Free Metrobus, Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, and Guaranteed Schools-First Budgeting Headline a Whale of a Legislative Meeting

Just after a result was announced in Georgia’s Senate runoff election, and just prior to midnight, the Council’s mammoth marathon Legislative Meeting came to a close. The motive for this year-end acceleration of activity: nothing succeeds like a deadline. The District’s Home Rule Act requires two votes on permanent legislation, and with just two Legislative Meetings remaining in the 2021-2022 Council Period, it was now or never time for all pending legislation. Any permanent bills introduced since January 3, 2021 will have to start the legislative process over again in 2023…unless they received their two required votes at the Council’s most recent Legislative Meeting, and its next and final meeting of the Council Period on December 20.

As a result, some legislation that has been pending for up to two years, and other bills of a much more recent vintage, cleared their penultimate hurdle at the most recent meeting. One bill that falls in both categories is a long-pending bill to provide all District residents with a monthly $100 SmarTrip credit to use on Metrorail and Metrobus. In recent days, a dramatic step was taken to expand the bill to include free Metrobus service for all District riders beginning July 1, 2023. Additionally, the bill will create all-night service on the system’s dozen busiest lines, and will invest $10 million in improvements to bus lines and shelters with a demonstrated reliability and equity impact.

Another measure receiving the first of two necessary votes at the most recent meeting was a measure creating a bill of rights for domestic workers, ensuring that their work behind closed doors in private homes is entitled to the same protections as work done in more commercial workplaces. Under the terms of the legislation, employers of workers engaged in five or more hours of work a month must enter into a contract with these employees that outlines terms such as pay and hours. The bill eliminates the prior exclusion of domestic workers from District human rights law, and requires multilingual outreach to the domestic worker community outlining their new rights under occupational health and safety laws as well as protections against harassment and discrimination.

Parents of DC Public Schools (DCPS) students are familiar with the pitfalls of the current school funding process. In February, the budget figure for each individual school is suddently unveiled not just to the broader community and to the world at large, but also to those who lead, teach, and learn at these schools. Sometimes, these released budget figures include reductions in individual schools’ budgets, and the cause of these reductions is often a mystery. While often schools, students, and parents subsequently work successfully to have cuts reduced or eliminated, the intervening uncertainty often cannot as easily be undone. A bill receiving the first of two necessary votes at the most recent Legislative Meeting would bring an end to this practice by requiring DCPS to start each school’s budget for the next year using the baseline of the current year, with only very specific grounds for reductions. This effectively bans reductions in individual school budget numbers from year to year. Only after the sum of all the individual school budgets have been determined and set aside in this manner could remaining funds be allocated to broader DCPS administration and central office uses.

A number of permanent measures receiving their first vote at the most recent meeting were focused in the realm of justice and public safety, and some had already been in place via emergency and temporary legislation. Those measures would prohibit the use of neck restraints and tear gas, increase access to body-work camera footage, reform use of force and officer discipline procedures, help restore credibility in the District’s forensic services via reforms including making the crime lab an independent agency, implement reforms at the Department of Corrections, broaden the sealing and expunging of some criminal records, and clarify and expand the Office of the Inspector General’s investigatory role.

Many other bills received the first of two necessary votes by the Council at the most recent meeting, including those that would:

  • Improve the safety of children heading to and from school, via infrastructure improvements focused on visibility, speed restriction, and pedestrian safety, especially in the highest-risk areas
  • Continue the broad expansion of the District’s medical cannabis market by building on the existing patient self-certification process and creating new license categories. For the first time, the bill also creates a pathway for current so-called gray market “gifting” establishments to transition to legal medical cannabis sales, while also establishing eventual penalties for businesses that do not transition.
  • Increase the minimum monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payment, to partially compensate for the District’s high grocery prices, and to allow the purchase of healthier (and often pricier) foods
  • Expand and streamline eligibility for Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds, and increase the maximum available payment, due to the increased cost of rent
  • Narrow and accelerate the background check process for teachers and school volunteers in an effort to fill these roles more expeditiously
  • Simply basic business licensing for current or new businesses by reducing licensing categories, decreasing license costs, and eliminating outdated requirements
  • Increase the mayor’s salary (such increases are not allowed during an ongoing term, so they tend to occur at the end of an ongoing four-year term. The salary of the Council chair and attorney general will also increase since they are determined using the baseline of the mayor’s salary)

Two measures which had garnered significant media attention did not, in the end, get voted on at the most recent Legislative Meeting. A proposed emergency bill to restructure the board of directors of the DC Housing Authority (emergency bills only need to be voted on at a single meeting, albeit with a two-thirds super-majority, and an effective duration of 90 days) was postponed until the December 20 meeting. Also, a vote disapproving the nomination of the current director of the Office of Unified Communications became moot when the mayor withdrew the nomination.

As has already been stated, the Council’s final Legislative Meeting of Council Period 24 will be held on December 20. The first Legislative Meeting of Council Period 25, which will encompass 2023 and 2024, will be on January 3, 2023.