D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and a swath of D.C. Council members exhibited a startlingly unsettling posture last week in response to the long-overdue resignation of Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas Jr.
Enlivening public commentary and online forums, the melancholy attitude exhibited by both the mayor and Council members – a majority of whom face their own official investigations or public suspicions for alleged financial improprieties and ethical lapses – seemed to strike the public as exactly the wrong chord at the moment this lengthy city embarrassment finally came to a conclusion.
Stepping down after more than a year of explicitly denying any wrongdoing as part of a federal plea bargain confessing to felony charges of embezzling more than $350,000 in city funds and falsifying his tax returns, even Thomas remained brazen and arrogant enough to hint that he may pursue elective office following completion of what is expected to be an approximately three-year prison term.
Rather than agonizing over the political demise of a public crook, the mayor and Council should instead snap out of an unseemly collective lament over one of their own and focus on another recent announcement – D.C.’s designation again this year as the jurisdiction most “unfriendly to small business” in the nation.
Little suspense precedes the District’s perennial dead last ranking in anticipation of the release of the “Small Business Survivability Index: Ranking the Policy Environment for Entrepreneurship Across the Nation” issued each year by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. Not surprising, given the propensity for counterproductive policies and profligate spending that treat local businesses like ATMs.
Measuring the comparative public policy environment for small business and entrepreneurship among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the well-regarded and widely reported analysis for 2011 again places D.C. at the bottom of the barrel – the same notorious distinction claimed by the District for as long as anyone can recall and echoed by other evaluative sources.
Among local jurisdictions, Virginia improved on its 14th place ranking last year to climb to the 10th most favorable position. Maryland, however, fell closer to the bottom at the 38th spot, down from its 2010 ranking at number 36.
As discussed in this column last winter when reporting D.C.’s identically dismal 2010 ranking, a negative small business culture disproportionately affects gays and lesbians due to the significantly higher prevalence of our numbers engaged in entrepreneurial activities, as reported by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC).
The nonpartisan SBE Council this year expanded its comprehensive annual national report to include 44 major government-imposed or government-related costs affecting small businesses and entrepreneurs.
The factors included in the Index – taxes, various regulatory costs, government spending and debt, and a range of other burdens and disincentives – determine the competitiveness of each state and the ability of small businesses to survive and thrive.
As detailed in the report, the District’s income and business taxes and other fees are among the very highest in the nation.
Additional considerations – obstacles such as Washington’s infamous parody of democracy allowing both small and unrepresentative groups as well as random cadres of disgruntled residents to employ an outsized ability to obstruct, delay and deny regulatory licensing and zoning approvals for community businesses, for example – were not included in the rankings. Small mercy, as including such barriers would merely add insult to our ignominious position.
For all the lip service that D.C. government officials pay to professing support for small business and a positive enterprise environment, is it any wonder they are followed on stage by local entrepreneurs belting out a hope-filled rendition of “I Will Survive” despite the reality of over-regulation, over-taxation and commonplace disregard?
The primary concern at the Wilson Building appears limited to how much money can be wrung from businesses, owners and consumers to enable even more record-level spending yet again next year.
Lost in this fiscal folly is comprehension that policies expanding opportunities for success among local businesses are the drivers of local economic development, a strengthened economy, job creation and the boosting of neighborhood amenities.
If Mayor Gray and the D.C. Council hope to salvage their collective reputation, as well as the District’s, that is where they should start.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.