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Commentary
Root for a D.C. commuter tax
(Published April 18, 2005)

By BILL MOSLEY

Now that major league baseball has returned to the District, we can head to RFK, buy a scorecard and some popcorn, and temporarily forget about our lack of full democracy as we watch the Nats battle the National League's best. Or can we?

In fact, the ballpark is becoming the next battleground of the D.C. democracy movement beginning with the debate over whether to disinvite President Bush from throwing out the first ball at the April 14 home opener in favor of a supporter of voting rights in Congress, such as Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (in the end, the President did the honors).

But an even more critical baseball-home rule connection is tied to a lawsuit filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals by Mayor Anthony Williams, the D.C. City Council and a group of D.C. taxpayers arguing that the congressional ban on a local commuter tax is unconstitutional. Whether or not the constitutional argument flies, there is no doubt that the ban on taxing the income of non-residents a prohibition made possible by the District's colonial relationship to the federal government is grossly unjust and that it prevents the District from tapping a potentially lucrative source of revenue for up to $1.4 billion a year, according to the plaintiffs.

Municipalities in 47 states rely on commuter taxes for a large share of their budget, and it's only fair that the commuters pay. In large cities across America, suburbanites stream in every day, using city services such as roads, traffic signals and police. Why should they get a free ride when those cities the District being no exception have pressing needs for more revenue for schools, libraries, health care and other services?

Yet Congress, which exercises unique legislative control over the District, has shielded the Marylanders, Virginians, West Virginians and other commuters from being subject to D.C. taxes not to mention the lawyers, lobbyists and consultants who set up shop here but whose tax money goes elsewhere. It's no accident that members of Congress from the suburbs tend to seek control over committees that oversee the District Tom Davis of Virginia being the House's current czar of D.C. matters where they enjoy a well-placed seat from which to bat down any legislation that may benefit the District but be inconvenient to their constituents.

So what does all this have to do with baseball? The commuter corps includes Nats players, coaches and other personnel who live outside the District, as well as personnel from visiting teams. The D.C. affairs section of the District of Columbia Bar recently crunched numbers to see how much tax revenue the District would gain if we were able to assess a tax on the salaries of all members of the Nats' roster and those of visiting teams for the games they play at RFK Stadium, arriving at an estimate of $3.6 million per year or $109 million over 30 years, enough to finance almost half of the expected cost of constructing a new baseball stadium.

As the Nat players are just settling into their new homes, it's too early to tell how many may decide to settle in the District, but if the past history of local sports teams is any indication, most of those million-plus salaries will disappear across state boundaries. One example: For many years, George Starke, the "head hog" of the Super Bowl-era Redskins' offensive line, was the only member of the entire team to live in the District.

If the current lawsuit succeeds, we can welcome Terrmel Sledge, Livan Hernandez and Vinny Castilla to the folds of District taxpayers, whether they choose to live in Mount Pleasant, Potomac, Reston or elsewhere. But courts haven't been friendly to the D.C. democracy movement lately. A lower court rejected the commuter tax suit, and back in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the "Adams vs. Clinton" and "Alexander vs. Daley" suits the latter to give the District a vote in Congress, the former to establish broader constitutional rights for the District.

But if the courts fail to provide relief, we can take matters into our own hands by showing up at RFK stadium on game day and greeting the players not with programs to autograph, but with Realtors' brochures about attractive homes for sale in the District. Make a Nat your neighbor! It wouldn't be a commuter tax, but it would be the next best thing.

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Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C Coalition. Contact him at billmosley@starpower.net.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator