D.C. Council votes to override Mayor Vincent Gray’s budget veto


D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) cast the lone “no” in Monday’s vote to override Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s veto of the 2015 budget. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council easily rebuffed Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s veto of the city’s $12.64 billion spending plan Monday, swatting away a last-gasp effort by the lame-duck mayor to keep funding intact for a streetcar network, a new hospital and other priorities he has watched slip away even before leaving office.

Despite what Gray’s office described as personal appeals to the sitting council members competing to replace him, the same majority that gutted Gray’s proposed budget in June held together Monday, quashing the veto with a 12-to-1 vote.

The council’s near-unanimity left plans intact for a wide-ranging package of tax cuts rooted in the council’s concerns over the growing unaffordability of living in the city, where thousands of new condos have replaced run-down housing that once dotted downtown Washington.

Most of the tax cuts will be triggered if city revenue continues to grow on pace with recent years. When fully implemented, the cuts would affect every business as well as residents earning up to $1 million annually. Somewhat controversially, the cuts would be funded mostly by slowing spending on Gray’s master plan for citywide streetcar service, eliminating some targeted tax exemptions and expanding the city sales tax to new areas, including gym and yoga-studio memberships.

Only Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who voted against the budget last month, declined to support the veto override.

”I believe that this budget is unwise,” said Wells, who is leaving office in January. “I believe we have an emerging transit crisis. . . . This budget says it’s more important to have tax cuts than to fund the transit infrastructure we need for the future of our city.”

Most other members spoke in support of the deal crafted by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), saying that while it may include provisions they might not support, the overall package is worthy of support.

One member, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), said he considered whether funding for the homeless might be revisited in light of a Washington Post investigation published Sunday into the state of the D.C. General family shelter. But Graham said he was not convinced that further negotiation with the Gray administration would be fruitful.

“I can’t count on the people on the other side of the table,” he said. “I’m going to stay with the budget as we passed it.”

To sustain the veto, Gray would have needed to persuade five of the council’s 13 members to oppose the override.

Gray, who lost his bid for reelection in the April 1 Democratic primary, acknowledged in an interview Friday that the council was likely to kill the veto, but he said he felt compelled to speak up for his priorities.

“We’re making a statement about what’s important in this city,” he said. “I could have just let this go. . . . But I think it’s important to call attention to those things that are important to the continued, sound growth and development of the city.”

In a statement following Monday’s vote, Gray said he was “disappointed that the Council did not see fit to work with me to craft a reasonable compromise that serves the best interest of District residents.”

The budget override capped a marathon final day of lawmaking before the council’s two-month summer recess. Lawmakers took final action on several long-simmering issues and confronted a new one: a loan default by a nonprofit that controls Park Southern Apartments, one of the city’s largest affordable housing complexes.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) proposed legislation granting council member Muriel E. Bowser, the city’s Democratic nominee for mayor, authority to investigate the default on the $3 million loan.

The Washington Post reported Monday that Gray’s administration asked Bowser to hold a public hearing on the default, but Bowser has not yet done so. The head of the nonprofit that controls Park Southern switched from backing Gray to backing Bowser during the city’s Democratic primary, adding a layer of political intrigue to the default.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) came to Bowser’s defense, saying Catania should stop “dipping and dabbling” in affairs in his ward. Bowser said Park Southern was not on the list of issues her committee planned to meet about over the summer, and Catania withdrew his request, saying it was clear Bowser had no interest in holding a hearing.

In other actions:

●Final approval was granted to a measure banning employers from asking job applicants if they have been arrested or convicted of a crime until after an initial job offer is extended. The measure, which goes to the mayor, would have the District join 12 states that have passed similar “ban-the-box” legislation. The previously unsuccessful measure, authored by Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), builds on a series of efforts under Gray to increase rights and funding for the city’s ex-convicts.

●The council also unanimously backed a measure targeting so-called “wage theft,” which makes it a crime for employers to pay less than the minimum wage; to advertize one wage for a job and then pay a lower one; or to manipulate workers’ hours to prevent them from qualifying from higher levels of compensation.

●A ban on food and beverage containers made of plastic foam won final approval. Starting in 2016, the District will join Seattle, San Francisco and dozens of other mostly West Coast cities that have banned foam containers on ecological grounds. To win support of grocery store chain Safeway, the council agreed to exempt foam meat trays. The American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for foam manufacturers, said after the vote that District businesses may be required to use materials “that may actually be worse for the environment.”

●The head of the District’s utility regulation board won confirmation to another four-year term. Labor and consumer advocates had objected to what they said was the rushed reappointment of Betty Ann Kane to chair the D.C. Public Service Commission, but council members voted not to delay the confirmation. Voting against was Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who called Kane, a former council member, “a lapdog for Pepco” in unusually biting comments from the dais.

●A unanimous “sense of the council” resolution blasted an effort by House Republicans to thwart a new D.C. law that would decriminalize possession of marijuana. Among its supporters was Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who voted against the decriminalization law but said she wanted the council “united together to tell Congress to stay out of our affairs.”

●The council also passed a measure to significantly loosen restrictions on the District’s medical marijuana program. It voted to replace a small and defined list of illnesses and symptoms for which doctors could recommend marijuana with blanket authority for physicians to recommend the plant for “any condition for which treatment with medical marijuana would be beneficial, as determined by the patient’s physician.” The measure was passed on an emergency basis, meaning it will take effect but will require further votes to make permanent.

●In the latest in a series of proposed efforts to rename streets to make political statements, Council member Alexander also proposed a measure to rename two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue adjacent to the White House “D.C. Statehood Now Way.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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