If the economic provisions of the proposed District of Columbia constitution are any indication, D.C. statehood advocates themselves are providing the best arguments against making Washington the 51st state.
A constitution ought to reflect the hopes and dreams that people have for their new government, and the range of political ideas being expressed at the D.C. Constitutional Convention is a tribute to the diversity and sophistication of the city-state.
But the heady taste of constitution-writing is intoxicating the conventioneers. Rather than drafting a framework for a new political structure, they seem to be drawing the faces on every gargoyle decorating the new statehouse. Details best left to the legislature are instead being woven into the fabric of the constitution.
The result is fast becoming a constitutional Christmas tree, draped with ideological fantasies that, if introduced as ordinances, wouldn't survive the first reading by the city council. The pragmatists at the convention are winning many of the battles with the ideologues, but there are plenty of pipe dreams left in the document.
Consider some of the constitutional provisions drafted by the economic development and finance and taxation committees.
The convention has decided to write into the constitution provisions forever preventing the city from collecting a sales tax on groceries, drugs and medicines. There's no doubt that a sales tax on food is regressive; poor people who spend a large portion of their income on food would be taxed more heavily than more affluent residents.
The District and 21 states already exempt food from the sales tax and 15 states also exempt drugs. But those exemptions are mostly a matter of law rather than a constitutional right.
"Certain necessities of life . . . should not be subject to a tax," the tax and finance committee members decided. They seem to have forgotten that plenty of other necessities are taxed, including clothing and shelter. Such near-necessities as electricity and gasoline are taxed heavily, and those taxes, too, are highly regressive.
But the most important reason for not writing a food and drug tax exemption into the D.C. Constitution is that it would permanently cut off a potential source of revenue. The new state would already have the most narrow economic base of any member of the union, and giving up such a potentially vital revenue raiser would be a major economic error.
The constitutional convention comes closer to its target in trying to limit property tax exemptions to charitable and non-profit organizations. Almost 50 percent of the land in the District goes untaxed and many of the tax-exempt organizations do little to benefit the District or its residents.
In the effort to make groups like the self-perpetuating Daughters of the American Revolution and enormously lucrative National Geographic Society pay their own way, however, the constitution also threatens tax-exempt private housing for the poor and genuinely needy non-profit groups. Like the food and drug tax, property tax exemptions ought to be left to the legislature.
Though some of the most mind-boggling provisions have been edited out of the economic development portion of the constitution, that portion could still use a healthy dose of reality.
Ironically, the convention, which meets in the former Potomac Electric Power Co. building, has written some of its wackiest words about utilities.
The first draft called for the new state to acquire "by purchase, appropriation or condemnation all private property and rights of way incident or necessary to the acquisition, ownership, control, development, and operation of any utility within the state." That was toned down to read: "The state may acquire, own or operate public utilities."
The constitution would also require that utility rates be set "at the lowest reasonable rates sufficient to assure adequate, efficient and reasonable services." That ignores the fundamental right of utility investors to earn a fair return on their money, a right that is the basis of utility rate-making in every state in the nation.
You can make a good case for public ownership of utilities: electric rates average lower for co-ops, municipal power systems and other publicly owned utilities than for investor-owned electric companies.
But in the Pacific Northwest, a series of screw-ups by a group of public power systems threatens consumers with huge rate increases and could bankrupt some municipal systems.
There's nothing in the new constitution that would improve the utility management ability of the District government, which now can't even read water meters or send out accurate bills. Washington is one of the few big cities that has to depend on the private utility to run its traffic lights, hardly a sign that the new state would be ready to take over the power company.
Another example of overreaching in the new constitution is the idea of setting up a state bank insurance program to replace the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's guarantees of bank deposits, a plan not likely to make depositors sleep better.
Nor is there much economic stability built into the idea of a "state economic development bank." The constitution says the bank would "provide loans to those individuals, corporations, partnerships, limited partnerships, cooperatives, or other businesses and establishments that are unable to obtain loans from any private bank, savings and loan or credit union within the state." In other words, a bank chartered to make risky loans.
While tinkering with the banking and utility system, the constitutional convention has also threatened the urban renewal programs responsible for cleaning up the Southwest Waterfront, creating L'Enfant Plaza and stimulating downtown development.
The proposal would severely restrict the use of eminent domain for such projects. The new constitution says, "Private property shall not be taken in order to transfer it to another private use for profit unless it serves a compelling public purpose and it is clear that no alternative means of serving such public purpose is possible."
The "no alternative means" test would rule out projects like the redevelopment of Metro Center and perhaps block some Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. projects. Lawyers could easily argue that since private developers might somehow find a way to assemble tracts for big projects, the new state could have no role.
Each of these ill-thought ideas represents the pet prerogative of some constitutional delegates who fear that a new state legislature would never agree to serve such narrow, ideological interests.
If the rest of the state constitution embraces as many dubious devices as the economic development and finance and taxation articles, the whole document could be thrown into doubt.
The ultimate question is one that statehood backers are going to have to answer: If the constitution is so bad, what will the state be like?