[from May 2003 issue]


Stop the madness before it's too late! This thing is a holdover from the meddling days of the Congressionally-imposed Financial Control Board era. The Board wanted it and the mayor and council went meekly along. Eventually, citizens began to learn about this nutty scheme to have Big Government impose itself into the operations of even the most minute business enterprises, such as single-person service providers (cleaning ladies, teenage baby-sitters & lawnmower kids); sole proprietors of home-based businesses; consultants working out of their basements; artists, musicians, writers. You name 'em, and they've all been thrown in the same pot with the big K Street law, accounting, and PR firms, the Washington lobbying offices of multinational corporations, retailers, etc., etc.

The primary cheerleaders for this mess are Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who chairs the council's Committee on Consumer & Regulatory Affairs (and never met a government regulation that she didn't love) and at-large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who chairs the council's Committee on Economic Development (who hasn't caught on that overbearing government does not foster business development).

Now, to its credit--well, maybe it's really because of the groundswell of opposition from the babysitter kids and their Ward 3 parents--the council did recently change the law slightly so as to exempt operators of home-based business with a gross income of less than $20,000 from being covered by the law. But even that is not particularly helpful to most sole proprietors working at home, largely for the reason that the exclusion is based on gross income as opposed to net--the amount one actually receives for their own use.

Another, very serious, problem is that artists, musicians, writers, and other creative types will now have to get this master business license without regard to the obvious First Amendment issue. As far as we can determine, this is the first time a government body in this country has created a requirement that persons engaged in the Constitutionally inviolate right of free expression must actually be licensed as a precondition to exercise such rights. The way the law is written, if a writer doesn't have the license, it will be illegal to derive income from publishing a successful novel or a tome.

Many of our readers may now be wondering if we believe that citizens engaged in any kind of activity that brings them money should simply be able to hide from government so that they might avoid paying taxes or complying with established regulations, such as the licensing of professionals like lawyers, doctors, architects, plumbers, home improvement contractors, electricians, and the like. Of course not. But all those folk--and legions of others like them--are already licensed and thereby their business activities supervised by their relevant professional licensing bodies that directly or indirectly under DC government control.

But what the master business license program does do is to allow the government to go far beyond the legitimate need to protect the public from unscrupulous or incompetent businesses and professionals. Now, for example, the city will be able to withhold a license if it claims there is an unpaid fee or parking fine, for example. Think badly-messed up DMV computer database showing bogus parking tickets from decades ago that nobody ever got around to zapping from the system. So, then, instead of being able to resolve things like this easily, one is sent on a journey through the city's own Hades which, based on reports we have received, will only be agony forever. So it is, in our view, nothing more than a scam to squeeze money from people who are arguably innocent to begin with.

There will be no intrinsic benefit for the city; in fact, it will divert government regulators from doing the really important stuff. Furthermore, it totally negates the mayor's messages about DC being business friendly, which we all know it isn't. The big lie is thus exposed. The only thing this does is ensure even less business investment here and more hurdles for the small business owners who are the ones that provide the majority of taxpayer jobs in the city.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs the council's finance committee, is trying to get this law repealed now. Unfortunately, although Councilmembers Catania, Fenty, Graham, and Patterson were ready to vote with Evans for repeal when the matter was up for action as emergency legislation on May 6, the council's chair, Linda Cropp, said she wasn't up to speed on the issue (how can that be?); Carol Schwartz, of all people (!), who originally supported repeal now seems to have changed her mind; Councilmember Orange seems to be waffling because the mayor is offering him something nice for his ward; Councilmembers Allen and Chavous have seemingly expressed their support, but they may now be wavering (we don't know about Mendelson); and, of course, Councilmembers Ambrose and Brazil want to keep the measure alive. The matter was tabled for "further study" until June 5. Meanwhile, the deadline for compliance with the impossibly complex and confusing filing requirements has been extended for a third time, now to July 31.

What the members of the council must understand is that virtually no segment of our city's population supports this draconian scheme. Labor is opposed, and the AFL-CIO has made that clear; homeworkers trying to eke out a living are opposed; the arts community is up in arms; clear-thinking business economists are expressing alarm. Why won't all the members of the city council see the light. This is not only incredibly unpopular, but it is an unreasonable intrusion by government and it will ultimately result in an economic debacle.