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D.C. Council Raises Taxes, Fees on Luxury SUVs

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page B03

The D.C. Council approved legislation yesterday that will require District owners of large, luxury sport-utility vehicles to pay a higher excise tax and registration fee next year, after concluding that the vehicles contribute to air pollution and street damage.

But under the new legislation, residents with clean-air hybrid cars will no longer have to pay an excise tax and will have their vehicle registration fees cut in half.

Council Actions

The D.C. Council yesterday:

• Raised the excise tax 1 percent on luxury sport-utility vehicles that weigh 5,000 pounds or more, including the Cadillac Escalade and the Ford Excursion, and increased the registration fee on these vehicles from $115 to $155.

• Eliminated the vehicle tax on clean-air hybrid cars and reduced the registration fee for the cars from $72 to $36.

• Increased the minimum wage from $6.15 an hour to $6.60 an hour beginning Jan. 1. A year later, the wages will go up to $7 an hour.

• Designated April 16, Emancipation Day, a legal holiday for city workers. That is the date on which President Abraham Lincoln signed a federal law ending slavery in the District.

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D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said she pushed the legislation because personal vehicles that weigh 5,000 pounds or more are becoming more popular. Schwartz said those vehicles "cause enormous wear and tear on our roads."

The District has about 6,000 registered passenger vehicles that weigh 5,000 pounds or more, including the Hummer H-2, BMW X5, Cadillac Escalade, Ford Excursion and Volkswagen Touareg, according to Anne Witt, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

The new excise tax on large SUVs would increase from 7 percent to 8 percent of the vehicle's market value. An owner whose SUV has a sticker price of $60,000, for example, would pay an excise tax of $4,800, an increase of $600. The excise tax is a one-time payment made when an owner registers the vehicle.

The vehicle registration fee on SUVs also will increase, from $115 to $155.

The council decided to reduce fees for owners of hybrid cars because those vehicles have lower emissions than regular vehicles and run on regular fuel and electricity. The excise tax savings on a hybrid Toyota Prius, which costs about $20,000, would be about $1,200. Under the legislation, the vehicle registration fee would be reduced from $72 to $36.

"This was all recommended by the mayor," Schwartz said. "It seemed to make sense to encourage those vehicles in our environment's best interest and discourage those that are not."

In other action, the council approved bills that would increase the minimum wage from $6.15 to $6.60 an hour beginning Jan. 1. A year later, the wages would go up to $7 an hour.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who introduced the legislation along with Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), said that the wage increase would raise the salaries of 18,000 workers. Catania said he approached business leaders in the restaurant, hotel and parking industry to win their support to make it easier for his colleagues to vote for the bill.

"I'm thrilled," Catania said. "It underscores the sensitivity of this council to the plight of the low-income workers in the District."

The council also voted to give District government employees an extra day off by designating April 16, Emancipation Day, as a legal holiday. It takes effect next year.

Three council members -- Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) -- voted against adding the holiday. Since the District began celebrating Emancipation Day in 2000, city workers have had the option of taking paid or unpaid leave to participate in festivities that day.

Mendelson said he opposed the bill because it would cost the city too much in wages and productivity to close the government. "It seems to me that we have better uses for the $3 million," he said. "This has a cost to it."

Fenty stressed that he had supported the legislation that recognized Emancipation Day but that he did not see the need to make it a legal holiday.

"I don't think we need to give District of Columbia workers and public schools students a day off," he said.

Much of the council's attention yesterday focused on legislation that Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) introduced to govern how D.C. police handle demonstrators. Patterson began an investigation into the actions of the police after 400 people were wrongfully arrested at a protest Sept. 27, 2002. During the hearing, she showed two video clips. One included a scene in which an undercover officer used pepper spray on a demonstrator who did not appear to be violent.

Under the measure, called the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act, which will be voted on again Dec. 21, police cannot encircle protesters unless they plan to arrest them. It also places limits on the use of physical restraints and creates checks and balances for police to follow when they investigate the activities of an organization's members.

The legislation passed on a 12 to 1 vote, with Harold Brazil (D-At Large) the sole dissenter. Brazil introduced 15 amendments but failed to garner enough support to make most of them part of the legislation. Patterson accepted a few of his amendments, which she said were the suggestions of Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, as "friendly" amendments.

"The council has made an incredibly strong statement in support of free speech, in support of constitutional protections, given that civil liberties have been under attack all over the country," Patterson said. "This is great news."

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