The D.C. statehood convention, brushing aside warnings that it is incorporating legislative detail into its proposed constitution, has voted to bar any retail tax on groceries, prescription drugs and other medicines if the city should become a state.
The convention also voted Monday night to eliminate real estate tax exemptions for about 40 local and national organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Geographic Society that have gained exemptions piecemeal from Congress over the years.
Minutes earlier, convention delegates narrowly beat back an even more restrictive measure that would have stripped most of the city's private universities and several hospitals of their current tax-exempt status.
The taxation article of the proposed constitution, like an economic development article approved earlier, has put the pragmatists and ideologues of the convention on a collision course.
The pragmatists, exemplified by Ward 2 delegate Wesley Long, want a simple, orthodox constitution that will appeal to a wide range of city voters and not ruffle the feathers of Congress.
The ideologues, exemplified by Ward 6 delegate Howard Croft, want the document to reflect political values as well as provide what he and others see as specific protections for city residents.
For example, Croft, as head of the economic development committee, helped push through provisions that would permit government employes to strike and allow the state to acquire, own or operate private utilities--language that, while present in some state laws, is rarely enshrined in a constitution. "It's an ideological statement," Croft says.
Proponents of the tax exemption measure approved Monday, led by Ward 8 delegate James Coates and his finance and taxation committee, argued that elimination of the exemptions would generate millions of dollars in revenues for the cash-starved city.
But opponents said its sweeping language would affect not only the DAR and other well-heeled organizations, but also many low-budget public-interest groups that need the tax exemptions to survive.
"What about cooperative housing for the poor?" asked Ward 3 delegate Philip Schrag. " . . . What about public interest law firms . . . ?"
Under the provision, the legislature of the proposed state would be barred from granting tax exemptions except to the federal government, foreign embassies and land used for nonprofit religious, educational and charitable purposes.
Proponents said the effect of this language would be to strip the congressionally imposed exemption from the DAR, National Geographic and other national societies with large properties here.
As for the prohibition of taxes on groceries and drugs, Ward 7 delegate David Barnes contended such levies are "regressive" and create a greater hardship on the poor than on the rich.
Again, Schrag argued that legislation--not the constitution--"is the place for these detailed considerations."