[from July 2003 issue]


Just 48 hours before we went to press, the Council acted to drastically scale back the monster that had originally been created at the behest of the now long-gone Financial Control Board, the hideous "Master Business License" (MBL) program--now to be known as the "Basic Business License."

Thanks to a careful compromise crafted by Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, who chairs the finance committee, and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who chairs the consumer and regulatory affairs committee, and with apparent valuable help from Linda Cropp, the Council's chair, what emerged was a total exclusion of all businesses that have not heretofore been required to both register and be inspected in order to operate--the very sorts of small business entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals that have been flooding council members with complaints about the overbearing (now former) Master Business License requirements. These are referred to as "Class B" businesses, as distinct from "Class A" businesses which engage in activities deemed to have impact on the health and safety of customers (restaurants, gas stations, nuclear facilities, etc.).

What will now transpire is for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to completely re-write the operating rules and procedures. And, in that connection, DCRA will have to be closely monitored to ensure that it does not attempt to draw into its remaining authority those businesses which the Council members clearly have intended to exempt. Shortly after their final vote, we raised this concern with Councilmember Evans; he assured us that he will be monitoring DCRA's performance in this regard. It is absolutely clear to us that this result would not have come about had not so effectively developed his well-reasoned opposition to the original plan by which convinced enough members to side with him in his efforts to, as we said in our first editorial on the subject, "Stop the madness before it's too late!"

To help the politicians remain focused on the importance of ensuring that DCRA does not try to suck into its regulatory ambit any businesses or self-employed entrepreneurs not specifically intended by the council, it might be instructive for both the politicians and the DCRA bureaucrats to think about the commentary piece that was submitted to us by Kwame Brown, a spokesman for small minority businesses and a Hillcrest resident in Southeast, and Ann Hoffman, a freelance writer who resides in Cleveland Park. They sent this in immediately following publication of our editorial on this subject last month ("Repeal the Master Business License Program: Part Two," June 2003, page 3) but prior to the action by the Council on scheduled July 8 reported here. second reading by the Council on the Evans bill to repeal. Here, then, is a message, somewhat edited, from ordinary people, the voters, and well-worth keeping in mind; and, the message is far from moot:

"The opponents of the MBL are not fat cats, consumer-scammers, neighborhood nuisances, or law-breakers. We are hardworking low- to moderate-income people. We must strive to sustain our households, pay the tax rates tied to self-employment, and struggle against unruly health care costs. We frequently work for ourselves and by ourselves. This makes our outcry over MBL a true gauge of deep frustration at the needless hassle and intrusion it has already inflicted. The fact that seven members of the Council listened is a real measure of commitment to serving all DC citizens.

"During recent debate, only supporters of repeal were able to recite actual statements from constituents and critical editorials about the perils of the vastly expanded MBL scheme. Foes of repeal found it necessary to lump hardworking independent businesspeople with "lawbreakers." In fact, we are lawbreakers' worst nightmare and valuable linchpins of our city's quality of life. Often at home during the day, we contribute to the community as neighborhood watchers, caregivers for elderly friends, babysitters, and volunteers on everything from Little League to literacy. We help make DC hum.

"But MBL strikes several sour notes. As one writer recently noted, MBL could stand for 'Mighty Bad Legislation'; it risks making apartment-dwelling freelancers who are unable to obtain certificates of occupancy into outlaws. It threatens to turn whole new categories of workers into scofflaws. And it binds writers, musicians, consultants, home cleaners, and other law-abiding workers in red tape just as we are making DC a more desirable place to live. As a city, we can do better.

"We understand that the District's business licensing system is out-of-date, unwieldy, and inconvenient. There is good reason to update, simplify, and streamline it. There is no reason to drag thousands of new workers into a system that has already proven that it does not work. It needs to be fixed before whole new groups of citizens are subjected to its authority.