Council Approves Supplemental Summer Appropriation, Flavored Tobacco Ban

The Council’s most recent Legislative Meeting began four hours later than planned, due to a closed-session discussion of needed legal advice from the Council’s General Counsel. With that guidance in hand, the Council subsequently voted on a supplemental budget measure at their meeting. At issue was a balance-of-power debate between the executive and legislative branches, balancing the urgency to get federal COVID stimulus funds out the door, this year’s COVID-delayed budget schedule, and the Council’s role as appropriator.

A Council vote on a scheduled payment of advance summer funds to DC schools was needed, and usually would have occurred as part of the standard budget process, prior to July 1. However, due to COVID budget delays, the needed approval would not have happened in time. This triggered the need for standalone approval legislation.

Further complicating matters was the decision to include non-education funding in the summer school funding bill. Due to the accelerated timetable and the need for standalone legislation, any funds included in the bill would not receive the same level of Council oversight and review as is normally the case.

In the end, the Council balanced the urgency of the situation with a defense of its budgetary prerogatives and responsibilities. The final bill pared back the Administration’s $295 million request to the $169 million in funds that required truly urgent, pre-summer action by the Council—including primarily the school funds, COVID response programs, and summer violence prevention. The $126 million in excess funding removed from the Administration’s proposal that was not included in the bill passed by the Council will be considered as part of the standard budget process.

In other action at the most recent Legislative Meeting, the Council passed a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. Flavored tobacco products are seen as targeting youth purchasers (despite all tobacco purchase and use already being illegal for those under the age of 21), and menthol cigarettes are seen as targeting Black consumers, who suffer disproportionately from the health impacts of tobacco. It is important to note that the legislation targets the sales, and not the use, of such products. Furthermore, it places enforcement authority with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and not with the Metropolitan Police Department. An amendment was added to the bill that would exempt and grandfather pre-existing hookah bars from the ban. This was the first of two needed votes on the bill’s passage.

Also at the most recent meeting, the Council passed an emergency measure (requiring a single supermajority vote, only in effect for 90 days) that would prohibit DC Public Schools from drug testing its volunteers, and from requiring its partner organizations to test their employees for the use of marijuana, since that substance is legal in the District of Columbia.

Finally, the Council also voted to cancel the 2021 Real Property Tax Sale, due to COVID. The 2020 sale was canceled for the same reason. At these events, properties with unpaid property taxes are auctioned off to the highest bidder, with ownership transferred if the current owner does not then fully pay up in time.

The Council’s next Legislative Meeting will be held on June 29.