Mayor Catches Break on Capitol Hill
No one seemed to know what to expect this morning when Mayor Vince Gray and Council Chairman Kwame "Fully Loaded" Brown went to Capitol Hill to testify about the District's budget before a House oversight subcommittee.
Would the Republican-controlled committee grill the District's top elected officials on awkward topics like the hiring of Sulaimon Brown or the leasing of luxury Navigators? Would there be threats of another Control Board? Would there be foot stomping, finger pointing, crying?
Alas, the Sturm und Drang the District felt yesterday (witness the arrest of eight protesters) was for naught. Things turned out rather well for Gray and the District. Instead of a Republican browbeating over awkward local affairs, the District got a promise from a prominent GOP lawmaker for new legislation that would hold the city harmless (or as harmless as possible) in the event of a federal government shutdown.
You no doubt recall that the District government spent "scores" (as Gray put it this morning) of hours in April prepping for a federal government shutdown that would have prevented the District from spending its own money on basic services. The shutdown was averted at the last minute, but it was another stark reminder of the District's unenviable position of needing Congress to sign off on all things budget related.
Rep. Darrell Issa, head of the House Oversight Committee, said he would like to pass legislation allowing Congress to approve a "contingency" budget every year that would let the District spend local money in the event of a federal shutdown. (Absent a stalemate, Congress would then pass a second budget that would include federal funds for the District.)
"Trying to further autonomy of an entity the Constitution doesn't allow us to just make purely autonomous is a goal of this committee. We've been working really hard on it and I think this is a logical next step that we can do on a bi-partisan basis," Issa told reporters. "I don't ever want the question of whether kids can go to school in the District to be dependent" on federal budget wrangling.
After Gray and Brown testified, they went for a photo-op and handshake with Issa and the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy. As they were exchanging pleasantries, Issa told Gray "We don't ever want you to worry about a slowdown ... This was about our stewardship, not our micro-managing of the city."
Full budget autonomy Issa's proposal ain't, and there will doubtlessly be homerule advocates who find fault with the plan. But Gray said he was encouraged by Issa's proposal and is receptive to the idea.
So score one for Issa, right? Not so fast.
Issa complained at the hearing for having to pay "double" in taxes what District residents do. Speaking with reporters, Issa explained that he felt the homestead deduction on property taxes residents enjoy is a mite unfair to members of Congress (and some diplomats) who own property in D.C. but can't make it their primary residence. (Nevermind that these types of tax breaks on primary residences are common throughout the country.)
"You take people who cannot ... claim this under the homestead, and you charge them double," says Issa. (The District's website says the homestead credit allows you deduct $67,500 from your assessed value, so you do the math on this whole "double" claim). "So it is taxation of those without representation. I just thought I would mention that the shoe fits on both feet."
Photo by Alan Suderman