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D.C. Council approves sweeping changes to campaign finance, bans ‘pay to play’

D.C. Council members Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), left, Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) at a hearing earlier this year. Gray and Allen were pushing far-reaching bills Tuesday at one of the council’s final meetings of its two-year legislative session.
D.C. Council members Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), left, Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) at a hearing earlier this year. Gray and Allen were pushing far-reaching bills Tuesday at one of the council’s final meetings of its two-year legislative session. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Sweeping changes to the District’s campaign finance regulations could soon become law, after the D.C. Council gave final approval Tuesday to a bill aimed at curbing the influence of government contractors in local politics.

The prohibition of alleged “pay to play” practices — in which political donors receive lucrative contracts from the city — was one of several far-reaching measures District lawmakers took up at one of the final meetings of their two-year legislative session.

Beginning before 9 a.m. and lasting well into the night, council members debated, voted and met with activists and lobbyists who swarmed the John A. Wilson Building.

The council was also scheduled to vote a final time on legislation that would fast-track construction of a new hospital east of the Anacostia River. However, that vote was postponed in the face of opposition to a provision in the bill that would expedite construction of a medical facility in Foggy Bottom and the concerns of unions who say their workers could be cut out of jobs at the Southeast hospital.

In addition to those actions, the council gave preliminary approval to a plan to legalize and regulate sports betting in the nation’s capital. That bill is expected to go through substantial changes before it heads to a final vote this month.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) could sign or veto the campaign finance bill or let it become law without signing it. The mayor has not taken a position on restricting political donations from government contractors.

D.C. ‘pay-to-play’ ban advances

The campaign finance bill was arguably the most prominent item on Tuesday’s packed agenda. In a city with a history of high-profile public corruption scandals, the legislation written by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) could bring a sea change.

Even after several late modifications that slightly narrowed its scope, the bill represents a break with the status quo, in which political donors are free to seek and receive contracts from the government officials whose electoral victories they helped ensure. The District has lagged behind other cities and states in regulating such contributions and contracts.

The bill would ban campaign donations from firms and their top executives if they hold or are seeking government contracts worth at least $250,000. It would also give new authority to the city’s Office of Campaign Finance — long viewed as a weak enforcer — and require increased disclosures from independent expenditure committees.

The bill passed through an initial vote last month with the support of 11 of the council’s 13 members. On Tuesday, Allen introduced changes that would address some lawmakers’ concerns, such as allowing contractors to contribute to their own campaigns if they run for office and extending the deadline for closing campaign committees to 12 months after an election, rather than six months. The final bill passed unanimously.

Aquene Freechild of the advocacy group Public Citizen said Allen’s amendments did not significantly weaken the bill.

“This is a sweeping reform, and it’s going to be very powerful if it passes as written,” she said.

The hospital bill would expedite construction of a replacement for United Medical Center, the long-troubled public hospital in Southeast Washington. UMC has struggled financially, and some of its patients died last year under questionable circumstances. In August 2017, regulators closed its nursery and delivery rooms, leaving women east of the Anacostia — where the city’s infant mortality rate is highest — without a nearby hospital where they could give birth.

Southeast D.C. hospital could come with a catch: New Foggy Bottom facility

Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) wrote the bill, which would waive the review process typically required before medical facilities are built. Gray said the measure was needed to ensure the hospital could open by the end of 2021.

But critics and some council members balked at the scope of the waiver, which would also apply to construction of a tower housing 270 specialty beds at the site of George Washington University Hospital in Foggy Bottom.

Even the school said it did not support the Foggy Bottom expansion. It is a minority partner in George Washington University Hospital, which is mostly owned by a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services.

The council gave preliminary approval to the bill last month, with only two members voting against it. But on Tuesday, with the bill rapidly changing as lawmakers introduced amendments late in the evening, Gray moved to postpone a final vote until later this month.

That decision came after council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) secured the votes for an amendment to the bill that would require GW Hospital to honor the existing labor contracts at UMC and to transfer nurses and other health-care workers from UMC to the new hospital. Gray said it could be a “poison pill” for the deal.

Gray introduced an amendment that would reduce the size of the new tower west of the river to 170 beds, with an additional 50 beds — 220 in all — to be located on the existing premises of GW Hospital. Under the amendment, the hospital in Southeast would grow to 200 beds from 150.

Gray’s amendment would also require GW Hospital and the city to consider proposals from Howard University for an academic or medical affiliation with the new hospital east of the river. Howard officials have said that GW Hospital’s expanded presence could eventually put their hospital out of business.

In August, the city announced it had entered into a tentative agreement with GW Hospital to run the new hospital on the site of St. Elizabeths in Ward 8. The council will have to approve a final contract with the hospital group, which is expected to be ready by early next year.

William Kennedy Smith, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2, said Tuesday that the proposed reduction in the size of the Foggy Bottom facility does not address concerns about waiving the review, called the certificate of need process.

“The way to determine what the right bed numbers are and what the beds are you need to serve that community is through the certificate of need process and not through having legislators cut deals,” Smith said.