Opinion: The Winner? Big Government

Whether President Barack Obama had been reelected or not, and regardless of the outcomes of the assorted U.S. House and Senate races, one thing is pretty certain: The era of big government is not over.

And that’s probably good news for the hundreds of thousands of federal government workers in the Washington region, the scores of military families and the legions more who work in the private sector with government contracts.

In this region, we are the seat of government, or “SOG” for short.

On Monday before the election, former northern Virginia U.S. Rep. Tom Davis sat down with NBC4 to discuss the likely impact of the national results on our region.

“It’s all on the margins in terms of what government does,” Davis said of various attempts over the years to grow or curtail government spending. Davis, a moderate conservative, said this time is different partially because of the tremendous budget deficits run up in the past decade.

“This region has fared better over the last years than other regions because of the expenditures,” Davis said, “but that’s about to end. We’re borrowing 40 cents on every dollar [that we spend],” he said, “and at this point, something has to give. We know this is unsustainable, so Congress has got to address this.”

Although the most conservative members of Congress vow no new taxes or revenue, Davis said extremes on the right or left can’t be sustained, either. The looming sequestration list of cuts — if allowed — would damage not only the regional economy, but also the national economy.

“And they can’t just [fix it] by addressing discretionary spending. That cripples this region,” Davis said. “They’re going to have to get into some of the entitlements; they may have to get into some revenues.”

Davis is not on any ballot, so he can say “revenue” without flinching. We’ll see how the survivors of Tuesday’s election feel as they return to the budget negotiating table.

■ By the numbers. When Ronald Reagan was president, his budget in 1982 totaled about $617 billion, according to figures from the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Reagan’s deficit that year was about $128 billion. By the time that George W. Bush left office, the budget was $2.9 trillion and the deficit was $458 billion. Under Barack Obama (and accounting for the policies of the Bush era into 2009) the budget has now reached $3.7 trillion with a deficit of about $1.2 trillion.

Enough numbers. We’re getting woozy.

■ Tax office crime. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced last week that another former employee of the city’s tax office has pleaded guilty to taking part in a scheme that netted $14.7 million in refunds for 3,700 fake income tax returns.

Kimberle Y. Davis, a control technician in the Office of Tax and Revenue, admitted she stole $4 million and handled about 1,000 phony returns.

Before you go yelling at Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi for this latest management problem, note this sentence from the news release sent out by U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen:

“The fraudulent activities were uncovered by OTR. The case was investigated jointly thereafter by that agency and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation.”

Of course, a grumpy critic might ask why the scheme lasted so long before being found out. Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans, chair of the Finance and Revenue Committee, has asked similar questions.

But Gandhi himself was proud to note that this crime, like many others, was first discovered by his employees.

“We are pleased that the vigilance of the Office of Tax and Revenue Criminal Investigation Unit uncovered this scheme, which led to this day of reckoning,” Gandhi said.

■ Photo finish. Mayor Vincent Gray last week jumped out in front of critics of the city’s speed camera system.

The mayor announced that as of this Monday he would lower some of the District’s speeding fines by $25. A fine that was $100 is now $75. There were similar reductions for other infractions.

But the mayor did raise one fine. He said anyone going more than 25 mph over the posted limit would pay $300 instead of $250.

The mayor’s move was designed to head off legislation in the council to reduce speed camera fines even further. But there was precious little support for the mayor’s move.

“Most people I talk to are convinced that our automated traffic enforcement program is mostly about raising money for the District’s budget,” said Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells, who is leading the effort to knock down speed camera tickets to as low as $50. In Maryland, they’re $40.

Wells says there’s no evidence higher fines equate to safer streets. He says research he has seen shows that any serious — though more modest — amount has the same effect.

Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser, who like Wells is a potential future candidate for mayor, says neighborhoods suffering from raceway roadways want the cameras and the fines.

Any legislative changes in the city’s speed camera fines are likely months away.

At Monday’s council hearing on the bill — introduced by Wells, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh and Ward 8’s Marion Barry — several council members, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, said it’s important for the city to consider raising the speed limit on roads that can accommodate faster traffic. In the District, if there is no speed limit sign present, the speed automatically is set at 25 mph.

Here’s one more consumer note on the speeding tickets. The reduced fines set by the mayor apply only to tickets given out since midnight Sunday. If you have a speed camera ticket prior to that, you have to pay the fine written on the ticket.

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