Talk of D.C. Commuter Tax Finds Opposition in Maryland
||Baltimore Sun (MD)
||Friday, August 10, 2012
||Matthew Hay Brown
Talk in Congress of letting the District of Columbia tax commuters is getting a cool reception in Maryland.
Officials in Washington say such a measure could raise $1.2 billion in new revenue — enough to fund nearly an eighth of the district's $9.65 billion operating budget.
But it would cost Maryland — with nearly 250,000 commuters, the district's largest source of workers — hundreds millions of dollars.
"I'm vehemently against it," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who represents thousands who work in Washington. "You can get into a turf war and everybody will be taxing everybody."
The long-discussed idea, which would require an act of Congress, was raised most recently by Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The panel has jurisdiction over D.C. affairs.
"I think we should, after the election, start thinking about how we're going to deal with the only place that doesn't have the ability to tax people who earn their income in that place," Issa told district officials last month.
He offered no specifics, but proposed a hearing on the subject.
A commuter tax would not increase the individual taxpayer's burden, because state law allows residents to claim a credit for taxes paid to other states. But those credits could cost Maryland $700 million in revenue diverted to the district.
Cummings, the top Democrat on the oversight committee, said the measure would not pass Congress. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, is similarly skeptical.
But Issa's attention — he hasn't said whether he would favor such a tax — has been welcomed by D.C. officials, who have long coveted the authority to levy a tax on commuters of the sort assessed by Philadelphia, Detroit and other large cities.
District Councilman Jack Evans, chairman of the council's finance and revenue committee, says the inability to collect such a tax costs the district more than $1 billion in revenue annually.
"Our infrastructure and public services are provided to these individuals, who do not in return provide any revenue to the district to support them," he said. "Every other jurisdiction in America has the right to levy a commuter tax and so should the district."
As the seat of the federal government, the district faces unique challenges. It is unable to tax 40 percent of the real estate in Washington, much of which is federal property. It must submit its budget to Congress for approval.
And nearly three-quarters of its workers live somewhere else. Maryland, which contributes the most commuters, is home to almost 43 percent of the workforce; Virginia is second with 28 percent.
District analysts say a 3 percent tax on income earned there by workers who reside elsewhere would raise $1.2 billion in new revenue each year. Even if Maryland and Virginia responded with a similar tax on workers from Washington, the district still would net close to $750 million.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's longtime representative in Congress, is not hopeful. While she is supportive of a commuter tax — "It's hard to be a Washingtonian and not be" — she said she doesn't "suffer illusions" about its prospects.
"Not only would we have our normally friendly Maryland and Virginia delegations arrayed against us," she said, "but in the Senate, we would have not one, not two, not three, but four senators" opposed — two each from the neighboring states.
"It takes only one senator to stop something," she said, referring to Senate rules that allow a single member to derail legislation by placing a hold on it.
Cummings said the district already benefits from the presence of Marylanders.
"When they go into D.C., they shop in D.C., they buy lunch and dinner in D.C.," he said. "They spend money there, they help the businesses, and therefore the tax base."
John Fitzpatrick lives in Baltimore and works in Washington. He's originally from New Jersey, he said, and the idea of a commuter tax "is not new to me." New York City once collected such taxes from workers who lived elsewhere.
Fitzpatrick said he would want to hear more details before taking a position on the D.C. proposal.
"The district has a lot of challenges in terms of revenue and spending," he said. "It would behoove them to make a case for how a commuter tax would benefit not only the residents there but also the workers."
Hoyer, whose congressional district abuts D.C., said he would oppose such a measure.
"I will tell you this," he said. "Those of us who represent the metropolitan area, if a commuter tax is imposed, may be much more supportive of moving government to the suburbs in the 5th Congressional District, the 4th Congressional District, the 8th Congressional District, in Virginia and other places, so that our citizens would work and live in their communities. Which they would really enjoy."
Chris Metzler waited at Penn Station one morning last week for the 7:40 a.m. MARC train to Washington. The Baltimore man, a dean at Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, said talk of a commuter tax obscures what he called the "larger issue."
"Make D.C. a state, and let them make their own decisions," he said. "Let them tax their own citizens and take responsibility for their own infrastructure."