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Mendelson Dumps Bowser's Sales Tax Hike, But Gives On Most Everything Else

Despite scrapping a proposed increase in the sales tax, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said on Tuesday that Mayor Muriel Bowser would get most of what she wanted in her 2016 budget.

"The big picture is... the mayor will be receiving in the budget that I am proposing tomorrow 99 percent of what she's requested," said Mendelson, previewing the amended budget that legislators will vote on on Wednesday.

Bowser presented her inaugural $13 billion budget in April, putting more money into schools, services for homeless residents, and for protecting affordable housing. As part of her budget, she proposed increasing the city's sales tax from 5.75 to 6 percent, a hike that would bring in $22 million she said could further be used to fight homelessness.

But that increase was stripped out of the budget by Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who argued that any increases to the sales tax should be reserved for when the economy slows. The last quarter-point increase to the sales tax came in 2010; it expired in 2013. (He also scrapped an increase to the city's parking lot tax.)

Bowser fought back, citing a poll by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute — which supported the tax hike — saying that 70 percent of residents backed the increase. But Mendelson said on Tuesday that legislators were able to fully fund Bowser's priorities — as well as put more money into certain social services — without relying on the tax hike.

"We're going above and beyond in areas where there's a real need for citizens in the District, whether we're dealing with homelessness, or affordable housing, or with seniors, of with victims of crime," he said, noting that the Council had put $10 million in additional funding into homeless services.

The Council did chip away at another mayoral priority, though — body-worn cameras for police.

While Bowser had asked for $5.1 million for 2,400 new cameras — which would bring the city's total to 2,800 — Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) offered her only enough for 1,200 new cameras. He argued that the Metropolitan Police Department shouldn't rush the deployment of the cameras while policy issues — such as who has access to the footage — remain unresolved.

Mendelson did announce another change to a Bowser proposal: A program to allow D.C. school children to ride Metrorail for free — they currently only ride free on Metrobus — would be amended to apply only to low-income children.

"My daughter would not be eligible, but those who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch would be eligible for the rail," he said.

He also refused to fund an expansion of D.C.'s summer youth employment program, which Bowser sought to extend to 24-year-olds. (The current age cap is 22.) Mendelson said that young adults should get job training, not minimum wage jobs that only last six weeks.

Those two moves drew criticism from Bowser's administration.

"It’s baffling to hear that Chairman’s Mendelson has decided to cut funding from the mayor’s 'Kids Ride Free' program and from job training opportunities for unemployed 22-24 year olds. The mayor will continue to fight for those proven programs," said Michael Czin, Bowser's spokesman.

Mendelson brushed aside those concerns.

"I feel like I'm sorry, I can't make it more controversial," he said. "We took what the mayor proposed and built on it."

In a revenue-raising move, Mendelson said that the Council-revised budget would include a $5 increase on tickets for expired parking meter violations. He also said that enforcement hours in certain premium parking zones would extend to midnight, instead of the current 10 p.m.

The full budget documents will be made available Tuesday afternoon, Mendelson said, less than 24 hours before the vote is set to happen.

"If the documents get out by midnight tonight, I think we'll have beat every chairman of the Council," he said, defending himself against concerns raised by some advocates that the public and press were not being given enough time to review the spending plan.

Czin said Bowser would fully review the Council's changes when Mendelson released the final language.

"The devil is in the details, and we need to fully review the Council's budget which still hasn't been made public with votes starting in around 18 hours," he said.

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