annually can get 90 percent of

their wages while they are on leave. Those making between $46,800 and $61,700 can get 84 percent of their wages and anyone making over $61,700 will receive the maximum of $1,000 per week.  The full cost of the bill is expected to be $246 million annually.


Ward 2’s Jack Evans (D), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, aggressively argued against the bill’s passage, noting that more 65 percent of the beneficiaries to the law would not be District residents. Out of the money collected, “We get $80 million for [District-based] workers and have to pay $166 million to Maryland and Virginia.


“That upsets my stomach,” he told TBR.


It should make other lawmakers sick, too. After all, who are they representing: the District or the suburbs? Haven’t they decried the fact that suburbanites come into the city, sucking it of its resources without contributing any cash in the form of a commuter tax?


While Evans had proposed several amendments, he told TBR that even if his colleagues add those to the final bill, he is absolutely “not supporting” the legislation. He noted that once upon a time, he and Chairman Phil Mendelson had each argued that taxes shouldn’t be raised unless there is an emergency. “This is not an emergency,” added Evans. (Mendelson is a prime proponent of the current UPLA—tax increase and all.)


As some kind of peace offering, perhaps, to the business community, the council chairman has suggested a moratorium of new legislation that would hit local companies. That seems like too little, too late. Besides, with the council turning a deeper blue after January 1, you can bet his colleagues won’t buy into that proposal.


In the past two years, the legislature as increasingly overstepped its boundaries. Instead of simply imposing or ensuring enforcement of appropriate regulations, some council members have morphed into labor organizers. Typically it’s the job of union leaders and their staff to push for benefits like unpaid leave, specific overtime, or improvements in workers general schedules. These days, however, the council has taken up that agenda, asserting its will, without regard for the hardship being placed on businesses and the potential long-term damage their havoc could wreak.


Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander (D) also voted against the initial rendition of the UPLA, underscoring Evans’ points in her opposition. She is likely to stand her ground will the bill comes back before the council on Dec. 20th.


Three other members—Ward 8’s LaRuby May (D), Ward 4’s Brandon Todd (D) and At-Large Anita Bonds (D)—seemed to have doubts. Bowser may be able to help them take a more courageous and fiscally responsible position that could deny proponents the nine votes necessary to override her veto. If that happens, the bill would have to be reintroduced in 2017


Maybe the council will simply use the delay to double-down on their agenda. Hopefully, they will take the time to more closely assess the potential adverse impact of their actions. Businesses may not move out of the city, but there is no guarantee they will maintain their current payroll, especially since technological improvements are making it easy to replace actual people with equipment, enhancing proficiency and reducing cost.


Further, the new mercurial president’s cabinet appointments portend cuts in a federal bureaucracy, dumping thousands of people into the local market without jobs. That could mean a loss of income taxes for the District. In other words, the Washington Metropolitan region, including the District, may be in for a rough ride over the next four years. 


Mendelson and his minions may ignore those warnings and others provided by city’s Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt. However, the last time the District faced near bankruptcy it was the result of an irresponsible executive. The next time will be the result of a delusional legislature, intent hoisting itself on the national stage while jeopardizing the fiscal health of the local community it is charged with representing and protecting.







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