Barras: Time to rewrite the Home Rule Charter

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

It surprised everyone when Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said recently it was time Congress discussed allowing the District of Columbia to collect a commuter tax. The city, he said, is the only "place that doesn't have the ability to tax people who earn their income in that place."

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told me that Issa "has shown a good eye for spotting issues that District residents have had as priorities. His work on budget autonomy is perhaps the best example."

But, she cautioned Issa had yet to endorse the concept. Further, Seamus Kraft, a spokesman for the California Republican, did not respond this week to questions about a specific date for the commuter tax hearing; Issa previously had said only "after the elections."

Norton said she was "encouraged by his interest" but wasn't optimistic, given opposition from Maryland and Virginia congressional representatives. She said she has "looked for proxies" to relieve the city's structural deficit, including "our land transfer bill," which has helped the city acquire federal property, allowing the District "to earn revenue and engage in economic development."

That's all good. But a thorough revision of the Home Rule Charter is the best solution.

When it was approved in 1973, it was a political compromise that foretold dysfunction. The District was a state, city and county with impotent taxing powers and a public safety system suffering split personality disorder.

Over time, that condition worsened. Further, within the context of the 21st century, many features of the Charter are anachronistic, crippling the city's ability to respond appropriately to demands of its growing and diverse population.

Consider, for example, District-approved legislation must undergo passive congressional review before it becomes law. Why continue that farce? Why are zoning issues, which prevent the city from raising building heights, including those outside the federal enclave, incorporated in the Charter? And what state doesn't have control of its judiciary -- the third branch of its government?

In the past two years, Norton said she has sought changes that give "the District more authority, such as our budget autonomy bill," as well as those that provide the city "more flexibility to engage in day-to-day matters."

She should be commended for her creative approaches and success in responding to the ridiculous. A commuter tax without full levying authority repeats the inane.

Currently, the city can't impose a sales tax on certain nonprofits, like the Smithsonian Institution, for example -- although those little museum shops in the heart of the District rake in lots of money. On the political side: There is no provision for impeaching an executive; this November, residents will vote whether to amend the Charter to permit expulsion under certain circumstances.

The D.C. Council last month passed legislation creating a five-member Home Rule Act 40th Anniversary Commission. One of its functions would be to identify possible Charter amendments.

But a task as serious as rewriting a state's constitution shouldn't be left to a party-planning committee.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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