DeBonis: Will D.C.'s parking tax remain sacred?

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 11:33 PM

What could another $7.8 million get the D.C. government right now?

In a city presently faced with a nearly $200 million budget shortfall, it might not seem like much, but consider: That cash could entirely eliminate the $4.6 million slash to family welfare benefits, with cash left over to perhaps restore $2.6 million in benefits to grandparents raising small children or to restore $2.5 million in grants to nonprofit groups serving children.

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to strip much of that money, and while social service advocates rallied with futility around a hike on the income tax for the highest-earning Washingtonians, there existed a more painless option: Raise the parking tax.

It wouldn't have gone quite so far as an income tax hike, but it could have eased the burden on the neediest Washingtonians while putting the screws on commuters and tourists - that is, folks who don't live here and don't vote.

The District's tax on commercial parking has been set at 12 percent since 1976, and the city's finance office estimates that raising the rate to 16 percent would have generated $7.8 million in the remainder of fiscal 2011, which runs through Sept. 30. In subsequent years, it could raise $11 million or more.

And 16 percent isn't quite highway robbery - not when you compare D.C. with other big cities: Baltimore charges 16 percent. New York City charges more than 18 percent. Philadelphia and Miami are at 20 percent. In San Francisco, you're looking at 25 percent. Park in Chicago, and you'll pay a full one-third in taxes to the city and county. And Pittsburgh charges a whopping 38 percent - it used to be as high as 50 percent.

But even a modest hike has been anathema to perhaps the city's most potent lobbying force. What the National Rifle Association and the AARP is to federal Washington, the parking lobby has been to city hall.

The sanctity of the commercial parking tax is the work of the late Leonard B. "Bud" Doggett, who during his 60-plus years in Washington business built a reputation as a tough businessman and generous philanthropist. Through his willingness to gather and judiciously wield the political clout of the parking lot operators, he created a third-rail issue every bit as nettlesome as Social Security reform.

It's through a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot: Since 1998, according to campaign finance records, the Doggetts and their companies have donated about $85,000 to city political candidates. That doesn't account for the tens of thousands more from other companies that have bundled contributions to many members of the council. The stick: In 2008, parking operators were among the prime financiers of a successful challenge to longtime council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).

"They've been very effective in convincing members of the council and others to not increase that tax," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has been one of the few to advocate for a hike in recent years.

But it's hard to overstate the influence of "Bud's Boys" - even after Doggett's 2008 death, at age 87.

Last year, with tensions between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray at their highest, it was a memorial service for Doggett that brought them together - if only for a brief awkward moment on a ceremonial dais.

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