The chairman of the D.C. Council's education committee yesterday proposed raising an additional $1 billion for school modernization over the next 10 years by increasing hotel, parking and cigarette taxes and delaying planned reductions in income taxes.
The bill by Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), scheduled for a committee vote today, would provide the school system with twice as much capital funding as projected for that period.
"It's a tough business to look at raising taxes. If ever we're going to raise taxes, this purpose is most legitimate," Patterson said yesterday, adding that she has been "anti-tax all my time on the council."
She said she proposed increasing taxes in this case because the city does not have the capacity to increase debt to meet the overwhelming need for renovation and repair of schools.
Most of the additional money -- $640 million -- would be generated by delaying the final phase of an income tax reduction that the council passed in 1999. Those tax cuts are scheduled to take effect in fiscal 2007.
In addition, Patterson's legislation would raise the city's hotel tax from 14.5 percent to 15.5 percent; its parking tax from 12 percent to 18 percent; and its cigarette tax from $1 a pack to $1.50 a pack. The increases in the hotel and parking taxes would expire after 10 years, and the higher cigarette tax would remain in effect.
Hotel industry officials immediately criticized the measure, saying it would harm the city's economy by sending tourists elsewhere.
"We're very surprised the council member chose to support this cause in this fashion," said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. "If she increases these taxes by 1 percent, we will be the highest-taxed hotel jurisdiction in our competitive set."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) is studying the bill and has not taken a position on it, said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Williams.
"The mayor would be very wary of raising taxes unless it were absolutely essential," Morris said. "But he does consider a well-funded and well-operating school system a priority. The city is experiencing a great boom, but it won't last if we can't improve the state of our public schools."
Patterson's measure received high marks from school officials and education activists, who have long sought more money to upgrade crumbling facilities.
"This is a tremendous statement of support for fixing our schools," said Marc Borbely, a former D.C. teacher who is now director of FixOurSchools.net, which pressed city officials to increase school construction funding. Patterson "is taking a political risk. She needs to be applauded for taking this step."
The council in recent years has provided the school system with much smaller annual appropriations for its capital improvement plan than school officials had anticipated. The funding gap prompted the school board to scale back the construction program this year, from major modernization of most of the schools to renovations at seven senior high schools and modest repair work at other facilities.
Patterson is pushing her bill as an alternative to a proposal from council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) that would raise an additional $1 billion for school modernization through revenue bonds to be repaid with D.C. Lottery proceeds. Patterson said lottery proceeds are too unreliable a funding source.
Her proposal also calls for a nine-member advisory committee to oversee the construction program in an effort to avoid the millions of dollars in overruns that have plagued several recent school renovation projects. Members would be appointed by the mayor, the council, the city's chief financial officer and the school board.
In addition, her bill requires the school board and superintendent to show how the school system will handle a more ambitious construction program.