Tag: District of Columbia

Eminent Domain for a Soccer Stadium?

Taxpayers in the District of Columbia have agreed – well, their agreement has been attested to by the mayor – to pony up $150 million to build a new stadium for D.C. United, the Major League Soccer team owned by Indonesian media magnate Erick Thohir. And just in case money isn’t enough to get the job done, the city administrator has made clear that the mayor has other tools in his kit:

A top District official reiterated Wednesday that the city is prepared to seize land in court to build a new soccer stadium after questions emerged over the ownership of a key plot needed for the project backed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. United’s owners.

City Administrator Allen Y. Lew said the District was ready to exercise eminent domain should it be unable to come to terms with the current owners of the proposed site. “That’s always out there, that the mayor has the power to do that,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’d like to work this out in an amicable way.”

Eminent domain. That is, taking land by force. For a soccer stadium. 

I am reminded of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s scathing dissent in the case of Kelo v. New London:

Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded–i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public–in the process….

The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory….

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

The Founders may well not have intended this perverse result. But alas, O’Connor was writing in dissent. Five justices of the Supreme Court upheld the taking of Susette Kelo’s home to give it to Pfizer. And now, the owners of the Super Salvage scrap yard know that “nothing is to prevent the State” from taking their property to benefit “citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process.”

It’s one thing to argue that the Founders intended to give the government the power to take private property “for public use,” such as a military installation, a road, or a school. But for a corporate office park? Or a soccer stadium? The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

Gun Owners in the District of Columbia

The Washington Post has an interesting article about what has happened in the city since the Supreme Court declared the city’s gun ban unconstitutional in the landmark Heller decision in 2008.  Basically, hundreds of residents have registered thousands of firearms. More than 2 years have passed and the predicted mayhem is not here. DC Mayor Fenty called the court ruling an “outrage” and said the ban was necessary to stop residents from intentionally or accidentally killing one another.  Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign says the debate over the ban is not over yet.  Several more years of data gathering will be necessary.  And so the debate rolls on!

For more on this subject, check out the Cato book on the Heller case,  Gun Control on Trial  by Brian Doherty.  Still more here, here, and here.

DWI Convictions Due to Faulty Breathalyzer Calibration

From the Washington Post:

Nearly 400 people were convicted of driving while intoxicated in the District since fall 2008 based on inaccurate results from breath test machines, and half of them went to jail, city officials said Wednesday.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the machines were improperly adjusted by city police. The jailed defendants generally served at least five days, he said…

The District’s badly calibrated equipment would show a driver’s blood-alcohol content to be about 20 percent higher than it actually was, Nickles said. All 10 of the breath test machines used by District police were wrong, he said. The problem occurred when the officer in charge of maintaining the machines improperly set the baseline alcohol concentration levels, Nickles said.

This is the same jurisdiction where a woman who had a single glass of wine with dinner and a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .03 was arrested for being under the influence in 2005. The national standard for a DWI arrest is .08, and anyone testing below .05 is presumed not to be intoxicated. The District of Columbia’s standard for arrest was anything above .01 if the officer deemed the driver intoxicated. Public outcry over the strict policy, particularly in a town built on tourism, prompted the D.C. Council to temporarily amend the law. The D.C. Police website still says that police can charge DUI (Driving Under the Influence, not Driving While Intoxicated) for a BAC of .07 or lower.

There is good reason to question the foundation of DWI laws and enforcement. Radley Balko makes the case that the federal push for reducing the national DWI BAC standard from .10 to .08 achieved little for public safety in Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candy Lightner regrets the no-tolerance direction her organization has taken: “[MADD has] become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts

Opposition is building to the proposed D.C. Voting Rights Act because it also restricts D.C.’s draconian gun-control laws. Mary G. Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, and Billie Day, president of the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia, said today that “asking citizens to sacrifice their safety in order to have representation in Congress is unacceptable.”

And on NPR’s Morning Edition today, we heard the thoughts of D.C. councilwoman Mary Cheh, my con law professor: “I would rather wait to eternity before I bow down to the gun lobby and say ‘The only way I’m gonna get this is if we give up the right to protect ourselves.’”

The District’s gun laws protect us? By keeping guns out of the hands of criminals?

They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools

Although public schools are usually the biggest item in state and local budgets, spending figures provided by public school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education, and understate what is actually spent.

In a new study, Cato’s Adam B. Schaeffer reviews district budgets and state records for the nation’s five largest metro areas and the District of Columbia. Schaeffer finds that, on average, per-pupil spending in these areas is 44 percent higher than officially reported.

In this new video, Schaeffer explains the whole thing in under three minutes:

The D.C. Bag Tax: Collusion against Consumers, Wrapped in Green

The bag tax recently instituted in the District of Columbia is a daily annoyance for District residents and a burden on the poor. It was sold as a way to fill the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, and it will move some money to that project, but what’s interesting about it is how exquisitely designed it is to ensure that the incidence of the tax falls on consumers, not on businesses. Indeed, the bag tax may add to businesses’ profits.

Below I’ve copied the language in the D.C. code that establishes the tax. (It’s referred to as a “fee.” Nobody’s buying that.)

It’s not a simple five-cent tax on bags. It requires the consumer to hand over the five cents, and makes it illegal for retailers to absorb the tax. If a sandwich shop wanted to cover the tax and just give you a bag, doing that would break the law.

For every five cents it collects from customers, businesses get to keep a penny straight away. The cost of bagging products goes down for them by a penny as it goes up for you five cents.

If a store wants to set up a refund system for returned bags (paying five cents or more), it can keep another penny. Your “green friendly” store can offer bag refunding at a little less cost than it otherwise would — but keep in mind that the savings to the store come out of the Anacostia River Fund. Not quite as green a program as you may think.

And here’s an interesting tidbit: Considering that bags cost about four cents a piece, letting retailers keep that second penny might be the difference between their bag refund effort causing them small losses and letting them make a small profit on it. So much for the good feeling you get from your green-conscious store.

Finally, the part of the tax that the retailer keeps is not treated as income and is tax-exempt. That’s another little bonus to sweeten the deal under which retailers collect taxes from you.

When you get a look under the hood, you can see the greasy fingerprints of the log-rolling that it took to get this tax program established. The D.C. government was able to open up another revenue stream by bringing D.C. retailers in, structuring the tax so it had to be passed onto consumers, and giving D.C. businesses a cut of the action.

Anacostia river clean-up could be funded any number of ways, including a direct tax on D.C. residents if it’s a true priority. Requiring consumers to pay the five-cent tax on bags will negatively impact the District’s poorer residents, for whom small savings still matter. It will drive some shoppers to Virginia. And the shoppers who switch to reusable bags may just use them to carry home trash bags and dog waste bags that they buy to fill the void left by their forgone grocery bags. But at least they’ll feel good about it.

Next time you cross over the Anacostia River, be sure to think about how its clean-up project is funded. Rather than a direct increase in your tax bill, or raising funds from the people who really care about the river, the D.C. government and business community got together to tax you in a way that  increases businesses’ revenues.

Sec. 4. Establishment of fee.
(a)(1) A consumer making a purchase from a retail establishment shall pay at the time of purchase a fee of $.05 for each disposable carryout bag.
(2) A retail establishment shall not advertise or hold out or state to the public or to a customer directly or indirectly that the reimbursement of the fee or any part thereof to be collected by the retail establishment will be assumed or absorbed by the retail establishment or otherwise refunded to the customer.
(3) All retail establishments shall indicate on the consumer transaction receipt the number of disposable carryout bags provided and the total amount of fee charged.
(b)(1) (A) Each retail establishment shall retain $.01 of each $.05 fee collected; provided, that an establishment that chooses to offer a carryout bag credit program to its customers, as set forth in subparagraph (B) of this paragraph, shall retain an additional $.01 from each fee collected, for a total of $.02 for each $.05 fee collected.
(B) A retail establishment shall retain an additional $.01 of each $.05 fee for a carryout program which:
(i) Credits the consumer no less than $.05 for each carryout bag provided by the consumer for packaging their purchases, regardless of whether that bag is paper, plastic, or reusable;
(ii) Is prominently advertised at each checkout register; and
(iii) Reflects the total credit amount on the consumer transaction receipt.
(C) The fees retained by the retail establishment under this paragraph shall not be classified as revenue and shall be tax-exempt for the purposes of Chapters 18, 20, and 27B of Title 47 of the District of Columbia Official Code.
(D) The fees retained by the retail establishment shall be excluded from the definition of retail sale under D.C. Official Code § 47-2001(n)(2) and from the definition of gross receipts under D.C. Official Code § 47-2761(5).
(E) The fees to be remitted to the District under subsection (b)(2) of this section shall be added to other tax payments in determining whether the electronic payment requirement under D.C. Official Code § 47-4402(c) applies.
(2) The remaining amount of each fee collected shall be paid to the Office of Tax and Revenue and shall be deposited in the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund established by section 6(a).
(c) The Office of Tax and Revenue shall develop rules for frequency and method for reporting and transmitting the fees, as set forth in subsection (a) of this section, to the District.
(d) Except to the extent of any inconsistency with this act, the same provisions to Title 47 of the District of Columbia Official Code that are applicable to the gross sales tax shall govern the administration, collection, and enforcement of the fee set forth in subsection (a) of this section.

DC Vouchers Solved? Generous Severance for Displaced Workers

Colbert King argues that DC should continue the opportunity scholarships private school choice program on its own dime, instead of complaining that Congress is killing it off. He starts off with a refreshing dose of realpolitik: “It should come as no surprise that Democratic congressional leaders are effectively killing the program. They, and their union allies, didn’t like it in the first place.” Too true. This is what disgusts many Americans about politics, but hey, that’s the reality.

But then he seems to descend into uncharacteristic naivete with this:

If the city likes vouchers so much, why shouldn’t the District bear the cost? The answer is as clear as it may be embarrassing to voucher proponents: D.C. lawmakers don’t want to ask their constituents to shoulder the program’s expense.

That is NOT the answer. DC lawmakers are familiar with DC’s budget. DC’s FY 2009 budget, as I show in this Excel spreadsheet file, allocated $28,170 per pupil for k-12 schooling. And the average voucher amount is not $7,500, as King claims. That’s the maximum. The average is $6,620 one quarter of what the district is spending on k-12 schooling. So operating the voucher program entirely out of the District of Columbia’s own budget would not cost a dime. And if expanded, it would save DC tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.

So DC lawmakers are most certainly NOT afraid of asking constituents to pay for it – it would more than pay for itself. What DC lawmakers must be afraid of is that DC schools have become a massive jobs program instead of an educational program. They must fear that if the voucher program were expanded it would put many non-teaching staff out of work – including perhaps some of their own supporters.

Well how about a realpolitik solution to that problem: offer displaced workers 18 months of severance pay at something like 75% of their current salary. That would give them plenty of time to find other work, and it could be paid for from the savings of students migrating from public schools to the voucher program. This would mean that taxpayers would not see savings in the first couple of years, but after that the District would be able to offer taxpayers generous tax cuts while also offering kids significantly better learning opportunities.

Surely the details of such a deal could be hammered out by experienced politicians and negotiators. Because, really, the status quo is insane. Why keep paying $28,000 for a worse education than the voucher program is providing for $6,600? That is sheer madness.

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