Jonetta Rose Barras: Back to square one in D.C.

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Unsurprisingly, the D.C. Council voted earlier this week not to override Mayor Vincent C. Gray's veto of the small and local business development bill. The legislature's decision to abandon a measure approved unanimously three months ago is emblematic of the institution's growing timidity.

"If we don't stand up, we'll fall for anything. ... And we're falling," admonished at-large Councilman Vincent Orange, chief architect of the Small and Certified Business Enterprise Development and Assistance Amendment Act of 2012. Seven members, including Chairman Phil Mendelson and his hand-picked pro tempore, Kenyan McDuffie, ignored Orange's plea, refusing to override the veto.

It's all politics. While the primaries are 13 months away, some legislators already have been cautiously positioning themselves for re-election or bids for higher office. That dynamic was at play during the veto debate. Expect it to come into sharper focus during budget deliberations when council members jockey for money to fund favored programs with large and active constituencies or those that potentially stimulate generous campaign contributions.

Consider the fact that the DC Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Washington Board of Trade opposed the council's small-business reform legislation; both organizations pushed for the mayoral veto and lobbied the legislature to sustain that veto. Elected officials know ignoring those groups could have adverse consequences. Among their members are big-time local campaign donors.

Ironically, the council's veto solved nothing. Things are now back to where they were a year ago, when everyone decried the sorry state of the city's small and certified business enterprise program.

Orange told me he planned to introduce his new CBE bill by Friday. He said he probably would change the 50 percent set-aside, restoring it to 35 percent, and alter some of the preferences. "Then, we will wait on the mayor."

Gray has said he would submit his own CBE legislation within the next 60 days. It surely will be more palatable to the chamber, the board of trade and the construction industry.

Here we go round in circles: As before, both bills will be referred to the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is chaired by Orange. As before, he will decide when to schedule a public hearing. As before, he will direct the committee markup, determining what of the mayor's proposal is added into the final bill.

Raise your hand if you think Gray will get everything he wants.

It could be a year before a final bill is brought before the full council. The primary elections would have occurred by then, allowing elected officials to breathe easier. Campaign contributions certainly wouldn't be in jeopardy.

Hundreds of millions of dollars would have been contracted out for various projects, however. Waste, fraud and abuse would have continued running rampant. Some developers would have continued claiming -- as in the past -- they couldn't find sufficient numbers of qualified District residents to employ while their small-business partners serve as fronts, violating the law and gratefully collecting pennies.

It's business as usual in the District.

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

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

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