As the Washington, DC City Council weighs Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 2016 budget, low and middle-income taxpayers should be wary. Last Friday, ATR testified before the Committee of the Whole to express our concerns regarding Bowser’s regressive tax hikes.

Among other things, the $12.9 billion budget submitted by Bowser raises the city’s sales tax from 5.75% to 6% despite growing city revenue and annual growth. This $22 million tax hike would adversely affect the city’s poorest, even if intended to fund government projects to their benefit. The city rejected this increase last year, when Bowser was on the Council.

“It’s the most regressive kind of tax . . . and besides, you save raising the tax for the rainy day,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), noting that local revenue is projected to grow to more than $7 billion next year, an increase of $185 million, or nearly 3 percent. “When revenues are growing by 3 percent, you don’t need to be raising taxes.”

Another tax increase contained in the budget targets smokers looking for an effective way to quit. Bowser’s 70% tax on electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) would constitute more than 1200% increase on the products currently subjected to the city’s 5.75% sales tax. This tax on quitting smoking is misguided and will result in closed businesses and a loss of city jobs.

That testimony can be found in its entirety here:

Chairman Mendelson and Members of the DC City Council,

On behalf of Americans for Tax Reform, thank you for providing us the opportunity to testify before the Committee of the Whole this morning.

Americans for Tax Reform is a non-profit taxpayer advocacy organization based here in Washington, D.C. that has existed since 1985. Last year, ATR was happy to support the historic tax reform package passed into law by the Council, which broadened the base of taxable services, reduced tax rates for individuals and businesses and took a step in the right direction towards making DC more competitive.

Unfortunately, this year’s Budget Request and Support Acts take a step in the wrong direction, particularly targeting low and middle-income consumers with higher, regressive taxes.

First, the proposal to raise the sales tax to 6%. District revenues are growing. This happens in periods of natural and competitive growth and makes this tax hike unnecessary. To target those who can least afford it with $22 million in higher taxes on the products they purchase just to get by flies in the face of last year’s tax reform package aimed at encouraging people to live, stay, shop, and move into the District.

Second, the proposal to raise taxes on electronic cigarettes and vapor products contained in the Vapor Products Amendment Act of 2015. Last year this Council changed the way DC taxes tobacco based on a recommendation from the DC Tax Reform Commission and the Tobacco Free Coalition. Electronic cigarettes and vapor products were exempt from being defined as tobacco for good reason. They’re tobacco-free and they’re effective smoking cessation products that stand to save thousands of lives in DC and millions of tax dollars.

The massively unjustifiable 70% tax on the wholesale cost of vapor products will guarantee that the poorest DC residents continue smoking combustible tobacco cigarettes. And while projections assert that this new tax will result in $382,000 in revenue next year, that is extremely unlikely because it assumes two things.

First, that consumers who have and are looking to make the switch from tobacco to vapor products will not simply buy the products in Maryland or Virginia, where the products are taxed at 6 percent in retail locations.

Second, that DC vapor product sales won’t go online where the District does not have the authority to tax or regulate sales to consumers.

Both assumptions are wrong and will result in less revenue than anticipated and less sales tax revenue from products currently taxed at 5.75 percent in DC retail locations. For products costing as much as $300, not even wealthy consumers will purchase the products in DC retail locations.

There are real, operational, new businesses in this City who stand to be put out of business with this tax hike. While they can speak better to the new employees they’ve hired, the rent, income, and sales taxes they’re paying, I wanted to echo their concerns. Increasing the cost of vapor products by 70 percent will make their sales no longer viable in DC. These shops may shut down and the city’s tax policies will discourage new shops from opening. This budget stands to kill current and future jobs.

The Director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products remarked last year, “If we could get all of those people to completely switch all of their cigarettes to noncombustible cigarettes (electronic/vapor), it would be good for public health.” Does this Council disagree? Should we not create tax policy that facilitates and encourages consumers switching to tobacco-free technology products without placing an undue and costly burden on them?

Even as the FDA considers a set of guidelines on the industry, they admit vapor products are likely good for public health. That’s precisely why vapor products may save the District millions of tax dollars. The cost borne by taxpayers for the use of tobacco by recipients of Medicaid far outweighs the revenue generated from cigarette sales or tobacco settlement payments by an astounding 200 percent, according to a recent study by State Budget Solutions. Vapor products, used by lower and middle-income consumers on Medicaid will bring down the long-term health care costs paid for by the rest of District taxpayers. 

There’s a reason every state in the nation that considered taxing vapor products like tobacco in 2014 failed. Politicians in both parties agree that vapor products may just accomplish what lawmakers have failed to do for decades: ending tobacco cigarette use, as we know it. Any policies, including higher taxes that make it more expensive for residents to make the switch to far healthier alternatives, should be rejected.

We urge the City Council to reject the Mayor’s tax hike proposals.​