[from June 2003 issue]


As we exclaimed in this space last month, "Stop the madness before it's too late!" With Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans having twice cited our plea when the council debated his bill to scrap the previously authorized and beginning to get underway program for good, by a slim majority of seven to six, the council voted to kill the law. But, it’s not quite dead-dead yet. There’s yet to be the “Second Reading,” and we’re sure the die-hards are trying to regroup.

Not unexpected, of course, the original legislation's chief boosters, at-large Councilmember Harold Brazil and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose (who also chairs the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs) led the attempt to stave off the Evans repeal measure. We were disappointed that they were joined, at least in the vote, by Linda Cropp, the council's chair, and at-large Councilmembers Carol Schwartz and Phil Mendelson, along with Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. While Ambrose articulated some arguably credible reasons to proceed with the program, she did seem to fall back on relying heavily on what seemed to us as the principal rationales put forth by Harold Brazil: that so much effort had already been put into implementing the program that it should therefore proceed (to us, not a valid policy basis) and, also, to not proceed would mean that the city would revert back to an existing, antiquated 1908 law. From his continued insistence on this point one would believe that the present business licensing laws and regulations have not been up-dated in 100 years. That, of course, is poppycock; the council (and the District Commissioners prior to Home Rule) has indeed kept up with these matters to reflect the changing business and professional occupations of the past century.

In our view, neither rationale justifies continuing on what we would characterize as a "pig-in-a-poke" direction. Now was the time to minimize the losses in time and money (and, apparently, the city really won't be losing money on the failed thing since it appears that the registration fees already paid in by those businesses that had already filed--and we're talking several hundred thousand dollars--is not expected to be refunded. Now, while Brazil lamented that aspect--in fact used it as another reason to keep the program, we agree with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham who observed that most businesses would be happy enough to have the city keep their fees if it means they will never have to deal with this scheme again!)

A few of the members who were supportive of retaining the program specifically targeted the idea that the master business license would protect residents from incompetent practitioners and dispensers of services that could cause them harm if they were somehow not supervised through a licensing procedure. The trouble with that argument, however, is that it fails to acknowledge that the city already licenses a vast array of occupations deemed to have the potential of adversely affecting the health, safety, and welfare of its residents if the practitioners are unqualified or negligent or what have you. It's not just lawyers and doctors or architects and engineers whose competence is certified by the city through professional or occupational licensing: it's hairdressers and cosmetologists, plumbers and electricians, limo operators--the list seems endless; it's even interior designers, thanks to then Ward 2 Councilmember John Wilson who, in pushing through that requirement, expressed concern that an incompetent interior designer might be specifying shag carpet for a hotel lobby thus putting at risk for serious injury ladies in high heels!).

The proponents of the master business license, argued that no business not already licensed would be included and the program would merely simplify current licensing. But there are two glaring errors with this argument: First, all those professional and business persons who have the kinds of licenses mentioned above would continue having to meet the special licensing requirements of the myriad boards that govern those professions and businesses anyway. Therefore, there would be no "consumer protection" accorded residents that is not presently in place. Secondly, contrary to what has been stated, there are many income-producing occupations that are presently not licensed, and for good reason. We refer especially to the business of art and letters. True, it's practitioners will often act like they are "above" being in "business," but the master business license program apparently would consider those persons to be of potential danger to the community requiring government supervision so as to protect the public from some kind of mythical harm.

Putting aside the obvious First Amendment issue that would seem to make it unconstitutional for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to license writers, painters and sculptors, dancers and actors, musicians and composers, and professional lecturers (lots of them in this town!), one has to wonder what the consumer protection justification might be? There is none, of course.

The other big argument made in favor of retaining the program is the need for government to be able to know who is actually doing business, presumably so that it can be sure to collect all the business taxes it ought to collect. The proponents would have us believe that the city does not know who is doing business. Not once did we hear in that council debate even the slightest hint of recognition that the city already has its list. It's kept by the Office of Finance and Revenue. Since what seems the beginning of the Bureaucratic Era, every business entity, whether a corporation, partnership or sole proprietorship, has been required to file for a business tax identification number. The application form requires answering the same kinds of questions DCRA would have us all do all over again. The info is already extant. Why can't DCRA have access to the computer files of Finance and Revenue?

The Second Reading on the Evans bill that we referred to at the start of our comments is scheduled for July 8th. We have no doubt that efforts are being made to re-capture at least one of the votes that killed the measure on the First Reading. Citizens must remain vigilant and not let this crazy scheme re-assert itself while everyone is away on an extended July 4th weekend.