D.C. Council takes preliminary vote on budget that includes property and soda tax increases

Heather Curtis

WASHINGTON (WMAL) – Increased property taxes on homes worth more than $1 million dollars and a tax hike on sodas are among the items included in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget the D.C. Council will take a preliminary vote on Tuesday.

Drinking a soda will cost more in D.C. if the council’s proposed budget passes as is. It includes raising the soda tax from 7 to 8% as a way to pay for meal programs for the poor including free dinner for low-income children in the summer.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson said he’s not happy with the proposed tax hike, but discussions among council members last week indicate the majority of them support it.

Another tax increase Mendelson opposes is one on properties worth more than $1 million dollars, which will be included in an amendment proposed Tuesday.

“It’s very easy to tax one’s way to more programs, but there are consequences, and I believe strongly those consequences are adverse,” Mendelson told reporters Monday.

Mendelson believes they need to save tax increases for recessions.

Another item in the budget is a provision that would withhold city building permits – including ones for schools – unless the city starts enforcing the Airbnb regulations approved unanimously by the council in November. They would prohibit short-term rentals of second homes and limit rentals of primary residences – including rooms within them – to 90 days per year.

Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the bill into law even though she opposes it. Now, Mendelson said she is purposely dragging her feet on the implementation, which is supposed to happen in June.

Before the law can go into effect, the planning board needs to release a report that the zoning commission will use to revise the city’s zoning rules.

“In recent conversations it’s clear to me that it’s deliberate that that report has not been produced, and that’s all that has to happen. It’s just producing that report so that the zoning commission can schedule the case,” Mendelson said.

The council is also at odds with the mayor over other issues, including making the D.C. Circulator bus free and continuing the Great Streets initiative.

Bowser initially made the Circulator free during the government shutdown. After the shutdown she decided to permanently get rid of the $1 fare. The mayor hailed the move as a way to help the city’s low-wage workers, but council members say making the Circulator bus free doesn’t benefit them at all.

Council members say the city’s low-income residents aren’t the ones taking the bus. According to them, tourists and people who work downtown are the ones riding the Circulator. Some council members feel spending the money on other initiatives would be more beneficial to Washingtonians struggling to get by.

The budget also cuts $2 million in grant money for the Great Streets program, which Bowser said has awarded more than $16 million in grant money to small businesses throughout the city since 2015.

“These grants have helped our small and local businesses buy new signage, modernize their store, diversify their offerings and grow new businesses,” Bowser said at a press conference Monday.

Mendelson said the program is a good one, but there are other programs that can help small business owners do those things.

Final votes on these and other items in the budget will happen later this month.

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