Jonetta Rose Barras: Election-year budget from a lame-duck mayor

April 9

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is about to become the Rodney Dangerfield of District politics. He won’t get much respect over the next eight months as the city’s lame-duck chief executive — quack, quack. Some D.C. Council members suggested they would give due deference to him and his position. But that was polite rhetoric, destined for the nearest trash heap.

The dissing of Gray began this week, as the council started its deliberation of his proposed $10.7 billion fiscal 2015 budget and multi-year financial plan. In the past, the process, which continues through May, has been contentious. But this year the tensions between the mayor and council are certain to be amplified as political careers and futures play an outsize role.

Some council members also are permanently exiting the scene after losing primary contests; they surely will seek to use the process to carve out legacies. Others still in campaign mode may engage in blatant pandering to voters. Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David Catania (I-At Large), both vying to become the city’s next mayor, undoubtedly will seek to elevate their profiles as they prepare to face off in a November general-election smackdown.

Gray’s budget, a hodgepodge of policy initiatives and programs, seems to have been developed with reelection in mind. There is something in it for just about every key voting bloc, particularly public school parents and advocates, affordable housing stalwarts, senior citizens and business owners. And out of nowhere he has proposed a public hospital for the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in far Southeast.

“That’s not going anywhere,” said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who heads the Committee on Finance and Revenue. Wall Street has consistently warned the city about remaining in the hospital business. “They want us out of it; every rating agency was very clear.”

Catania, known for taking a jackhammer to budget proposals, told me, “There is no cogent or coherent vision for this budget. It isn’t taking us anywhere. It’s a chicken in every pot.” He was concerned that Gray proposed to spend education-modernization money on building large high schools while neglecting improvements at middle schools for which residents are clamoring.

Gray has provided ample opportunity for disagreements and controversy: He only half-embraced important tax reforms recommended by a commission headed by former mayor Anthony A. Williams. Gray has suggested repealing funding for arts organizations; failed to provide money to implement the D.C. Promise scholarship program, which would provide financial aid for graduating high school students to attend college; and offered a series of capital improvement projects that takes the city excruciatingly close to its mandated 12 percent debt ceiling.

More egregious, the mayor proposed using $104 million from this year’s budget to help balance next year’s plan. He also estimated about $200 million in savings, supposedly from contracting and procurement reforms, to prop up the 2016 budget. Those kinds of tricks are reminiscent of the “fifth-quarter” to the tax year created back in the 1990s by former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to camouflage fiscal woes. The District may not be in financial trouble, but in his statement Monday Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt indicated that “over the past year, overall employment located in the District has slowed, and commercial office vacancies have risen slightly while rents have weakened.” That trend is directly related to federal cuts. While it might get better over time, during the period covered by the financial plan, it could mean fewer of those big surpluses the city has been experiencing.

“This is one-time money to pay for ongoing costs. It’s unclear how this practice represents the most prudent use of [the public’s] money,” said council Chairman Phil Mendelson, signaling that those alternative balancing strategies probably will be jettisoned from the final document.

Gray seemed willing to work with legislators to make changes to the budget. Truth be told, he might consider redoing the entire proposal. With his loss to Bowser in the April 1 Democratic primary, his budget becomes part of his legacy construction — except as written, it’s all unfinished business or the continuation of projects that predated him. There are few final touches.

He can’t complete Skyland Town Center in eight months. He can’t build a soccer stadium; his administration is still trying to finalize the needed land deals. He has helped modernize some schools and recreation centers, but much of that began under his predecessor, as did the development of the city’s network of bike lanes and street cars. Affordable housing, while often discussed, is an unrealized dream. There is his prekindergarten program.

Maybe the council could facilitate Gray’s legacy mission, finding something in the budget on which his imprimatur could be stamped. Otherwise, his greatest legacy will be ethics and campaign finance reform, which, in fairness, he would have to share with his former colleagues: disgraced former council members Harry Thomas Jr., Kwame Brown and Michael Brown.

Of course, that would be a sad epilogue to Gray’s political career, which began with enormous promise.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

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