D.C.'s giant-sized empowerment plan Clinton to the rescue: Bipartisan sentiment to help, despite Mayor Barry's shortcomings.


PRESIDENT CLINTON'S offer of an economic development package for the District of Columbia that is three times the size of Baltimore's $100 million empowerment zone allocation would have a better chance of getting through Congress if Washington's mayor were not named Marion Barry.

An indication of what key figures on Capitol Hill think of Mr. Barry came on the day of Mr. Clinton's announcement when a House subcommittee invited five mayors far from the Potomac to testify about the city's ills. Most outspoken was Mayor Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis, who described Mr. Barry as an "obstacle" to change that must come from the top. Mayor Edward Rendell of Philadelphia said Mr. Barry's public reputation "hurts" Washington's prospects for federal aid.

Nonetheless, an unusual alliance between the district's non-voting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and key Republicans may in the end be the city's salvation. They favor lowering the federal income tax rate for D.C. residents to 15 percent -- an idea calculated to stop middle-class flight to Maryland and Virginia.

Even if this scheme does not prevail, it reflects bipartisan sentiment for action to stop a decline marked by crime, drugs, dirt and corruption. Speaker Newt Gingrich told the House in January that "we have a unique obligation, on both sides of the aisle, to care about Washington." Mr. Clinton, in announcing the $300 million final piece of his ambitious rescue plan, said that "Washington is worth fighting for."

The president proposed establishment of an Economic Development Corporation to allocate millions in tax incentives to stimulate businesses in both flourishing and distressed areas of the city. U.S. budget director Franklin D. Raines said the approach was similar to the empowerment zones established in Baltimore and other selected cities. All this would be in addition to the president's January proposal for the federal assumption of the costs of D.C. courts, prisons, roads, bridges, Medicaid and tax collection.

From Maryland's point of view, federal assistance to revitalize the district would be a boost for the entire Baltimore-Washington region, which is increasingly perceived as a single economic entity encompassing two great metropolitan areas. Mayor Barry's shortcomings should not be an excuse for permitting the continued deterioration of the nation's capital.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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