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D.C.’s Metro funding plan tarnished by tax trickery

Council Chair Mendelson criticizes first-year non-transit use of tax hikes

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Metro, gay news, Washington Blade
Metro, gay news, Washington Blade, tax increases

(Photo public domain)

The historic news that all three D.C.-area jurisdictions have agreed to provide the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority an additional, permanent and dedicated half-billion dollars in annual funding for Metro was tarnished last week by budget trickery in the District.

Those living in the D.C. metro area agree on one simple fact: The national capital area’s rail transit system is failing as a transportation mode. It is dysfunctional and in need of a sizable ongoing infusion of monies to recover from years of infrastructure repair and maintenance neglect.

Metro is the only system in the country without a dedicated revenue source, relying on insufficient annual federal and area government contributions to subsidize fares.

The ailing system has seen recent sustained ridership declines, along with dramatic reductions in operating hours that have further lowered use. Track fires, train derailments and service delays have lessened in frequency, but much improvement to restore adequate service remains.

WMATA General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld made his plea clear nearly two years ago: Metro faces a whopping $25 billion in unfunded capital requirements to achieve system repair, increased capacity and improved reliability.

Regional jurisdictions would be required to provide new funding to finance these needs, allowing WMATA to borrow $1.5 billion a year to pay for necessary work. D.C., Maryland and Virginia would need to collectively pony up $500 million a year. D.C.’s annual portion under the existing allocation formula is $178 million.

Only in recent days did Maryland and Virginia agree to join the District in committing to contribute the requested funds.

Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced, along with Democratic legislative leaders, that the state would contribute its portion, from general funds and beginning in 2019, contingent on both D.C. and Virginia kicking-in their shares. Virginia also pledged its contribution, including a restriction on annual system operating cost increases capped at three percent and demanding improved financial management likely to force long-needed labor union concessions and transit board governance reforms.

When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released her proposed annual city budget plan last week for D.C. Council review, included were consumer and business tax hikes to pay for the District’s increased annual allotment.

Not readily apparent was that D.C. would levy these dedicated-use taxes a full year in advance of spending them for the described intended purpose. In the first fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, the tax hikes would instead go to the general budget.

D.C. tax increases totaling nearly $80 million per year announced as intended for increased Metro funding would actually be conveyed as intended only for revenue collections beginning in October 2019, a full year later.

These higher tax rates will affect the following:

• General sales tax, from 5.75% to 6%;

• Alcohol and meal sales tax, including for restaurants and bars already among the highest in the nation, from 10% to 10.25%;

• Hotel room tax, from 10.05% to 10.3%, plus existing 4.75% tax to finance the Convention Center and fund the city’s official marketing entity Destination DC;

• Commercial property tax, from $1.85 to $1.87 per $100 assessed value;

• Car rental tax, from 10% to 10.25%; and,

• Gross receipts tax for “ride-sharing” companies such as Uber and Lyft, resulting in an estimated consumer cost increase of 37-cents per $10 charge.

D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson issued a public statement last Friday, correctly stating, “[T]axpayers will begin paying the new taxes this fall. But the money won’t go to Metro for another year. Instead … the first year’s monies … [will] be used for other, unrelated, and unspecified purposes in the $14.4 billion District budget. I think it is wrong to take the tax increase of $77 million intended to help Metro and instead use all of it for projects unrelated to Metro.”

If these dedicated tax increases are not going to be conveyed to Metro until collections generated the following fiscal year, imposition of the taxes should also be delayed.

 

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at [email protected].

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Homophobia wins in the Puerto Rico Senate

Bill to ban conversion therapy died in committee

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

It is a sad day for Puerto Rico, and it is a sad day for human rights on the Caribbean island.

Last Thursday, 11 senators decided to turn their backs on children and human rights in Puerto Rico. A new Senate majority proved to be weak and on the wrong side of history, again. Eight senators from the legislative committee reviewing Senate Bill 184 to ban conversation therapy on the island voted against the bill’s report.

Today, thanks to these senators, any mental health professional can freely charge a father for “curing” his son of homosexuality or of a gender identity/expression that does not conform to social standards of “normality.” Although there has been an executive order in Puerto Rico banning conversation therapy since 2018, this order is only applicable to health institutions that have a specific connection with the government. Executive orders state mandatory requirements for the Executive Branch and have the effect of law; however, any governor can revoke them.

Senators received scientific evidence and several testimonies from LGBTQIA people who testified during public hearings. These senators also received evidence of permanent depression and suicide attempts caused by conversion therapy. However, 11 senators decided to condone hate and the intolerance towards the LGBTQIA youth on the island. One of these senators, Wanda Soto, said during one of the public hearings that “… with love anything is possible … ” in reference to her belief that kids’ sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed or cured. This senator even compared a bad personal experience with a dentist she had when she was a kid with LGBTQIA opponents’ testimonies of their experiences of going through conversion therapy.

Suicide and depression rates among LGBTQIA youth are staggering and are the highest in the entire United States compared to other reasons. These indices are a direct consequence of the intolerance, discrimination and lack of validation that our society perpetuates. LGBTQIA youth go through difficult times in their lives, including personal and family acceptance that trigger years of depression and anxiety among LGBTQIA people.

Today again, hatred wins. Today, Puerto Rico demonstrates why it is the number one jurisdiction for hate crimes in the entire United States. Today again, these 11 senators make evident why gender-based crimes continue to dominate local headlines. Today these senators are an example of the ignorance and lack of cultural competence that persist in our island. Today, these senators will be responsible for the depression and the stigma that the LGBTQIA community will continue to suffer. Today these senators are responsible for perpetuating intolerance. We take a step back as a society, demonstrating again that we cannot tolerate those who are different and who do not meet our standards of normality.

Neither the tears of Gustavo nor Elvin or Caleb, who presented their testimonies before the Puerto Rico Senate, were enough to move the hearts of these senators. The hypocritical hugs and words of support that some senators gave to these LGBTQIA people after their testimony and personally meeting them make it much harder to understand how they turned their backs on our children. Today these 11 senators are responsible for perpetuating hate crimes on the island and make our path to be a more inclusive society even harder.

Homophobia won in the Puerto Rico Senate last Thursday. There was no difference when the pro-statehood Senate majority defeated SB 1000 (banning conversion therapy) back in 2018 and now with a new majority lead by the Popular Democratic Party. Different senators, different bills, same result, but the same homophobia. Many Puerto Rican voters believed that furthering human rights would be easier to achieve on the island with a new majority in the legislature. Unfortunately, the reality is that our legislature is just a mirror of our society, and the lack of cultural competence persists among us. But we will keep fighting; this is a single lost battle, a battle among many others yet to come.

These are the 11 senators who voted against SB 184 or didn’t vote:

  1. Sen. Rubén Soto – Against
  2. Sen. Ramón Ruiz – Against
  3. Sen. Albert Torres – Against
  4. Sen. Ada García – Against
  5. Sen. Wanda Soto – Against
  6. Sen. Marissa Jimenez – Against
  7. Sen. Joanne Rodríguez – Against
  8. Sen. Thomas Rivera – Against
  9. Sen. José L. Dalmau – Absent
  10. Sen. Marially González – Absent
  11. Sen. Javier Aponte – Absent
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Opinions

Biden’s big gay opportunity

The best friend LGBTQ Americans have yet had in the White House

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President Joe Biden (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz; public domain)

President Joe Biden faces many tough challenges. Foreign adversaries are preparing to test him, rancorous political divisions confront him at home where COVID-19 has ravaged the American economy and spirit. With Washington gridlock threatening to block his most ambitious plans, opportunities for legacy achievements may prove scarce.

Still, in one critical area, Biden can earn an honored place in history: LGBTQ rights. Of all major contemporary American political figures, Biden has been the quickest to take a stand for our rights. He is the best friend LGBTQs have yet had in the White House. I do not say so lightly, I am a lifelong Republican.

From day one, Biden began rolling back the biased policies promoted by Donald Trump’s Marginalizer-in-Chief, Mike Pence. Much damage remains to be undone, especially because the media and many Democrats have gone easy on Pence and his cronies. But Joe himself got off to a fast start placing qualified LGBTQ officials in highly visible positions, including his Cabinet. Secretary of State Tony Blinken set the tone early by flying the rainbow flag at U.S. embassies and naming a special envoy for LGBTQ rights. What a welcome change to have an administration proud of, rather than wary of, its LGBTQ supporters.

Yet much more needs to be done to rid this nation of the cruel blights of LGBTQ stigma and marginalization. There can be neither equality nor equity for people who are systematically stigmatized and marginalized. The cruelty of these violations is evident in a suicide rate among LGBTQ youth five times that of youth in the general population.

A national commission studying patterns, causes, and consequences of LGBTQ stigma, marginalization, and bullying could help awaken Americans to the damage from the prejudices many of us still face. Indeed, older LGBTQs who feel comfortably protected, have a special obligation to defend gay youth who remain vulnerable.

Stigmatization is worse for minority LGBTQs who bear a double burden of bias. BGLM!–Black Gay Lives Matter! Stigma impedes HIV testing and treatment; one consequence is a shocking rate of new HIV-AIDS infections among people of color four times the rate among whites.

Even as we pursue our national struggle to end racial bias, America must recognize our equal moral obligation to expose and repudiate our ugly history of LGBTQ stigmatization and marginalization. How do we stop these evils? Most crucial, we must pass a muscular Equality Act that protects the rights and dignity of all LGBTQs wherever they live in America.

Yet to pass it soon, we must avoid “poison pills” that may doom it to failure. Protection for LGBTQ youth is urgent. Better a bill we can pass now giving us 90% of what we all need, than a failed bill promising 100% of what some wish for.

Education is essential. Students must learn about the sufferings of LGBTQ people and our contributions to humanity and to America. All should be told about LGBTQ civil rights heroes like Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, and Barbara Jordan, scientists and thinkers like Alan Turing, George Washington Carver, and Plato, writers like Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, and Henry James, composers like Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Billy Strayhorn, and artists like Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, and Frida Kahlo—the full list is much longer.

Formal recognition of the sufferings and achievements of LGBTQ people is long overdue. As a starter, let’s build an Equality Museum on the Mall to celebrate LGBTQ Americans. No politician has yet ventured to suggest building one; their omission reinforces our marginalized state. President Biden could make history by stepping up.

Although Biden himself has made a strong start on LGBTQ rights, it is a serious mistake for the Democrats to take the gay vote for granted. Polls indicate Trump’s share rose from 16% in 2016 to 28% in 2020. LGBTQs followed a normal tendency to divide more evenly between the parties. In the 2020 campaign Democrats avoided reminding voters that

Trump’s number two, Mike Pence, has been America’s number one stigma super spreader. At the same time, on the QT, they reassured closet Pences among their own. They took us for granted assuming all LGBTQs are Woke Groupthinkers.

In the next election, more LGBTQs who agree with Republicans on issues like Iran, immigration, or taxes will vote GOP if the Democrats fail to raise their ante for us. More Democrats need to follow the leadership Biden is showing on LGBTQ issues.

Biden himself has a big opportunity to become America’s president for LGBTQ rights. But to grasp that opportunity, he will need aggressive initiatives to end stigmatization, celebrate our contributions, and make a crystal clear national commitment to full equality for all LGBTQ peoples.

 

James Driscoll, Ph.D., is a longtime Republican-Libertarian AIDS activist whose most recent book is ‘How AIDS Activists Challenged America.’

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Mayor Bowser and CDC take a wrong turn

We’ve come far in fight against COVID, there’s no reason to rush it

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wear a mask, gay news, Washington Blade

I am a big supporter of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. She is doing a great job for the people of D.C. and working hard fighting for our best interests. But no one is perfect.

On April 30, her administration made a big mistake releasing a policy on masks reported by dcist: “D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser further lifted mask restrictions for fully vaccinated people in an order published on Friday evening. The order says fully vaccinated people may go maskless in businesses, office buildings and other indoor settings and tasks businesses with enforcing the new rule.” It went on to say, “The businesses, office buildings, or other establishments shall exclude or attempt to eject persons who are not wearing masks or who remove their required masks, except in circumstances where the person is fully vaccinated and is permitted to conduct their activities without wearing a mask.”

It continued: “Businesses are allowed to request to see vaccine cards or other proof that patrons have been vaccinated to determine whether or not they have to wear a mask, per the order. Employers may ‘establish rules for mask-wearing at their offices or facilities that are more stringent’ than the new District regulations.”

Reading this, I felt it made no sense and would cause havoc for restaurants and businesses. Others agreed and spoke up and the policy was rescinded on Saturday, May 1. The Washington Post wrote: “To mask or not to mask? Mayor’s order stokes confusion in D.C.”

The original CDC advice on masks was confusing enough and Bowser made it worse. She isn’t the only one causing confusion. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a new order on masks, which Montgomery County Executive Elrich immediately said he wouldn’t follow. Clearly this isn’t an easy thing to deal with.

With the CDC telling people for months they need masks everywhere, changing policy is complicated, especially when there will be different requirements for those who have been vaccinated and those yet to be. The administration wanted to show the benefit of being vaccinated but caused confusion. In addition I believe the CDC made a huge mistake by pausing the J&J vaccine. It seems they could have investigated the 15 cases of blood clots, out of the nearly eight million shots given, in the two weeks they did without creating havoc and fear of the vaccine. They could have given information to the medical community and shared it with the public on how to handle such an occurrence without the pause.

As a lay person reading and listening to the various medical experts I’m convinced there is little chance of getting COVID outdoors if you are vaccinated and even if you aren’t and not wearing a mask, unless you stand close with a group who also haven’t been vaccinated. So why not just begin to change mask policy for outside. The basic CDC statement was good: Vaccinated people no longer need a mask outside and it’s suggested if unvaccinated people are in groups without appropriate distance they should continue to wear them. Simple enough.

The real problem occurs when talking about masking indoors in public places like restaurants and other businesses, including grocery stores. How do you separate those who have been vaccinated from those who haven’t and still at major risk indoors being in close proximity to others who aren’t? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to say we all need to continue to wear a mask indoors in public places especially since we are far from herd immunity? According to the D.C. Health Department only 35% are fully vaccinated.

As someone who has been vaccinated, I am happy to continue to wear my mask inside public spaces to help protect others and to encourage everyone who has yet to be vaccinated to continue to wear their mask. Why would we make every restaurant, bar, grocery store or other business have an enforcer at the door checking for proof of vaccination before they let someone in without a mask? It’s not fair to put that burden on businesses that already have so much to do to make their establishments safe for all. The TSA was right when it announced Friday it extended the mask mandate until Sept. 16 at airports, on commercial aircraft, and on all buses and trains.

We have come so far in the fight against COVID there is no reason to rush this. Let’s make the rules as simple as possible. We are one community so we should act like it.

 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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