The rhetoric over whether Washington, D.C., could impose a commuter tax turned litigious Thursday when attorneys filed a lawsuit that Rep. Tom Davis’ spokesperson said “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
The lawsuit, which attempts to overturn a provision of 1974’s Home Rule Act, intends to lift a commuter tax ban on the country’s only city that cannot impose one, according to attorney Walter Smith Jr.
Smith is the executive director of DC Appleseed Center, an advocacy group that teamed up with a consortium of law firms to file the lawsuit on behalf of 18 District residents, its Council and Mayor Anthony Williams-D.
He said that if the ban is lifted, the District would “adopt a fair, nonresident income tax so that everyone who receives services in Washington would pay their fair share.”
Prince William County’s Supervisor’s Chairman Sean T. Connaughton said the tax wouldn’t be fair.
He said the county’s attorneys are taking steps toward legal opposition.
“They are directed to get a copy of the complaint and come back to the board with a recommendation on how and whether we should seek to be a part of this,” Connaughton said. “They’re in communication with other county attorneys in Virginia to determine if we can all work together to defend our citizens.”
He said Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties have joined those discussions.
Connaughton added that he’d draft a letter to the state’s Attorney General requesting backup.
Prince William County is home to about 17,000 commuters who work in the District. Virginia provides an estimated 100,000 District workers.
David Marin, spokesperson for Davis, R-11th district, said the Congressman does not expect the lawsuit to survive long in court.
“Congressman Davis believes that the health of the nation’s capital is a national responsibility, not one that should be shouldered by neighboring states,” said Marin, adding that Davis would be happy to have a discussion on current District needs. “From a congressional standpoint, Virginia isn’t responsible for the District of Columbia. Congress is and the city is.”
Connaughton said the lawsuit adds fuel to an already steady-roaring rhetoric battle.
“It’s unfortunate because their moving forward has foreclosed any ability in the region to work together on the issues the District has raised,” he said.
D.C. Councilman Jack Evans last week called Virginians opposing the commuter tax “backward” and “narrow-minded.”
“We’re just saddened by their political grandstanding and their attempt to pit the region against itself in an effort to solve its financial difficulties,” said Marin.
Smith contests that at least the lawsuit isn’t meant to pick fights.
“No one is trying to start a war among jurisdictions,” Smith said, adding that the District is simply trying to remove a ban that’s unlike any other in the nation.
He said that past Supreme Court rulings scrutinized very carefully “unequal tax schemes” that seem to “disfavor people who are not represented in the legislature.”
“If they (District residents) are not represented in the legislature, Congress has to make sure taxes that affect them are fair,” said Smith, who added that residents of D.C. should not have to pay for services many commuters enjoy daily. “The same principal will protect nonresidents of D.C.”
Commuters who would face the possible income tax would not pay more taxes, he said. Their money would just be divided as their home states give them tax exemption for paying in another jurisdiction, he said.
He said that credit given for paying a proposed commuter tax would have to be made up somehow.
“Virginia could either do away with the credit process or make up for lost revenue,” which translates into more taxes, said Connaughton.
He said the commuter tax could cost the state between $200 million to $400 million each year.
“The state could not sustain such a hit to its finances without trying to plug that hole,” he said.
Smith said that if the D.C. court moves quickly, a decision could be made on the lawsuit within six months.
Another possibility is that the challenge might not even run its course through the judicial system.
Enough attention could be drawn to D.C.’s infrastructure needs that Congress might propose a solution, said Smith.
“Congressional leaders from Maryland and Virginia could actually spearhead that,” he said. “The court case might not end up resolving this. But Congress might end up resolving this.”
Marin indicated that could be a possibility.
“The D.C. region needs to be working together on its common challenges,” he said, adding that “public officials don’t serve the public good when they attempt to pit one entity in this region against another entity.”
Lillian Kafka can be reached at (703) 878-8091.