Monday, May 23, 2011

Mary Cheh Discusses Taxes, Spending with Social Justice Group in Cleveland Park

by Sandra Scham

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh was recently invited to the home of a Cleveland Park resident to discuss two concerns with a sizable gathering of Ward 3 residents: First, taxes, and second, government spending. The meeting, which overflowed the entire first floor of the house, was put on by Jews United for Social Justice, and those present overwhelmingly expressed the opinion that the District should have a more progressive income tax system, should raise the taxes of wealthier District residents and should assure that vital social services for the city’s neediest people were not cut. A gathering of citizens clamoring for an increase in taxes, which could easily affect the majority of people there, is not your usual constituent meeting. Obviously, we have reason to be proud that people in our neighborhood are not oblivious to the problems of people living in less prosperous areas of the District.

While admitting that the District’s tax system was flawed, Cheh is adamantly opposed to a tax increase, suggesting that it would be a factor in discouraging wealthier people to move to the District, would be a deterrent to business, and would solidify the DC’s reputation for being a jurisdiction with high taxes. Instead, she proposed that the current city government is “bloated” and that the current size of the District’s deficit necessitated substantial cuts in spending.

While attempting to convince the crowd that their concerns were not valid, she proceeded to discuss individual amounts for certain services line by line to show that the cuts proposed were not as bad as many there might have believed. As several people pointed out during the question and answer session, however, Cheh was largely avoiding addressing the essential point of the gathering, making the tax system in DC fairer. Repeated references to consults with the Chamber of Commerce and expressed anxieties about adversely affecting small businesses also did not seem to go over well with the crowd.

Person after person stood up to testify that, while there is no doubt that the city government, like its Federal parent, could be run more efficiently, this is not what spending cuts to social services would accomplish. Several people pointed out that, on the ground, spending cuts translated less support to struggling poor families—not lower administrative overhead.

Others suggested that, while most of us there would prefer better services in return for our tax dollars—streamlining and spending cuts, without assuring an adequate stream of revenue, would be unlikely to achieve these ends. It was also pointed out that the DC tax system, with the highest bracket ending at $40,000 per annum is not sustainable. One resident expressed dismay that our elected Democratic representative was responding to our questions with “Republican talking points.” A comparison of Cheh’s remarks with recent GOP comments about tax increases is, indeed, striking in its symmetry.

In any event, thanks are due to Gilah Langner and David Drelich for their sponsorship of a most enlightening meeting.

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