D.C. Council returns next week to tackle wide range of issues

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The John A. Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW holds the offices for the mayor and D.C. Council. (photo courtesy of Josh Gibson)

When the D.C. Council reconvenes next week after its summer recess, members will be entering the Wilson Building with a crowded agenda. The council faces consideration of a new teacher’s contract; review of the recently approved paid family leave law; and calls to ensure affordable housing and reform campaign finance laws.

The 2018 election looms amid recent scandals and an enduring perception of a pay-to-play culture in D.C. government — prompting some council members to prioritize bills related to ethics and politics.

One pending bill, introduced in March by at-large member David Grosso, would set up a public financing plan for candidates who do not take cash from corporations or political action committees. This measure was introduced in March with nine of his colleagues in support.

There are also a number of proposals from Attorney General Karl Racine that council members will consider, such as barring contractors from doing business with the city if they have donated to a campaign or PAC. Another would close a loophole used by allies of Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2015, which allows PACs to take in unlimited donations in non-election years.

On education matters, the council will have to sign off before Oct. 1 on the first contract for D.C. Public Schools teachers in five years. Already ratified by the Washington Teachers’ Union, the contract upgrades benefits and gives salary increases of 9 percent over three school years. “Now, we look to the DC Council to act swiftly to adopt this contract to signal that we are all in for kids,” Bowser said in a statement last week.

In addition, Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson unveiled his five-year strategic plan for D.C. Public Schools, which sets goals of raising the graduation rate and doubling the percentage of students who are college- and career-ready. Grosso, who chairs the council’s Committee on Education, has scheduled a public roundtable on Sept. 21 to discuss the school system’s guiding plan.

On paid leave, which passed with a veto-proof majority in December, some advocates and council members are worried about reopening the discussion on how to finance the program. The law requires D.C. employers to provide eight weeks of paid family leave, six weeks of leave to care for a family member who is sick and two weeks of personal sick leave. After about two years of discussions, the council decided to fund the program with a 0.62 percent payroll tax on employers.

Several proposals to amend the funding mechanism for the eight-week paid leave law have been proposed, most of them aimed at shifting the majority of the cost away from employers. These amendments have provoked some harsh criticisms; the D.C. Paid Family Leave coalition, on its website, warns advocates that “the program is already under attack from big business.”

Elissa Silverman began her first at-large D.C. Council term in 2015. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2015)

One proposal comes from Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, who called for splitting the tax between employees and employers — meaning that even employees who live in Maryland or Virginia would contribute. At-large member Elissa Silverman, who originally co-introduced the paid leave bill with Grosso, countered that the change could be considered a commuter tax on out-of-state workers, which is banned under the Home Rule Act.

“A bill that is a test case for a commuter tax is going to 100 percent get litigated in court, which means that we will not be able to implement the program,” Silverman said. “I would still say that the plan most likely to work and fairest under the law is that bill that was passed.”

That’s despite the argument from the business community and Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans that the tax as currently approved is unfair to employers. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has previously stated he is open to changes in the funding mechanism, and a hearing is scheduled in October.

Ed Lazere, the head of the left-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute, said proposals to amend the law are delaying implementation of paid family leave. In particular, one proposal that would allow employers to pay directly for employees’ paid leave, rather than through the city, could result in wage theft, he said. “We’re concerned that in an employer-driven system … that a lot of workers just won’t get [benefits],” he said.

Housing issues will also be on the table this fall, as the city continues to face an affordability crisis. Looming farther out are expected amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, following public meetings and a lengthy comment period from the D.C. Office of Planning.

“There’s a lot of activity at the grass-roots level that hasn’t really hit the council yet,” said Bill Rice, a longtime Wilson Building observer. The council will have to approve changes made to the plan, which serves as a guide to development and land use.