Pay-to-Play politics alive and well in the District of Columbia

Pay-to-Play politics alive and well in the District of Columbia
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In an illuminating article in the Washington City Paper Andrew Giambrone once again outlined the connections between DC politicians and lobbyists often used to get city money into the hands of developers in the name of economic development for projects that would move forward anyway. That is especially true in these economic boom times. He writes about two council bills which if approved would give tax abatements to two projects and be a colossal waste of taxpayer money. The two projects are located in the Dupont Circle area of the city which is clearly not lacking for economic development occurring without city money.

Kudos to the elected members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B which Giambrone wrote “unanimously voted to oppose both bills, saying in a resolution that they “do not meet the minimum standards of public amenities or public good to offset the loss of tax revenue. In an 8-0 vote with one abstention, the commissioners noted that tax breaks can be “an effective tool in urban planning,” but should be used sparingly to spark economic activity in undeveloped areas, create affordable housing, or support infrastructure.”

One project is an apartment complex to be built on the parking lot of the headquarters of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Freemasonry of the Southern District of the U.S. at 1733 16th Street NW (for full disclosure I am a Mason). The other is a hotel project planned for 1337 Connecticut Avenue. The idea these two projects need taxpayer money to move forward is ludicrous.

Both projects have well connected lobbyists and developers who have gotten members of the council to introduce bills for them. The bills would have the city grant property tax exemptions to the projects in essence giving a handout to the developers. The developer of the apartment complex planned for the parking lot of the Scottish Rite Temple is Perseus Realty. Seems the Masons want to renovate their building and decided they could lease the parking lot to the realty company for somewhere around $1 million a year to help fund the renovations. Maybe they got the idea of leasing the land for development from two churches in the Dupont community which recently did the same thing. The councilmember who introduced the bill for them is Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie whose Ward doesn’t even include Dupont Circle. Giambrone’s column outlines the connections to McDuffie “including Influential Wilson Building lobbyists John Ray and Tina Ang of the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips advocating on behalf of the Supreme Council and Perseus for the tax break, according to 2017 disclosures.” The column goes on to outline how much money all these connections have donated to McDuffie’s campaigns. What makes this bill an even more blatant rip-off of city funds is according to Giambrone “D.C.'s Chief Financial Officer, however, concluded in an October analysis that the tax break “is not necessary” for the renovations, and that the group has other means of bankrolling it. Those include “alternative lease terms” that could underwrite a residential component, and “unrestricted investments” that could cover the Supreme Council’s anticipated funding gap.”

If this isn’t enough ‘pay to play’ McDuffie’s bill falls under the jurisdiction of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue. The committee chaired by Jack Evans who is employed by Manatt. The bill to give the hotel complex a city tax abatement was apparently introduced by Evans and Giambrone outlines all the people involved in that one and how much they have given to the councilmember’s campaigns. For good measure there is another lobbyist in the mix on that bill who is close to the Mayor. What makes this bill even crazier is the principal of Valor Development who is doing the project is quoted in the City Paper column saying “We’re looking for a little bit of help,” Lansing says, noting that “the project will go on with or without” the tax break.”

As a DC taxpayer I can think of numerous ways the council could spend my money and one of them is certainly not giving a handout to rich politically connected developers who are paying connected lawyers and lobbyists to get it. We have major unsolved problems and needs in DC including homelessness; the need for more job training for the unemployed; education needs going unmet; and real economic development needs in Ward’s seven and eight. It is way beyond time voters demand we end pay-to-play politics in DC.

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