Fenty Pledges Not to Increase Any City Taxes

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty vowed yesterday not to raise taxes if elected mayor, saying he would fund new programs by reining in an inefficient bureaucracy and collaborating with business leaders to identify savings within the city's $7 billion budget.

At a candidates forum sponsored by some of the District's premier business organizations, Fenty was the only one of five major candidates to answer yes when asked whether he would commit to levying no additional taxes on business.

Afterward, Fenty (D-Ward 4) expanded his answer to include the entire range of District taxes, including personal income, property and sales taxes.

"In my opinion, government is growing enough," he said. "We need to spend our money better."

The pledge marked a bold stroke for a candidate who has built a reputation as a progressive populist and had been considered by many in the business community to be unfriendly to their interests. It also drew fire from some of Fenty's opponents in the mayor's race, who called a no-new-taxes pledge untenable.

"That's an immature and irresponsible response," said council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5). Although Orange said he would strive not to raise taxes, "you want to keep all your options open because you never know what may turn up. The bottom line is you have to balance the budget."

Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) added that she, too, would try not to raise taxes. "But I think it's irresponsible to just say you won't do it."

Ed Lazere, executive director of the liberal D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, questioned Fenty's sudden zeal for restraining taxes. He noted that a massive school modernization bill championed by Fenty and recently approved by the council requires that certain taxes on commercial real estate transactions go up automatically if sufficient funding cannot be found in the current budget.

Lazere said the city has approved more than $300 million in tax cuts over the past few years, adding, "I don't think anyone should cut off the option of tax increases to address huge, pressing problems like school modernization and affordable housing."

But Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a Fenty supporter, said the Ward 4 council member is heeding the will of the people.

"People are suffering with property taxes, the baseball stadium tax, high personal income taxes. There's a lot of grass-roots resentment about the tax level in the city," Lynch said. "The truth is that Adrian the grass roots populist is fiscally, frankly, quite conservative."

Judging from yesterday's two-hour forum at Arena Stage, all the major Democratic candidates for mayor are closet conservatives. Asked what they would do in the face of a budget shortfall, former Verizon executive Marie C. Johns and lobbyist Michael A. Brown joined their counterparts in expressing distaste for more taxes.

Cropp went one step further, announcing that she will propose to eliminate a portion of a tax increase recently proposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Under her plan, Cropp said the deed and recordation tax for residential properties would not go up for first-time home buyers or on houses that sell for less than $400,000.

Neither that suggestion nor Fenty's more sweeping promise seemed to have much effect on the crowd of more than 200 people, who offered the candidates only tepid applause.

"All five were uninspiring. They basically had canned answers," said Mike Walker, a Ward 4 resident and a principal in WalkerHaynes Equity Partners. "There's been huge economic growth over the past few years, and I'd like to see some vision about how to leverage that. For someone to get the business community behind them, they have to stop playing it so safe."

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company