Friday, September 12, 2014

DC Mayoral race, 2014, Catania and Schwartz Views on Small Entrepreneurs/Street Vendors (1998)

Since I am currently a candidate in the November 2014 election for Chairman of the DC Council, people have asked for more details on my experience.  The article below, which is based on the Candidate Questionnaire I wrote regarding vending is an example.
Recent developments are added in brackets [2014.....].

Responses of Current DC Mayoral Candidates David Catania and Carol Schwartz to an earlier questionnaire about Street Vending laws and DCRA practices (DCMR 24).

Two years ago when I was running for At Large, City Counsel, I listed as one of my accomplishments: “Served 3 years on Mayor's Task Force on Street Vending. Strongly support promoting and protecting small entrepreneurs and workers rights and needs. Will also work to improve and expand modern vocational education and training as well as employment opportunities for 'returned citizens'” We met once a week for 3 hours, I estimate spending more than 500 hours, unpaid, on meetings and secretarial duties.

Actually, it was two task forces with two mayors running from about 1994 through 1997. Our struggle as vendor members was to prevent the destruction of vending as a viable income and business opportunity for low income DC residents. For those who had served time, it was also work that did NOT require checking the box that asked, “Have you ever been arrested/convicted.”

In previous years there had been as many as 7,000 licensed vendors, by the time DCRA and other bureaucrats got finished, about 1700 vendors remained, many of them downtown or truck vendors. For many years trucks bearing produce had traveled through poorer underserved neighborhoods bring fresh fruit and vegetables. That has been forbidden, to the nutritional harm of those areas.

One of the saddest things I saw was an elderly, frail African American man who would drag his chair to Connecticut Ave, and sit on his little box of shoe shine materials waiting for the occasional customer. We would chat and he said he earned $20 or $30 a day (l990s). It wasn't much, but it enabled him to survive and he took pride in giving a fine shoe shine. His kind of operation was eliminated, I hope HE wasn't.

We were severely disappointed in the response of both mayors to all our hard work and creative ideas. We organized and formed a group called DC Vendors United. We also started a publication “Vendors' Voice For Victory.” For the November 1998 election we sent questionnaires to DC candidates for Mayor, City Council and Congress.

Two of the people who answered then are current Mayoral candidates DAVID CATANIA and CAROL SCHWARTZ. I thought you might be interested in seeing their responses and thinking in 1998, as you make your voting decisions for this November 2014.

Here are informative excerpts that were printed in the October 1998 issue of VVV.

Dear Candidate:                               October 15, 1998

     If you are successful this November in your election campaign, you will have an important opportunity to bring economic wellbeing and justice to our City. We are writing to make you aware of certain problems blocking prosperity for our lowest income entrepreneurs and to enlist your support and ideas for correcting these problems.
There has been a steady erosion of the rights and economic opportunities of licensed D.C. Street vendors, to the point that now only 30% of vendors are D.C. Residents. There has also been a reduction in the total number of about 65% to 75% over the past 15 years, this at a time when legislators have cried high and low that we need to get more people off welfare.
     The Holland and Knight consultants hired by the Control Board to evaluate the Brazil Bill on regulatory reform have stated that vending is “one of a number of small business enterprises that the District should encourage” and it offers “an entry point for small businesses with low capital requirements.” Their report further states that vending “can benefit consumers by offering goods at lower prices and convenient locations” and “bring a sense of vitality and diversity to the city and improve the quality of city life.”
     We would very much like to know your views and ideas concerning vending legislation and oversight.... We hope we can work together to enhance a positive micro business climate in our City. {Catania answered all questions, Schwartz answered 3, but apparently we did not receive additional answers from her. Candidate answers will appear below each question.}

CANDIDATE QUESTIONS

1. Several years ago the vending squad was disbanded and several police officers were convicted and/or retired without loss of benefits in the wake of allegations of corruption.
          QUESTION: If, in fact, such corruption continues to operate in the police or other regulatory agencies, what would you want to do about it legislatively, and in an oversight capacity? [2014—Despite asking for an accounting of payments received for licenses and $1500 Fee in Lieu of Taxes, for 4 years, we were never provided this information. We were particularly concerned because much of this was paid in cash.]
     Catania—Last March, I introduced a piece of legislation which would create an elected Attorney General for the District of Columbia. Currently, the District's felonies and major misdemeanors are prosecuted by a Presidentally appointed U.S. Attorney, who is not accountable to the residents of the District. My proposal would create an elected Attorney General for the District that would have greater prosecutorial powers and would focus on corruption and governmental integrity issues. In person he explained the advantage of this system is that the AG would be a watchdog and power center separate from the Mayor. Since the AG would be a potential competitor for the Mayor's office, the Mayor would be under greater pressure to perform well and honestly.
     [2014—At long, long last we are actually having our FIRST election of our own Attorney General in November. Thank you Mr. Catania.]

2. There have been persistent problems with special events vending, wherein licensed (fee and tax paying) D.C. vendors have been forced off their customary vending spots, sometimes even when they have been promised this would not happen. In addition whole streets have been sold off to outsiders, who then sold small spaces to other outside vendors at inflated prices. [2014—We also never received an accounting of how much was received from these sales, and to whom payments were made.]
          QUESTION: What should be done to ensure that D.C. vendors (who spend their revenues in our own community) have a full opportunity to participate in special events?
     Catania—A preference should be given to vendors who have a customary vending spot for special events. Special event organizers should not be permitted to usurp the customary vending spots of D.C. vendors. DCRA regulations should be written to ensure that D.C. vendors are not closed out of special events.

3. A related trend has occurred with our community festivals. Overwhelming popularity forced the Hispanic Festival out of Adams Morgan and down to the Mall. This has also happened to the Gay Pride Celebration. This year the Georgia Ave. and Adams Morgan Day Festivals were harmed when faced with charges for police services that were 10 times those ascribed to the MCI Center for their daily police overtime.
          QUESTION: How can we protect and enhance the community nature of our local festivals, and maintain opportunities for cultural interaction, local small entrepreneurs, charitable organizations, and licensed street vendors?
     Catania—The festivals that are mentioned in the question simply became too big for the respective communities in which they were previously held. Public safety concerns forced the relocation of these events to larger spaces. I prefer the festivals to take place in our neighborhoods. One way to encourage other events is to offer police protection—and other city services—free of charge to event organizations. Often these costs make it prohibitively expensive to host such events and therefore discourage them.

4. There have been problems in the past year with the open air vending at Eastern Market, and most recently at the popular flea market on Wisconsin Avenue. It seems that such venues are being systematically threatened or downsized. We recently discovered that a proposal from the manager of the Eastern Market sidewalk vending to establish a short term flea market on the vacant Mt. Vernon Square site languished in a D.C. Government office for 2 years with no action.
          QUESTION: What can you and this City do to expand these well-received small markets, and enhance the economic empowerment of these small part-time and full-time vendors and craftspeople?
     Catania—The best thing the City Council and DCRA can do is to be responsive toward vendor and community requests for greater open air vending. I happen to shop at the Farmer's Market in Dupont Circle and find it to be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. I suspect DCRA does not make it easy for such open air vending enterprises to be established or to succeed. DCRA needs to be more responsive to the desires of communities for these activities.
     [2014—Given that Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser has been chairing the committee overseeing DCRA, I am wondering whether there have been any improvements under her supervision?]

5. Over the years there have sometimes been conflicts between local merchants, elements of the community, and vendors; such as in Adams Morgan and Alabama Ave., S.E. Vendors have expressed the willingness to support financially a Vendors Commission that could resolve issues involving vendors, fixed site businesses, the community, and the government.
          QUESTION: How would you respond to establishing such a commission, and what other ideas do you have regarding resolving such issues?
     Catania—I am a little concerned about establishing a Vendors Commission given the past history of certain commissions. For example, the Taxi Commission was established in part to help address concerns of drivers, but it has arguably evolved into a body which protects the industry and not the dirvers. I believe that DCRA can establish standards of practice and can then arbitrate conflicts within and administrative proceeding within the Agency without establishing another Commission.
     [2014—Did DCRA ever establish such practices, and if so has it worked, or should this issue be revisited with 16 years hindsight?]

6. The Recreation Dept. is one of the few direct responsibilities remaining to the Mayor [because of the Control Board], and by inference to the City Council.
QUESTION: Accordingly, what creative use could be made of Recreation Dept. space to enhance community economic empowement wih local flea markets and entrepreneurial activities?
Catania—I have not given this issue much thought, but I would be very willing to meet with vendors and the respective communities affected by their proposals to encourage this activity.

7. The Holland &Knight Report came out against the moratorium on new vending licenses and recommended reviewing the ending of vending around the MCI Center.
          QUESTION: Are you willing to sponsor or support emergency legislation to immediately lift these restrictions as recommended?
     Catania—Yes.
     Schwartz—I would certainly consider legislation to lift the moratorium on new licenses and the prohibition against vending around the MCI Center because I wholeheartedly believe in free market competition.
     [2014--Sixteen years later there is still no vending at the MCI Center which presents a sterile exterior. And I believe the moratorium on new vendors is also still in effect.]

8. In the past decade a number of lucrative RFP's have been contracted out regarding street vending and economic development. Their results have seldom been acted upon to assist street vending, community development, or economic empowerment, although they have benefited consulting firms.
          QUESTION: What can you as an elected official do to shift this economic gain to the community rather than to outside consultants?
     Catania—I am not a fan of consultants. In my opinion, the District has spent a lot of money over the past few years on consultants with very little to show for it. I don't believe in government by consultants. We know who the interested parties are and we should bring them together to resolve mutual concerns.
     Schwartz—It has been a long-standing practice of my to support local businesses. When you are looking to find out about a city, you should first look to the city. As an elected official, I have always supported going with the best-qualified contractor, to get the job done. Some qualities the winning contractor should have are experience, knowledge of street vending in Washington, D.C., focus points for economic development in our city, and knowledge of our people. These characteristics are not usually found in a stranger; these are usually found in a neighbor.
     [2014—Unfortunately the vendor friendly Holland and Knight recommendations were not implemented. Was money spent on their consulting a total waste?]

9. An unexpected proposal has just surfaced from the Control Board to auction all street vending spaces to the highest bidder. Previously, City officials have said they want to make street vending more like other public space based businesses. Currently sidewalk cafes pay $5/sq.ft./year often enclosing and heating their space. Sidewalk vendors can occupy a maximum of 31.5 sq.ft., and must remove their stand daily, and have no weather protection. We fear this is part of a plan to allow corporate vendors with permanent kiosks to set up showcase, loss-leader vending operations.
          QUESTION: What is your position on this attempt to auction the people's streets to the highest bidder?
     Catania—I do not have a position on this issue. I am inclined to favor the continuation of the current system because it provides modest income individuals a chance to own their own businesses. My fear is that auctioning off sites would discourage new vendors.
     Schwartz—I have always supported our local businesses. It is not our place to drive business out of our city; it is our place to provide an atmosphere where local business can flourish. Any proposed change to the existing vending system must be looked at very closely and I would seek input from individual vendors before making any decisions on this proposed change or any other.
     [2014—Apparently this particular corporate grab was shot down, although having witnessed the recent Walmart controversy it is hardly a dead issue. Alas, even though the sidewalk vending sites are not auctioned new vendors are thoroughly discouraged by the moratorium.]

NOTE:  I particularly look forward to comments from vendors on the current state of street vending and recent DCRA and police treatment of vendors.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

G. LEE AIKIN, Experience, Goals, Hopes, as Candidate, Chairman, DC Council 2014

While many of the goals I had in 2012 remain the same, there are important differences in my goals this year.  I was delighted to see that the change I had promoted for 10 years to put $85 million back in the pockets of poor and middle class workers was finally approved by the Council, I was very distressed that we will have to wait until 2019 to see the full benefit.  Then I saw that taxpayers between $25 and $50 thousand will benefit less than $400 while those earning over $1 million will gain more than $8,000.  

So once again the little guy was being made to take crumbs while the big guy was raking in the gravy.  The 4 year delay in full implementation must have been needed to give these bigger benefits to the "important" people.  That is when I decided I must run for Chairman of the DC Council.  This body needs a conscience, gadfly, and any other role I can play effectively.  

Just this evening (9/9/14) I was told that my opponent has been sitting on a bill that would have our government Divest (no longer own) our funds from companies that are anti environment.  Divesting is powerful.  During the years we supported the struggle of black Africans in South Africa, this tool was used to strong effect in the US and Europe. 

Whether or not I can win, the more votes I get the more I will be able to push important changes for the little guy.  Please forward this blog to others who care to learn details on what is going on in government.  I don't have funds for mass mailings, I have to count on the people to support and spread the word on my candidacy.  If you would like to donate, please write out and send your check to Comm. to Elect G. Lee Aikin, 1754 Swann St., NW, Washington, DC 20009
Below is my updated resume.

G. LEE AIKIN                                                                               September 2014
Candidate, Chairman DC Council, DCSGP  
See political blog: gleeaikin.blogspot.com


EXPERIENCE, GOALS, & HOPES
While standing on the Mall listening to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream, I too had a dream, of some day voting in the State of DC, a stronger dream after 53 voteless years.  Let's build a city so outstanding and worthy people will be inspired to support our statehood status.  Let's carry on the legacy of Statehood Party leader, Hilda Mason (Washington, DC statehood advocate and longest-serving elected official in DC history). 

LEE AIKIN’S GOALS & OBJECTIVES: as Chairman of DC Council
Will strive to persuade Council members to enact legislation helping poor and middle class, not continue expanding benefits to “haves” rather than “have nots”. What helps the big guy often hurts the little guy. We must not let Walmart destroy community businesses. Reduce Class 2 property taxes for small businesses.

We must encourage people to use their lands, buildings, and merchandise for worthwhile community activities.  Let's give legal protection to providers with a “Good Samaritan” (hold harmless) law.

Grow a greener, healthier city using our school resources, vacant lots, rooftops, parks, and public housing lands.  Promote public gardens, good nutrition, and solar energy with creative financing. Negotiate green enhancements to all major projects. Enforce agreements for more low income units in new projects.

Let's ease taxes, regulatory burdens, and nuisance fees that discourage entrepreneurs, business, and affordable housing.  Government must enforce agreements to provide affordable housing set-asides in new housing construction.  Teach useful legal and economic knowledge to all our young people.  

LEE AIKIN’s service record includes:
+ Ten year successful effort to restore 1973 pre-Home Rule tax benefits, will restore $85 million to you all.

+ Served as bilingual (Spanish) Administrative Assistant 3 years to an At-Large member of the DC Board of Education. Upon boss's instructions, I succeeded in finding the argument against Carol Schwartz' memo that DC teachers were overpaid and under-worked which changed two votes and prevented a big strike.

+ Served four years on Mayor's Commission for Food, Nutrition and Health.  I plan to champion child and maternal health, and better care for our older residents, the handicapped and care-taking families.

+ Served 500+ hours on Mayor's Task Force on Street Vending.  Strongly support promoting and protecting small entrepreneurs’ and workers’ rights and needs. Will also work to improve and expand modern vocational education in both technical and laboring jobs.  This is especially needed by our 60,000 returned citizens.  Remove blocks to very small business start-ups--Basic Business License, $100 clean hands, etc.

+ For 10 years was an active union member (OPEIU#2), serving as shop steward, and on contract negotiating team, and as grievance committee member.  Persuaded Union to sponsor collecting books and magazines for prisoners at Lorton Reformatory.  We must end life destroying drug arrests for small amounts.

VOTE STATEHOOD GREEN PARTY (SGP)  TO GROW  D.C.
Vote General Election, Tues., Nov. 4, 2014 [all registered voters eligible]

G. Lee Aikin, candidate:  gleeaikin@yahoo.com  
[Contact to find out how to register SGP and vote. Volunteers welcome]


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

DC Elections Heat Up: Out to See the Action at DC for Democracy

Last night (9/10/14) I attended DC for Democracy's first of two forums.  This was for At Large candidates.  Of the 15 candidates running, 9 were chosen on the basis of showing more serious intent with funds raised, active web or blog site, and volunteers.  They were: Anita Bonds, Graylan Hagler, Brian Hart, Eric Jones, Khalid Pitts, Eugene Puryear, Elissa Silverman, Courtney Snowden, and Robert White.  The event started late, and Anita Bonds never showed up.  I don't know the reason.  Was it conflicting schedules or the opinion that she will most likely be one of the two winners?

Rev. Hagler was a little late, and Brian Hart even later as he was covering an important issue as ANC representative at a meeting.  A lot of interesting points were raised on housing, campaign finance, economics, etc.  Many statements received applause.  While almost everyone was applauded on some point, it seemed that Rev. Hagler and Eugene Puryear got the most.  At the end the candidates were asked about legalization of marijuana.  Two answered undecided (was too far away to see their names), and the rest said yes.  Perhaps someone can supply this info in a comment.

All were running as INDependents except Anita Bonds, DEM, and Eugene Puryear, SG (Statehood Green Party).  The 6 not invited were:  Michael D. Brown, Wendell Felder, Calvin Gurley, Kishan Putta, all IND, and Marc Morgan, REP, and Frederick Steiner, LIB (Libertarian).  I will add information on their next forum for Mayoral and Attorney General candidates as I receive it.  An argument was made that since the AG race was new, all candidates should be invited.

On September 17th, a followup meeting of DC for Democracy will be held at Ben's Chile Bowl on 14th St. at 7 pm.  There votes will be taken on which 2 candidates should get their endorsement.  I was told Alissa Silverman stands a good chance because she has supporters on the board.  Anyone who was a member on August 17, 2014 may vote.  After my own experience described below at their spring forum I made a point of joining.  Theoretically this is not a Democrat organization, but a Democracy organization.

Tonight (8/13/14) I attended the meeting of DC for Democracy which I had made a point of joining after that interesting At Large forum they held this spring for Democrats only.  For those who missed the fireworks, DC for Democracy had said they were only going to have Democrats, At Large at that forum.  Since DC Statehood Green Party had a contested primary with G. Lee Aikin and Eugene Puryear various SGP members and fair minded Democrats had contacted DC for Democracy urging them to include DCSGP candidates.  I had been very involved all day in this email struggle for true democracy,  and did not know when I arrived at the forum a little late how it had been decided.

When the moderator called for At Large candidates, I just went on up and took an empty seat.  Eugene's supporters urged him to go up too.  The moderator looked startled but did not object.  When it was my turn to give introductory remarks, I told the audience that I did not know if I was invited and if they did not want me to speak I would leave the stage.  A number called out "stay," so we did.

Tonight's meeting at Ben's Chile Bowl was to decide which Mayoral, Attorney General and At Large candidates would be invited to their two forums.  One forum for Mayor and AG, the other for At Large.  At tonight's meeting a number of people spoke up for including the non-Democrat candidates in the forums even if they had little chance of winning.  As one expressed, it is important to get new ideas and solutions out to the public.  We were also told that 3 At Large candidates had no web site, blog, Facebook, or Twitter presence on line and thus did not seem serious.  Others had very weak or outdated sites.  The upshot is that all Mayoral and AG candidates will be invited.  In all, 42 ballots were filled out indicating which people the members would like to invite.

*For Mayor, Bowser got the most votes and Catania a few less.  The others were much fewer.
*For AG, Zuckerberg got the most vote; some others were not too far behind, but I didn't memorize those votes.
*For At Large,  I believe Silverman got the most with 38, trailing with one or two votes separating each of the next 3 were Puryear, Bonds, and Hagler.  Then there was a notable drop to 4 others, and an even bigger drop after them.  I believe DC for Democracy will invite about 8 At Large, and they said they will forward the results soon.

Total contributions, rounded, for the top candidates were:
  *Bowser, $2,725,000 (5,425 donors); Catania, $772,000 (1,044 donors); and Schwartz, $65,000 (121 donors and a $33,000 loan).
  *Zuckerberg, $61,000; Karl Racine, $256,000 (with a $200,000 loan); Ed "Smitty" Smith, $186,000 (with 535 donors); and Lorie Masters, $51,000.
  *Silverman, $56,000; Puryear, $14,000; Bonds, $105,000 (52% from individuals); Hagler, $32,000 (75% from individuals).  All but 4 At Large candidates had more money than Puryear.  Silverman and Puryear received 100% of money from individuals.

The 8/13/14 edition of the Washington Post "Express" featured a piece on DCSGP Mayoral candidate, Faith, on page 3, and on page 4 listed fundraising figures for other Mayoral candidates.  These appear to be the cash still on hand, not the total receipts listed above and are:  Bowser, $1 million+; Catania, $465,000; and Schwartz, $50,000.  Other candidates for Mayor have less than $500.

I will add details as more information is supplied by DC for Democracy

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

DC Council Approval of 2 Tax Revision Commission Recommendations Will Put $85 Million Annually in Our Pockets

DO YOU WANT $85 MILLION IN ALL OUR POCKETS?
My 10 year effort to restore Tax Fairness to Working Poor and Middle Class is now bearing fruit. G. Lee Aikin, Candidate, Chairman of the City Council, Statehood Green Party.     The Council has just approved (11 to2) a phased in implementation of this proposal.  More details after I read the bill.

If you would like to support my efforts, please send a check written for "Elect G. Lee Aikin, to 1754 Swann St., NW, Washington, DC, 20009.  I am now running for Chair of the DC City Council in the Nov. 4, 2014 General Election.

In 1973 when DC obtained Home Rule, our DC income tax Deductions and Exemptions had parity with the Federal IRS 1040 rates. Unlike the Federal rates which increase yearly with inflation, the DC rates only increased when our Council remembered to do so. For almost 40 year the mostly Democrat DC Council has failed to increase them annually. This failure means that for 2013 taxes a family of 4 pays DC taxes on income above $10,800. What a kick in the gut for poor families! With the Federal D&E rates this same family of 4 only pays taxes on income above $27,800.  

This Council failure has cost us well over a $billion throughout the years since we got Home Rule.  I cannot even begin to calculate the harm this his done to our working poor and lower middle class.  Has it been one important factor in forcing people in Anacostia out into Prince Georges County?  Think how much money has NOT been available for local spending.  Imagine what a difference it will make for local small business if we are getting this $85 Million back every year.

The Tax Revision Commission agrees this is grossly unfair. They want to put $85,000,000 back in our pockets annually. We must all lobby Council members or elect Council members to get this done. Here are the current DC rates compared with the Federal rates by family type and numbers.  The bill just voted by the Council (May 2014) will phase in the increases over a 5 year period [more details to come].
FAMILY SIZE – Deduction    DC Tax      Federal Tax                                               [2013 tax figures]                     D&E's         D&E's
Single, under 65                        $  5,775       $10,000
Single, over 65 or blind                 7,450         11,500
Single, over 65 & blind                 9,125         13,000

Couple, under 65                         7,450         20,000
Couple, 1 under 65, 1 over 65      9,125         21,200
Couple, both over 65                  10,800        22,400
Couple, both over 65, 1 blind      12,475        23,600

Single, 1 child                               7,450       16,750*
Couple, 1 child                              9,125       23,900
Single, 2 children                          9,125        20,650*
Couple, 2 children                    10,800        27,800
Single, 3 children                        10,800        24,550*
Couple, 3 children                       12,475        31,700
Single, 4 children                         12,475        28,450*
Couple, 4 children                       14,150        35,600

When Council actually passed a bill to do this and other TRC ideas at Phil Mendelson's urging, I was overjoyed. But was shocked it phases in slowly, not fully until 2019. I have only found one report of actual benefits. It shows millionaires gain over $8,000 from these changes, people earning $25 to $50,000 gain under $400. What a betrayal. This is why I have chosen to run for Chairman of the Council in Nov. 2014. No more gifts to upper income taxpayers at cost to the poor and middle class.

I should point out that the above chart is by no means complete. *These figures include the additional amounts for "Head of Household" or "Qualifying Widow/er" on the Federal form which apply to one adult caring for dependents. There are other credits and benefits that the very poor may be able to deduct, but this provides a stark overview of how decades of Council neglect have systematically injured poorer people and families. This one simple fix, is worth $85 million a year. Let's get it approved quickly. Lobby Council. VOTE: G. LEE AIKIN.  Unfortunately, the Council felt it was better to implement this measure over a 4 year period so that upper income people and businesses could get large tax deductions.

Here in summary is what the Council has approved for the Deductions and Exemptions:
Standard Deduction: fully implement in 2017; 
    $5,200 single, $8,350 married in 2015 and 2016.
Personal Exemption: fully implement in 2019; 
    $2,200 in 2017; $3,200 in 2018
High Income PE: fully implement exclusion in 2015; 
    incomes over $150,000 single, $200,000 married.

I would also like to pass a bill to allow anyone with a medically certified disability who is as handicapping as a blind person to deduct the same amount as a blind deduction. The federal government should also consider adding this to the 1040 form. From years of experience caring for a husband dying of Alzheimers, I can assure you that in the last 3 years he required more care than a blind person. We have many sick and injured in DC who should be eligible for this tax consideration.


See my other tax posts on this blog for more information on this and other issues.  Check the Index posted Sept. 3, 2013.  All tax related issues are dated in red.

Monday, March 17, 2014

DC Low Income Housing Needs New Ideas

G. Lee Aikin, Candidate, Council At Large
DC Statehood Green Party, March 2014

This article was prepared as a handout to distribute at the recent TENAC (DC Tenants' Advocacy Coalition) Candidate Forum.  [At that time I was in our party's primary.  Now I am running for Chairman of the DC Council in the Nov. 4, 2014 General Election.]This is a complex and difficult problem and I will add new thoughts and links to this post from time to time.  To start with, I would say there are 4 major groups of particular concern regarding housing.  These are:
   1) homeless and distressed individuals,
   2a) young people, often college students or graduates coming to DC to study or work,
   2b) young people growing up in DC but ready to leave home,
   3) lower income families, and
   4) lower income elderly.
Much of the new housing being built in DC is apartments in the 1 and 2 bedroom category.  Even the 1 bedroom apartments often start at $2,000 a month or more.  Established people with good jobs can afford such rents but not very many in the 4 categories above.

Washington DC needs breakthrough legislation that will mobilize the energy and resources of DC people and government to solve the pressing problem of affordable housing. Exclusively central planning style management of resources and pricing will not solve the problem. DC simply has too great an attraction for too many kinds of people who want to live in DC. There is too little supply so the prices go up. If prices are frozen then new supply will stop, which will just be another way for us to have a dramatic lack of affordable housing.  Actually given the current oversupply of higher cost apartments, we may actually end up having a reduction in those rent rates, but it still will not help lower income people.

One TENAC question asked what we candidates will do to protect tenants against the permitted rent increase in rent controlled apartments of 2% above inflation (CPI) rate.  I pointed out that I have seen 3 proposed property tax assessment increases for 2015 of row houses in various areas of northwest.  Two of them were for 10% the third was for 14.6%, that one was also on the block where there were still some modest room rents.  They won't be modest long at that rate.  So this is at least 5% more than inflation plus 2%.  I certainly understand the tenants grief at having to pay more, but will owners want to rent rooms and apartments if their margin drops 5% or more year after year.

These 3 properties had not been upgraded, but their new higher assessments were based on upgrades to neighboring properties.  This is a major cause of the rent hike spiral and must be stopped.  We must change from using the most expensive, newly renovated properties sold in a neighborhood as the basis for all tax assessments on unimproved properties.  Even if increasing values mean all boats are raised, the old leaky boat will still not bring the same price as the sleek new yacht.  Thus older unimproved properties should not have their tax assessment percentages raised to equal these fully renovated properties with their granite counters, stainless appliances, and fully tiled bathrooms.

In addition utilities are increasing.  WASA has recently more than doubled its base rate to pay for the big tunnel storm overflow project.  We now must shell out over $18 before one cent pays for water  The Council has given preliminary approval to let PEPCO spend $1 billion to put more electrical lines underground.  Although the article linked says they estimate a $1.50 increase to our monthly electric bills, I don't trust that figure.  In addition they will be wanting an additional $2 billion to complete the job.  Big digging and paving contractors are no doubt supporting those Council members who vote for this.  Another article points out that rates will likely increase by $3.25 per month and there is a local hiring mandate (which we darn well better enforce!!).  Keep an eye on this issue.

Habitat for Humanity has an attractive framework for a solution. Large enough volunteer teams with the right number of professionals to supervise and do work requiring licensed professionals serves well to provide modest cost housing. Imagine if Washington DC budgeted $200 million a year for building materials and professional talent to move the Habitat for Humanity model to large scale.  Actually at TENAC Mayor Gray proposed spending closer to $300 million.

People may think the many thousands of volunteer hours required to use such a large investment would not be present. However, all we need is for people to see a practical self interest in volunteering their time. What if after 1,000 hours were donated to such effort they could expect a down payment on an inexpensive condominium is a reward? What if this were an option that young workers could follow when convenient over a period of years? What if the costs were so low that people would love to buy such units at prices that would provide enough profit to the DC government, to create more funds to provide housing? What if many of the 60,000 returning citizens in DC could be trained in construction as part of this process? This would provide apprenticeship pathways to well paying jobs and a clear path to affordable housing.

Several in our DCSGP have spent long hours working to create a DC Public Bank. Why put our money in Wall Street owned banks when we can have our own? The bank charter could focus on small business assistance, infrastructure development including housing, and job creation.

Big increases in housing will lower the cost. Over 800,000 people were living in our city at one time. There is room for a substantial expansion back to those levels. We just need the creativity to provide that housing at affordable costs. It is presumed that DC funded housing is just for the poor. If this model is applied to the many young people with middle class assumptions and ambitions then it would have much broader support and funding might conceivably be raised above $200 million per year.  The needs of such newcomers to DC were provided after World War II by places like Hartnett Hall.  With 800 units around the city, with the units described below on 21st St. between O and P Sts., NW, it was a first stopping place for many young people.  There was a cafeteria which served some 3 meals a day.

Hartnett Hall consisted of 80 individual townhouse buildings located around Dupont Circle offering daily, weekly and monthly boarding facilities to over 1000 persons. Rental fees ranged from $10-$25 per week and included daily housekeeping and two meals per day. They specialized in multi-cultural living and served, at one point, one out of every five persons who had moved into DC from the 1940's - 2000s.
Persons could rent a private dorm room or share a room in a house that consisted of men or women's dorms with a shared bath, pay phones for each building and a general meeting room with a television, chess and bridge games and an opportunity to meet persons from every country in the world.

In times past when new, mostly young people came to the city, they expected to live in small studios or in shared apartments. The city is currently overbuilt in middle/upper middle/luxury income apartments. Recently, a friend posted ads for a $900 room and a $1,800 one bedroom apartment. Dozens of responses came in for the room but almost none for the apartment. Craigs List has hundreds of postings for apartments in the $2,000 to $2,500 range showing up repeatedly. DC law requires 150 square feet for a one person dwelling, plus an additional 100 sf per each extra person. A bedroom must have 70 sf, not counting closet for one person, or 50 sf each for more than one. Very small, low cost units can be built with these rules.  Here is one woman's experience with downsizing to an 84 sq. ft. dwelling (photos, other links, and comments at this site.)

The best way to prevent rising apartment rental costs from making housing unaffordable is put people in housing that they own. The best way to prevent people from flipping that housing at much higher prices is to keep the supply of new housing flowing so a substantial shortage does not develop. One option being explored is the concept of the very tiny house (a one hour 20 min. video with a number of links) or efficiency. One experimental project is currently under construction where tiny homes (this in DC with around 600 comments) might be purchased for less than $50,000. The needs of young people, both college graduates, and young people in town turning 18 are somewhat different, but neither can afford to spend a lot on housing. Nor do they need a very large space to live in. They have not yet accumulated the “stuff” of living. Young professionals have expressed interest in living in cheap small units of 260 square feet or less. There is a need for high quality design so that use of the space would be similar to a much larger living space. The same design expertise needs to be brought to the creation of highly functional spaces for families.

Unfortunately, most builders in DC seem to have a Donald Trump complex.  Mr. Trump's father built a very successful business meeting the needs of blue and white collar workers in New York.  When Donald grew up he had learned a lot from Dad, but he wanted to build big, fancy, spectacular buildings and he has.  Do we have any builders in DC with the vision to see that these goals can be combined?  For example, especially in the fast growing popular areas of the city, why not include a segment of dormitory style housing in new market rate apartment buildings.  There new arrivals in DC could rent rooms by the week and month while sharing a bath and cooking areas or having a functioning cafeteria, where some could even be employed.  While there they could make friends and discover who would be a good apartment roommate.  The management would by then have a record of who was a stable room rent payer, and move appropriate people into their nice new apartments.

Hopefully, some builders would even be willing to build mixed income apartments.  The health of a given community is far better if there is socio-economic diversity. Outcomes for children will be better if there are example of success through education that are very visible in the immediate surroundings. We need to focus on reasonable sized multi-family housing clusters that do not extend to a size that has failed in the past. DC residents do not want Cabrini Green or Pruitt-Igoe type projects.

A critical design criterion is long term costs of maintenance and operation. There is a passive house standard very popular in Europe and especially Germany. This standard has highly insulated R40 walls, R60 insulation for roofs, triple pane windows with creative features in the frames to prevent thermal loses, very tight seals everywhere to prevent leakage and a high tech heat exchange unit for preserving 90% of heating and cooling energy. Long term durability and low cost maintenance must also be central to design philosophy.

My answer to all of the TENAC concerns about housing affordability is to provide the supply needed to keep housing affordable. The housing philosophy advocated here can be very complex in practice. In addition I believe a substantially larger part of the DC budget must be allocated to housing. This can best be done with the focused attention of a DC City Council Committee dedicated to housing.

Socialism as a philosophy does not overthrow the basic laws of supply and demand. However, caring for the poor that is implicit in socialism is a moral good that we must embraced. If we can start with a vision based on a creative sense of inclusive community and use it to solve the critical problem of housing it would be a massive win for our city. DC should want to be the caring community that can solve this problem with a style that can be a shining example for the rest of the nation.


Here is one group's efforts to produce a solution

Home, squeezed home: Living in a 200-square-foot space

By Emily Wax, Published: November 27, 2012 E-mail the writer
Step into an alleyway in the Northeast Washington neighborhood known as Stronghold, and you will see a vegetable patch, a campfire, a view of the Capitol and a cluster of what neighbors call “those tiny people, building their tiny houses.”

The people aren’t really tiny, but their homes are — 150 to 200 square feet of living space, some with gabled roofs, others with bright cedar walls, compact bathrooms and cozy sleeping lofts that add up to living spaces that are smaller than the walk-in closets in a suburban McMansion.

“This is the dream,” says Rin Westcott, 28, who lives in Columbia and came out on a wintry Saturday afternoon bundled in a flower hat to help her friend Lee Pera with a tiny-house raising.

Pera, 35, wore safety goggles as she treated the cedar boards of her “little house in the alleyway,” one of three under construction in what is thought to be one of the country’s first tiny-house model communities.

If these affordable homes — which maximize every inch of interior space and look a little like well-constructed playhouses — are the dream, they represent a radically fresh version of what it takes to make Americans happy.

Tiny homes first drew national attention when the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., now based in Santa Rosa, Calif., launched the concept in 2000. The idea gained visibility when it was featured in several national magazines and, in 2007, became the focus of the Tiny House Blog, established by self-proclaimed “lover of tiny spaces” Kent Griswold.

The small homes, some on wheels, don’t warrant many trips to the Container Store. There are no kitchen islands, three-car garages or living rooms that are never lived in. In fact, their increasing popularity could be seen as a denunciation of conspicuous consumption and a rejection of the idea that more is, well, more.

The group behind Stronghold’s tiny-house community calls itself Boneyard Studios. “As property values and rents rise across the city, we want to showcase this potential option for affordable housing,” the group writes on its Web site. “We decided to live the questions: Can we build and showcase a few tiny homes on wheels in a DC urban alley lot? . . . Not in the woods, but in a true community, connected to a neighborhood? Yes, we think. Watch out left coast, the DC adventure begins.”

There’s one problem: The city’s zoning laws don’t allow residential dwellings on alley lots unless they are a minimum of 30 feet wide, or roughly the width of a city street. D.C. is currently discussing lifting the 30-foot restriction. So, as Boneyard Studios continues to advocate more progressive zoning laws, it is using the property to showcase what could be.

“We want to inspire thinking about this as a possibility in the District,” says Brian Levy, 37, one of Boneyard’s founding members, who is building his tiny home in Stronghold but currently lives in a rowhouse off of U Street.

Monday, March 10, 2014

League of Women Voters Questionnaire--Tax Revision Comm., Affordable Housing, Electoral Reform, Charter/Public Schools

Answers: G. Lee Aikin, to League of Women Voters Questionnaire, 
2-16-14
[The LOWV limit of 2500 characters per question limited answers to the first question.  Here is a more complete statement.]

I am currently running for DC Council Chairman (woman) in the November 4, 2014 General election as a member of the DC Statehood Green Party.  If you like my ideas and wish to support my candidacy, please mail a check marked COMMITTEE TO ELECT G. LEE AIKIN, to 1754 Swann St., NW, Washington, DC 20009. Thank you and be sure to vote.

Education
*BA, St. Univ. of Iowa, major-general science, minors-Spanish, Education. 
*Two summers, Mexico City College, studies in Anthropology, Sociology, Spanish and Linguistics. 
*Dept. of Agriculture Graduate School, courses in Abnormal and Cross Cultural Psychology, and Psychology of Public Opinion

Qualifications
*Fifty plus years living in DC. As worker, homeowner, car owner, parent with children in public schools, have experienced many of the problems of ordinary citizens with DCRA, Tax and Revenue, DMV, and Special Education. Mostly with successful resolution. 
*Four years on Mayor's Commission for Food,. Nutrition and Health, Four years and 500+ hours with Mayor's Task Force on Street Vending (trying to save vending for the smallest, poorest venders). Three years work as bilingual Admin. Assist. to At Large School Board member. 
*Union member 9 years (OPEIU,#2), was Shop Steward, on Grievance Comm., and Contract Negotiating Comm. Promoted collection of 24 cartons of books and magazines from members to deliver to Lorton Reformatory. 


Campaign Questions

Q. The Tax Revision Commission recently released their findings. What are your positions on the various tax code changes recommended by the Tax Revision Commission? How would you ensure that the tax code would protect less affluent taxpayers while continuing the revitalization of neighborhoods and overall economic development?  
     I use numbering from the TRC Chairman's Draft Mark of Major Tax Changes, 12-18-13.  I testified twice before the TRC.  [June 24, 2013 testimony and Nov. 12, 2013 testimony]  There are some differences in proposals over time as my knowledge and thinking have developed.  Overall my goal is maximum benefit to save our lower income residents, while not driving out those able to contribute the most.

     Sales Tax
   1. I would need to know more about Prof. Fox's services suggested for sales taxes. Currently our economy is now more service oriented and some should certainly be taxed.
   2. A use tax for internet purchases will only gain $1 million. Too much generalized pain for too little gain. Perhaps a line saying internet purchases above $1667 should pay the sales tax (this is $100 at the 6% rate), or else forget about it until a DC internet sales tax would garner $5 million.
   3. I agree with unifying tobacco product taxation. Also earmark it for health and addiction treatment and education services and programs.
   4. I'm not happy about increasing the sales tax back to 6%, but it IS the rate in MD and VA, and we do NOT tax food, and we have the August back to school tax free days, to reduce impact on the poor, so I am willing if not happy to pay it.

     Individual Income Tax
   5d) I generally approve of the new brackets and percentages except at the upper levels.
For couples the $80,000 to $350,000 jump with increase from 6.5% to 8.5% is too great.
Better would be $80,000 to $150,000 at 7%,
$150,000 to $350,000 at 8.5%,
$350,00 to $1 million at 9% (or 9.5%), and
above $1 million at 9.5% (or 10%).
For singles $60,000 to $100,000 at 7%,
$100,000 to $200,000 at 8.5%,
$200,000 to $600,000 at 9% (or 9.5%) and
above $600,000 at 9.5% (or 10%).
The small increases at the top would more than make up for the reduction in the middle.  [This would be nowhere near California's top rate of 13%.]

   5e) Drop this one. Make the small increases in the top marginal rates I have suggested in 5d) above permanent in 2016.  [In other words 9.5% or 10% rather than a reduction to 8.75%]

   5f) I have been working for TEN YEARS to restore the Standard Deduction and the 5g) Personal Exemption to the Federal parity we had in 1973 when we got Home Rule. The failure of our majority party and elected Council to maintain that parity over 40 years is shameful and has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion. [See a number of relevant posts at my blog: gleeaikin.blogspot.com.] I believe my ten year effort has helped produce this $85 million recommendation for annual savings to our tax bills.  [These two measures combinged are the largest benefit recommended by the TRC.  You can click the two blue "testimony" words above to see my testimony at the TRC.]

   5g) I agree with phasing out the personal exemptions for people earning $150,000 and above.

     Estate Tax

   6. Using the Federal rate for this is consistent with 5f) and 5g) above and is common in many other states. Too much pain for too little gain. Could drive low cost elders out of DC. Most revenue is from very large estates. Also many small businesses and homes plus family savings means that heirs will get a big economic hit at a most distressing and vulnerable time if the $1 million level is kept. Having lost both parents and my husband, I know how stressful that time is for families. It would force a number of small family businesses to liquidate or take on burdensome debt to resolve taxes at that low rate. [Heirs are already burdened by the ONE MONTH vacant property registration rule. This is additional burdensome paperwork and costly legal advice needed to keep heirs from having their legacy confiscated through the 5% and 10% class 3 and 4 tax rates.  It would also drive up rental rates as heirs are force to sell family rental property which is then taxed at the higher sale rate.  Also with the probability of forcing tenants out for the sale.]  A recent report says that some students are being required to repay all their student loans as soon as the co-signer of their loan dies.

     Business Taxes

   7.  Reducing the Unincorporated Business Franchise Tax from 9.975% to 8.25% may be too much. This ties in with the D-30 tax form which requires anyone grossing above $12,000 to complete this opaque and burdensome form. That figure has not been changed since 1986, and in today's money should be almost $26,000. The UBFT minimum tax of $100 was recently increased to $250. That is grossly unfair with no comparable increase in the minimum gross. There is also a $5,000 deduction, which should be increased to $10,000. This benefit at the lower level would thus make a 1.725% reduction less necessary. The $57 million in tax loss predicted could thus be pared down a bit without hurting lower income businesses. The D-30 taxation could be greatly simplified for people with only rental and simple sales income and I would love to be involved in that process.

   8) & 9).   I have no experience with passive investment vehicles or single weighted sales formula. Regarding out of state municipal bonds the TRC pointed out we have few such bonds here in DC, and I think this issue needs more examination. Certainly bonds already held should be grandfathered from taxation.

   10) A local services fee on employers will cause the 70% of people employed in DC who do not live here or are taxed here to help pay for police, firemen, street repairs, etc. However, I don't think it should be $25/employee/quarter. I think that out of state employees should be rated higher, perhaps $40 and DC residents lower, perhaps $10. It might be an incentive for hiring DC residents.

   [I believe that in sum my recommendations would reduce the expected shortfall in Total Revenue.]

     --Following the Tax Revision Commission recommendations with the modest changes I have proposed will help reduce the tax burden for the middle 20% of tax payers who currently pay the highest percentage of taxes. [See charts with my Nov. 12, 2013 testimony.]  Restoring the original parity of Deduction and Exemptions with Federal rates, that I have fought so hard to achieve, will especially help the lowest paid workers and families.  For example, parents with 2 children currently deduct only $10,800 from their Adjusted Gross Income.  Coupled with the Federal D&Es they can deduct $27,800.  The $85 million that this will put back in our pockets will especially benefit lower income neighborhood businesses and residents.

     --I also urged that we follow the example of PG and Montgomery Counties which have variable business tax rates. [See chart in my June 24, 2013 testimony.]  I testified it just didn't seem fair that businesses in blighted neighborhoods were paying $1.85 per $100 assessed valuation.  [Homeowners only pay $0.85 per $100.]  About a year later the Council recommended and voted a reduction to $1.65 per $100 for property valued under $3 million. We need an additional reduction for property under $1 million to perhaps $1.45, and for property under $1/2 million to $1.20.
      This should save some of the businesses that could be pushed out by Walmart competition [click “Walmart Realty” to see their suspect business model.  Reading between the lines, it sounds like they don't care if their primary stores fail, just so long as they can buy up the failed businesses around them, and get the cooperation of elected leaders, such as the one who now has 2 Walmarts in her Ward.  There are many 2 story business properties there an elsewhere which assembled when businesses fail can then be developed as much larger buildings to the benefit of big developers and the politicians they support financially.].  Also businesses in poorer neighborhoods would have a bit more money to improve their properties or be less afraid that improvements would cause a big jump in their taxes.

Q. What policies do you support to create more affordable housing?

     --The tax credit from a few years ago worked well and perhaps should be reintroduced.
     --Young people need to learn to save at an early age, perhaps like the program in my childhood public school to set aside money for savings bonds. 
     --Perhaps a loan guarantee for lower interest rate long-term housing loans, especially if people took a homeowners course on money management and basic maintenance and repairs. This could be offered as part of an adult education program and would be good in high schools as well. 
     --We must require builders to follow low-cost and affordable unit number legal requirements in new construction and major renovations. Some provision has to be made for including very low cost housing. 
     --Eliminate the Basic Business License for business income under $100,000. People have to jump through major hoops to legally rent rooms in their homes, although they are allowed as “a matter of right” to rent out two rooms in their house. Some “right” given the BBL issue! This is really hurting the elderly who want to rent out a room, and others who just want a low cost room to rent.

Q. What changes would you support to improve the election process and increase voter participation?

     --Ideally we should have a money limit and publicly financed elections. Lacking that we must have a realistic campaign contribution limit. $100 a few years ago was unrealistically low. 
      --Instant run-off or similar mechanism would help situations like our current Democrat campaigns for Mayor and At Large which have 3 or more candidates. Someone is likely to win with less than 50% of the vote. 
      --Since at least one Democrat looser in the Mayoral race is likely to declare themselves an Independent and run At Large, this completely nullifies the intent of the law that states that each party can only elect one person to At Large. We need a law that states politicians must declare their Party one year before the General Election, or else cannot change parties after loosing in the preceding Primary Election. 
      --If students do not have experience with elections such as voting for Class President and Vice President, then something like this should be instituted. It could be connected with something like announcing at sporting events and the like.

Q. What is the major issue facing our charter schools and the major issue facing our traditional public schools? How would you address these issues?

     --Strong feelings regarding the two types of public schools are linked with the gentrification issue and specific efforts of right wing groups to eliminate as much government as possible. Many feel it was no accident that the Walton Foundation (Walmart) financed IFF study wanted to close or repurpose a large number of our Public Schools, especially in Wards 7 and 8. Walmart blackmail on the $12.50 large retailer pay bill further angered many. Parents certainly have a right to want to have good, and even experimental schools for their children (charter schools), but parents also have a right to not fear for their youngsters who may have long dangerous walks or even require transportation as under-filled public schools in the cluster system are closed or turned over to charter schools.  
     -- Two practices are particularly burdensome to the public school budget and reputation, and give unfair advantage and reputation to charter schools. Charter schools are known to discharge a number of students as soon as the official count has been made, and also just before standardized tests are conducted. As soon as a student is transferred back to the public school system, the money MUST go with them instead of staying in the charter school as happens now. Also, if students are kicked out of the charter school within a certain number of weeks of standardized tests, then their scores MUST be assigned to that charter school. Parents choosing charter schools must know if the statistics that attract them are phony or real. There should definitely be a moratorium on new charter schools until that is fixed. 
     --Underutilized schools in poorer neighborhoods should add community functions like after school study help, day care for working mothers, adult education classes, and similar programs. Studies have shown that mothballing schools does not result in significant savings. We must hold on to the schools we have for the children our many new young residents will be having, provided we make DC and it's schools attractive enough for them to continue living here when married.

****I am currently a candidate for Chairman of the DC Council.  If you like what you see here,  I hope you will vote for me on Nov. 4, 2014.  You can also change your registration on election day.  If you are not DCSGP, but would like to support my efforts to continue these battles for economic justice for the working poor, the middle class, and small business and entrepreneurs, please mail my campaign a check.  The check should be written to Committee to  ELECT G. LEE AIKIN, and mailed to G. Lee Aikin, 1754 Swann St., NW, Washington, DC 20009. 
     Two years ago, I also ran for At Large Council, but a long time DCSGP activist won the Primary.  However, she was not allowed to speak at the League of Women Voters candidate forum because she did not have at least 20 contributions of $5 or more.  Please don't let this happen again.

Monday, March 3, 2014

We Must Reconsider DC Marijuana Laws--Decriminalization and Legalization

The Washington, DC Council has been considering a law to decriminalize possession of 1 ounce or less of pot, with a $25 civil fine.  Today, (March 4) the DC Council voted 10 to 1 for a decriminalization bill.  Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times carry detailed stories.  Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander voted no saying she though it could compromise the city's medical marijuana program and creates disparities in punishment for use in public housing versus private homes.  Mayoral candidate Vincent Orange, Council At Large, abstained when his amendment to the bill preventing employers from testing for marijuana during the hiring process failed.  Mayor Gray has said he will approve the measure.  Let's hope he gets that done before the other shoe gets dropped on the "Shadow" Campaign investigation.  [ The Mayor has signed the bill as of the last week of March 2014.]

Now that the bill is signed, folks favoring legalization are moving that measure forward and the DC Board of Elections has approved Ballot Initiative #71 language for the Nov. 2014 election.  [April 23]  The legalization petitions are now available at 2448 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, tel: 202-733-4640.  More information on the proposed law is available at DCMJ.org. There is also a two minute video.  [June 19] Qualified petition circulators are still desired by the organization.  All petitions must by submitted to the Bd. of Elections by July 7th, although petitions should be returned before that as several days are needed to organize the paperwork.  I thought I would look into the most recent results and attitudes in Colorado (a March 22, 2014 article) and Washington state.  Even some of the super-rich favor legalization as explained in this Forbes article.

Many here believe we should follow the example of Washington state and Colorado and legalize marijuana. In fact, this June, 2014, in Maryland, legalization of marijuana, taxing it and directing the more than $100 million projected revenue to improving education is a hot issue in the race for governor. Candidate Mizeur is basing part of her TV ad campaign on this issue.  

In DC almost one third of residents in Wards 5, 7, and 8 do not favor this, many to a strong degree. Here is where parents are most likely to see marijuana use and other problems in tandem.  It is important to understand that we political supporters of legalization generally favor modeling this after our alcohol laws. There should be underage rules, and others regarding safe driving and public behavior.  In addition we must be aware of potential harm to younger smokers, and have adequate education, counseling and treatment for those who end up using and in trouble from other problems.  This will be especially important if decriminalization means fewer court ordered referrals for drug counseling.

The drug war has been as big a mistake as was alcohol prohibition a century ago. It has created an army of criminals who are willing to to murder to protect the interests of their 'hoods or cartels. There are regions of Mexico where the crime lords are the rulers.  In far too many US neighborhoods gangs distributing drugs are a very real and dominate part of daily life.  As happened with alcohol, polls now document that much of the public does not support the laws against marijuana.  Medical marijuana seems to have overwhelming support even in somewhat conservative parts of the country.

DC residents are more liberal than the nation as a whole.  Thus, it should not be a surprise that 75 % of DC residents support making possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil violation punishable by a fine with no jail time. Only 21% would oppose doing this.  In fact, 60% strongly support decriminalization. Support for complete legalization is only slightly lower. When DC residents are asked if they would support Colorado and Washington state type legalization 63% favor it versus 30% opposed. Most politicians in our nation would love to rate 2 to1 over their opposition. 

Popularity does not imply a policy will best serve the people. There is considerable evidence that marijuana use by children is not good. With legalization all sellers will be required to verify the age of people buying the product. Obviously illegal dealers do not check the age of their customers, nor do they care if it is spiked with other more dangerous drugs.  

People should also be aware that the marijuana plant is also called hemp. This was an extremely important product for many years as a source of fiber for rope and other textile purposes.  I have read that part of the war on marijuana was because DuPont did not want it competing with their new synthetic rope fibers like Nylon.  Hemp seeds are high in protein and essential fatty acids and are a component in many bird seed mixtures.  As someone once joked, "Now I know why the caged bird sings."

There is considerable research on the effectiveness of advertising in reducing tobacco use.  Such advertising can be very effective if funds are used by people who really want less tobacco use. We have every reason to think realistic information could have similar effects with marijuana. Obviously it should be sound science that is felt to be credible by its target audience.

Colorado estimates $100 million in new revenue can come from taxing marijuana. DC has slightly more than one tenth the population of Colorado. Thus we could expect roughly $10 million in taxes if we used Colorado's 29%  tax rates on their sales of roughly $34.4million. A small fraction of this tax flow would be more than enough to pay for needed advertising, with money left over to fund drug and alcohol counseling and treatment.

Legalizing pot removes the business from criminal hands.  This would go a long way toward eliminating criminal violence associated with this criminal enterprise.  Instead we would have legitimate, taxpaying and regulated businesses.

On the other hand, decriminalization will reduce penalties for the end-users, but supplying the demand would still be in the hands of criminals.  This would include dealing and selling within DC as well as the illegal transport across Maryland and Virginia.  Hopefully this unfortunate situation would be corrected before it gave prohibitionists the argument that we "tried legalization and it didn't work."  Allowing growth of small numbers of mariguana plants would reduce this problem.

Legalization would also allow the regulation and monitoring of the product which is sold. PCP is very common in DC and is an example of an adulterant that can have bad consequences.  Roughly 12% of males arrested in DC tested positive for PCP in 2012.

People should understand the medical implications for cannabis users (cannabis is the scientific name for marijuana).  The brain and body have a complex system of cannabinoid receptors specifically designed to process cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the primary active components of marijuana. This enhances its effectiveness as a pain reliever.  There are many functions for these receptors. Their importance is highlighted by the fact that many cannabinoids in marijuana are found in mother's milk. The well known tendency of THC to enhance enjoyment of sensation includes delight in taste, colloquially called “having the munchies.”   The endocannabinoids of mother's milk specifically activate cannabinoid receptors to reinforce the critically important sucking response in infants.

For people addicted to other drugs (such as heroin, cocaine, tobacco or alcohol) marijuana can ease withdrawal symptoms and provide an alternative which, for most people, will cause less harm to the body and mind. Cannabis has many categories of potential harm, some of them very significant. However, even with these negative effects it is one of the most benign recreational drugs in common usage. It has on average less negative effects than any other recreational or illicit drug with the possible exception of ecstasy. This can be seen by comparing marijuana with commonly used drugs on addictiveness, lethal dosage, deaths caused, and association with crime.

Some people say with justification that Internet use can be addictive. Anything pleasurable can be addictive and create other problems in life.  The most commonly cited number on NIH web sites is that 9% of marijuana users will become addicted.  These agencies report much higher rates of addiction for alcohol-15%, nicotine-32%, and other hard drugs. About half of addicted marijuana users will report some explicit withdrawal symptoms.   The rest will be addicted because of pleasurable experiences.  A 1999 Institute of Medicine report says, “A distinctive marijuana withdrawal syndrome has been identified, but it is mild and short lived.”  Based on the relative ease of dealing with withdrawal symptoms a number of researchers have rated caffeine as more addictive than marijuana.  Other researchers believe the greater pleasure and intoxication effect from marijuana makes it more addictive than caffeine. This shows the subjective nature of addiction study.

In toxicology the lethal dose of a compound is usually designated with the term LD50 (deadly for 50% of organisms dosed).   The level of THC that would be fatal to half of dosed people is literally 40,000 times greater than the amount required to saturate all cannabinoid receptors and cause maximum intoxication.  For comparison, nicotine from 60 average cigarettes will reach the LD50 level for half of 60kg people (60kg=132 pounds). Caffeine from 80 to 100 cups of coffee reaches the LD50 level.  A small number of deaths from caffeine have been seen with the growing popularity of caffeine laden energy drinks. The LD50 level for alcohol is considered to be between 0.4% and 0.5% in the blood. Some fatalities occur with blood alcohol levels lower than this range. Eight ounces of pure alcohol absorbed in less than an hour will produce this level in most people weighing 160 pounds or less. Fifteen to 21 average drinks can easily provide this depending on what else is being consumed. Cocaine is also very toxic.  

Heroin is not directly toxic. However, as with all opioids it is a potent respiratory depressant and deaths can occur from a dose of 75mg to 400 mg in an inexperienced opiate user.  [A friend of my husband's stopped using heroin, finished law school, and decided to get high to celebrate.  His clean system could not handle his old higher dose and it killed him.]  The CDC reports the opioids Oxycontin and Vicodin were responsible for three fourths of the 38,329 US drug overdose deaths reported in 2010. Heroin deaths are about 3,500 per year.  The CDC estimates alcohol kills 80,000 each year and causes about 1.2 million hospital admissions.  The CDC estimates 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking tobacco or exposure to secondhand smoke.  Another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking.  Marijuana has a minute level of risk.

People typically do not get violent on marijuana as they do with alcohol.    Three out of four reported cases of spousal abuse are associated with alcohol. One third of prisoners in local jails self report that they had used alcohol at the time of offense, and 37.7% of violent criminals say they had used alcohol.  Some years ago isolated Barrow, Alaska eliminated alcohol.  There was a 70% reduction in crime, especially domestic violence.  PCP, cocaine, and methamphetamine are other drugs known to engender violence.  Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive drugs known.  [Someone I knew, now dead from cocaine lung injury, said he would rather have used marijuana if it were easier to get than crack.]

There is ample documentation of the low to non-existent risks with cannabis for every relevant measure. Perhaps the most important issue with marijuana is the systemic use of prosecution to target African-Americans. In June of 2013 the ACLU release a report titled The War on Marijuana in Black and White. The subtitle is Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests. It is a staggering indictment of DC policy.  Our City spends at a higher rate to prosecute and incarcerate marijuana users than any American state. This “investment” resulted in a record 846 people arrested per 100,000 population during 2010. The highest state rate was New York with 535 per100,000.  It is also over three times the national rate of 256 per 100,000. Marijuana use rates are very similar across racial groups. The arrest rates of 1,489 blacks and 185 whites (per 100,000) in DC is a ratio greater than 8 to 1. This is higher than all other states with the exception of Iowa at 8.35. It is over double the 3.73 to 1 ratio for the nation as a whole.

In 2013 the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs reported a huge 91% of drug arrests were of Afro-Americans. Actually, it is even worse than this since a number of the “white” arrests were Latinos with mixed ancestry. Washington DC has the national record for arrest rate and spending on marijuana arrests and prosecution with almost a national record high rate for differentially targeting African-Americans. In 2011 DC graduated 2,868 people from high school and arrested 5,759 for marijuana possession. This means we are giving out twice as many arrests records than high school graduation diplomas. 

High unemployment rates among blacks in DC are a serious problem. The extremely high rates at which DC gives “criminal records” to DC blacks for a “crime” largely ignored among whites explains a big part of how and why we have this problem. The legal structure of this system was laid down by Congressional Dixiecrats with a deep racial bias in a period from 1940 to 1973. Obviously there is no valid white interest in maintaining a black underclass. Society as a whole will be much more pleasant for everyone if we have greater equality and economic inclusion.  The current marijuana policy is a major destructive engine creating our black underclass.  This massive racial differential in the treatment of blacks and whites will only be eliminated with a rational legalization policy that properly reflects the underlying science.