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As the Tax Revision Commission gears up to share tax policy recommendations with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council, more than 40 organizations continue to urge the independent body to prioritize racial equity in its assessment.
In a letter to the Tax Revision Commission, the Fair Budget Coalition and Just Recovery DC campaign, along with dozens of organizations, recently demanded that the commission show how its recommendations advance racial equity. Other requests include advanced notice about public hearings, a special listening session with community members who’ve experienced poverty and economic exclusion, and a shift away from attracting businesses with competitive tax incentives.
Niciah Mujahid, coalition director of the Fair Budget Coalition, expressed her disappointment in Bowser’s budget proposal, telling the Informer that marginalized District residents, especially low-income African-American residents, suffer as a result of cuts to city services. That’s why Mujahid and others are currently engaged in a campaign to ensure the revised tax code doesn’t further burden the District’s most vulnerable while enriching developers and the business community
“Creating a tax code that prioritizes corporations and developers does nothing to ensure that Black Washingtonians, immigrants and excluded workers get what they need,” Mujahid said. “The important thing [for the tax code revision] is that racial equity is the top priority. The inequity [in the District] is clearly racialized. The Tax Revision Commission needs to demonstrate how they advance racial equity. We need to see the math.”
Organizers Mount Full-Court Press for an Equitable Tax Code
The Informer was unable to secure an interview with D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At large), chairman of the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development, about District tax policy and what he hopes for the Tax Revision Commission’s recommendations.
On Tuesday morning, the Fair Budget Coalition and Just Recovery DC campaign converged on the John A. Wilson Building to rally supporters and engage D.C. council members about, not only creating a racially equitable D.C. tax code but reallocating funds in the fiscal year 2024 budget to emergency rental assistance and other social services.
Speakers focused on the budget process, mentioning funding for domestic violence victim services and housing programs, among other social safety nets and violence prevention efforts. Organizers later walked through the Wilson Building and dropped off letters to each council member.
After the Office of the Chief FInancial Officer’s release of revised revenue projections earlier this year, Bowser discouraged raising taxes to close a budget gap. During the earlier part of April, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he and his council colleagues will defer to the Tax Revision Commission on whether to do so.
In years past, the D.C. Council approved raising taxes on wealthier residents. Those increases have funded the inclusion of one librarian for each District public school and increased compensation for thousands of early childhood educators. In 2021, D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) submitted an amendment allocating $3.25 million toward full-time librarian positions at 36 schools.
On Tuesday, D.C. Council members Lewis George and Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) stood before organizers on the steps of the Wilson Building to talk about the ongoing budget process, and efforts to allocate funds for social services that Bowser’s proposal decimated. Lewis George, chairperson of the council’s Committee on Facilities and Family Services, said she secured more than $3 million for domestic workers, violence interruption academies in District schools, and housing security among other resources for District residents.
While Parker said he wouldn’t jump the gun on what the council as a whole has been able to change in Bowser’s budget, he assured organizers that he and his colleagues are inching closer to shifting funds to public services. Even with that, Parker requested an extra push from concerned residents.
“I’m calling on you to stand with us to hold all members of the D.C. Council accountable to the needs of residents, Parker said. “It’s not enough that we call out the mayor or have a few council members out here. We have to hold all of our colleagues accountable.”
The Tax Revision Commission, Past and Present
The Tax Revision Commission, established by the D.C. Council as a 20-member body in 1996, meets every decade to compile recommendations for changes to District taxes. In 2012, the commission recommended the creation of two additional tax brackets — residents making between $40,000 and $60,000 and residents making between $350,000 and $ 1 million.
The tax rate for members of the latter group had been reduced by less than a percent.
The Tax Revision Commission also recommended increasing standard deduction and personal exemption to federal levels, which doubled the standard deduction for married filers and those who filed as head of household.
Today, Anthony Williams, former D.C. mayor, chairs the Tax Revision Commission, while D.C. Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee serves an ex-officio role, meaning he’s on the commission by virtue of his work in the D.C. government.
In total, there are 11 members, 10 of which are appointed by the mayor and D.C. Council. Other commissioners include David Catania, former D.C. council member and current managing director of Georgetown Public Affairs, Rashad Young, former District city administrator who currently serves as senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Howard University, Erica Williams, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of D.C. Policy Center.
In March, the Tax Revision Commission conducted a presentation that showed strong tax revenue growth for the current fiscal year, primarily due to the increase in property tax revenue, greater withholding of income taxes and stronger collection of sales tax via inflation and recovery of the hospitality industry.
Meanwhile, commissioners pointed out a decline in deed and estate taxes, which they described as a symptom of a weakening real property market. Other declines have been seen in the gross receipts taxes, defined as taxes applied to a company’s gross sales, along with taxes for businesses grossing more than $12,000 annually.
As it compiles its recommendations, the Tax Revision Commission continues to engage small businesses, major employers, and ANC commissioners. During future meetings, commissioners will gather feedback from professionals in the hospitality and entertainment and real estate industries, along with representatives of hospitals and universities, tax professionals, coalitions and unions, and grassroots and organizing groups.
Throughout the month of May, the Tax Revision Commission will also host listening sessions virtually and in-person at THEARC in Southeast.
On the afternoon of April 25, the Tax Revision Commission met with advocacy organizations. Those scheduled to attend included Jen Jenkins of Legal Aid, David Schwartzman of Just Recovery DC, Robert Warren of People for Fairness Coalition, Kesh Ladduwahetty of DC for Democracy and Judy Estey of Platform of Hope.
During the stakeholder meeting, each speaker answered questions about how the Tax Revision Commission could better engage the community, ways the tax code could be improved, their vision for a fair tax code, recommendation for better tax administration, and how the Tax Revision Commission should resolve conflict between increasing competition and shaping a progressive tax code.
Hours before appearing before the Tax Revision Commission, Schwartzman delivered letters to council members in the Wilson Building. He said he was eager to convince them that the District’s wealthiest residents, along with corporations, need to bear much more of the tax burden than working-class Washingtonians.
“We are now witnessing the mayor and a few of her allies on the D.C. Council revisiting the era of the Control Board when the budget was balanced on the backs of the poor,” Schwartzman said. “The Tax Revision Commission has to take racial equity into full account and eliminate racial economic disparities, which are big in D.C. The millionaires are paying a little lower share of tax than low-income residents. They need to pay more so we can eliminate child poverty [and other gaps].”
Connecting the Tax Code to Healthy Food Access
Tiffany FitzGerald and her colleagues at DC Greens, one of several organizations that signed the call action to the Tax Revision Commission, work to engage District residents and Black food business owners about how best to foster equitable food access.
DC Greens is an organization dedicated to building a just and resilient food system that fills all District neighborhoods with fresh, healthy, and life-affirming food. It has been embarking on this mission through community partnerships, a produce prescription program, and an intergenerational wellness space and farm known as The Well.
FitzGerald, executive director of DC Greens, said that changes to the tax code can honor grassroots work done for equitable food access and make it easier for small businesses, particularly those selling fresh produce, to maintain a presence in low-resource communities.
The status quo, as FitzGerald told the Informer, has supported food apartheid east of the Anacostia River, much to the detriment of residents who continue to suffer from chronic illnesses.
“For Black food business owners, it’s incredibly difficult to gain access to resources, capital and connections that allow them to break into competitive markets,” FitzGerald said. “The ideal tax code prevents bad business incentives from cutting Black and brown neighborhoods off from fresh food that’s a basic human right. It’s one that works to make sure life expectancy is not determined by zip code.”