Jonetta Rose Barras: Will the D.C. Council override mayor's veto?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,Phil Mendelson,D.C. Council,Vincent Gray

Tuesday may be "Backbone Day" for the D.C. Council. It has to decide whether to override Mayor Vincent Gray's veto of its small and certified business development legislation. That decision could cast the legislature either as a co-equal branch of government or a mayoral rubber stamp.

All 13 legislators approved the Small and Certified Business Enterprise Development and Assistance Amendment Act of 2012 back in December. Still, Gray vetoed the legislation.

"I don't understand why he rejected it," said at-large Councilman Vincent Orange, chief architect of the measure. He told me he incorporated "all six of the mayor's initiatives" and most of his recommendations. "This will be a defining moment for the council."

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told me, "I'm not going to support an override."

The legislature is becoming flaccid. It needs that P90x workout.

Last month, Mendelson helped the mayor win approval for a consulting contract -- despite serious concerns about the process. This time he is prepared to reverse his initial support of the CBE bill.

"I made a mistake," he told me.

Lobbyists for the business community -- DC Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the D.C. Building Industry Association -- pressured Gray to veto the legislation. Last week, they ramped up efforts to prevent an override. They have complained about various parts of the bill including the increase in set-asides for construction projects -- from 35 percent to 50 percent -- and the requirement for annual reports to the council.

"Those are major issues," Merrick Malone, former D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told me. He said officials should pull together affected local businesses to help develop new legislation. "They can help craft something that makes sense and is not onerous."

I have been critical of the CBE program. Too many companies have been allowed to violate the law with impunity. Taxpayers have suffered the resulting waste, fraud and abuse.

The council's legislation -- though imperfect -- was a good step toward reform. Among other things, the bill would strengthen sanctions, adding debarment as a punishment for those found violating the law twice in five years; expand potential employment opportunities for District residents in "high unemployment zones," and require annual reporting to the council.

Those are some of the very measures the business community doesn't like. Failure to override the mayor's veto means taxpayers lose again.

As former council chairman, Gray knows making a law is the art of the compromise. An executive rarely gets everything he wants. But amendments can be negotiated at any time.

"I offered to work with the mayor and look at items that may give him heartburn," Orange told me. "We don't need to start from ground zero."

He's right.

Gray already has begun work on new legislation and is getting input from others before he submits it to the council, his spokesman Pedro Ribeiro told me. The proposal should be ready in "roughly 60 days."

That doesn't mean the council should ditch its bill. It should override Gray's veto. Then, it could treat his new legislative proposal as an amendment, pledging to incorporate the best of his ideas.

In the interim, the legislature should demand strict and aggressive enforcement of the law.

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

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