The D.C. Council voted 8 to 5 on Tuesday to reject a pair of proposals to raise income taxes to prevent deep cuts to many social service programs, including those that help low-income residents pay for childcare and rent.
In successive votes, the council voted against a proposal by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that would have raised the income tax on any resident who makes $75,000 or more. The council later rejected a proposal by council members Michael Brown (I-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) to raise income taxes only on residents who make more than $200,000.
During a heated exchange, council members traded verbal jabs over whether taxpayers should be asked to contribute more to help close a $188 million shortfall.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), the incoming mayor, said he prefers that the council consider taxes in the spring, when he and the council will try to close a $440 million gap in the fiscal 2012 budget.
But council members Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) joined Wells, Graham and Brown in voting to raise taxes. During the debate, several members accused their colleagues of not caring about the city's poor.
"People say this is about soaking the rich, but lets be clear, the budget before us soaks the poor, and if you had a choice between soaking the rich and soaking the poor, which would you accept?" Graham asked.
Later, Barry warned that opponents of the tax proposals will have to deal with their "conscience" if they vote against programs that help the city's poorest residents, including a proposal to scale back cash payments to residents who have been on welfare for at least five years.
"I don't believe in your heart of hearts you can do that in good conscience," Barry said. "When you cut welfare benefits the children suffer the most."
Gray, who headed the city's Department of Human Services in the 1990s, was visibly irritated by suggestions that opponents of higher taxes did not care about the poor.
"To have to address the cuts we are addressing is a very, very painful experience to me," Gray said. "There is not going to be anyone out in the street."
But Gray said the "District of Columbia is in dire straights," so tough decisions need to be made.
"The Grim Reaper is at the door and I will not sit here and be part of any exercise that results in a control board coming back to the District of Columbia," said Gray, referring to the congressionally appointed board that controlled city finances in the late 1990s.
Still, Gray and several of the council members who voted against the tax proposals said they probably could support some increases in the spring.
"The day of reckoning is not one we can hope our way out of," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). "What we are doing here today is putting us in a position to review everything ... so that when day of reckoning comes, we can have a thoughtful sensible approach."