As budget battle looms, Kwame Brown takes stand on taxes

March 18, 2011 - 07:46 AM
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DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown says he will oppose any effort to close the city's budget gap by boosting the property tax or the tax on income. In an interview, Brown (D) told NewsChannel 8, "People are tired of their taxes going up, especially in these environments."

Brown leaves open the possibility of finding new revenue in other ways -- such as the tax paid by motorists who park in downtown garages -- but he said he is firm in his opposition to any increase in the levies on income or property. "We need to cut programs that don't work and reallocate those dollars to programs that do work," he said.

One of Brown's colleagues said the Chairman's stand reflects a recognition that recent controversies about city spending have made it more difficult to ask residents to pay higher taxes. Jack Evans, who chairs the committee on Finance & Revenue and who has long opposed any tax hike, told us, "There's an understanding that this whole atmosphere -- with the salaries (paid to top mayoral aides), the SUVs -- has really angered the public."

But others worry that closing the gap entirely through cuts will impact program that help the city's neediest residents. Told of Brown's commitment, Marina Streznewski, head of the DC Jobs Council, said, "I am concerned because I don't think we can make sufficient cuts without cutting out something vital. I understand the public perception regarding tax increases, given what's going on, but I would suggest that no one make categorical decisions at this point in the discussion. I hope there is room for negotiation."

Councilman Jim Graham said a budget-balancing plan that relies mostly or entirely on cuts "would be devastating." Noting lawmakers had to make significant reductions last year, Graham said, "It's pathetic what we've done (to programs that help poor families) and to do more would be intolerable."
Graham and some of his colleagues have long wanted to increase the income tax on the wealthy. Another member of that loose coalition, Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) downplayed the impact of the recent controversies. "It gives people who are opposed to tax increases another excuse," he said. "But this is still a compassionate city."

Kwame Brown's opposition to a hike in the property or income tax doesn't prevent other lawmakers from trying to override him, but it does raise the bar. "The chairman has the ability to set the agenda and to bring the others along," Evans said. "(His declaration) is a big deal. It would make it harder for the Michael Browns and the Jim Grahams to get 7 votes."

Tommy Thomas (D-Ward 5) said, "I support the millionaire's tax, and while I respect the chairman's position, I'm going to put everything I believe in on the table."

A lot will depend on the budget Mayor Gray sends the Council in the coming weeks -- and whether news stories about "fully loaded" Lincoln Navigators and administration hiring continue or recede. "The perception (now) is we're still living lavishly and not cutting," Councilwoman Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) said. "We have to do more in terms of our image and to let people know that we're taking responsible steps to cut spending."

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