Hard choices on D.C. budget

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 12:00 AM

Presumptive mayor Vince Gray hasn't even taken office and he already appears to be cruising for a bruising. What else to think after hearing about his strategy for making up the city's $175 million budget shortfall. At his final town hall meeting this week, Gray said he and the D.C. Council would compile a list of potential budget cuts and then seek public input about whether taxes should be raised instead, according to a Post report.

That would be a cop-out of the first order. The council is elected to make decisions, not to take polls. What's more, people know a set-up when they see it. Gray's scenario, intentionally or not, is a prescription for raising taxes. Here is how it would work:

Council members, with the elections safely behind them, produce a deficit-closing term sheet that reads like a doomsday manifesto. It describes deep cuts in areas likely to produce the most screams: public safety, education, health care, workforce reductions, arts and culture, etc.

That is followed by council hearings at which long lines of witnesses representing nonprofit advocacy groups and employee unions produce gripping testimony that predicts untold pain and agony resulting from the projected program and payroll cuts.

Following the hearing, which stretches late into the night or the next morning, the lawmakers conclude, reluctantly of course, that there is strong "public" opposition to cuts in government and that they, as conscientious legislators, have no alternative but to keep the government at its current size and, instead, close the deficit with tax increases on middle- and high-income D.C. wage-earners.

Never mind that Gray's proposed strategy presents taxpayers with a false choice: budget cuts or tax hikes. Both should be on the table.

Never mind, too, that some programs deserve paring down with or without the presence of a budget deficit.

The "put it to the public" scheme gives the council enough maneuvering room to avoid making tough decisions on layoffs, furloughs and program cuts - actions that ought to be integral parts of any deficit-closing strategy.

Earlier I used the term "cruising for a bruising." The people who carry the freight in the District - and they live in every quadrant of the city - aren't going to accept a tax hike lying down. Not when they know that their government is inefficient, that some city programs are wasteful, and that they, as taxpayers, are not getting a full day's work for a full day's pay from some folks now collecting D.C. government paychecks, many of whom don't even live in the District.

So if Gray expects to have a good start with the city he's likely to inherit in January as mayor, he had better revisit his budget strategy.

He and his council colleagues can begin by taking ownership of the deficit. After all, they helped create it.

Copping out on cuts only ensures tougher times down the road. Gray said as much only a few weeks ago before he started his listening tour. He acknowledged at the time that the more the council cuts in the current budget, the less difficulty they face in future years when they expect to confront $350 million or more of red ink.

Gray must step up to the problem this year. He may even find support from other lawmakers with steel in their spines. After I wrote a column criticizing the city's delay in tackling the deficit, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) reminded me in an e-mail that he had raised all of the financial issues with his colleagues.

"I introduced an amendment to make cuts across the board and tried to freeze education expenditures," Evans wrote. "I have said repeatedly that social services, which account for one-third of our budget, must be cut."

Evans said, "I voted against the . . . budget for the first time in 19 years. [Council members] knew exactly what they were doing because I told them. The [city's] reserves actually go down to $611 million. This crowd has burned through $1 billion in four years. And now they want to raise taxes."

So, future mayor Vince Gray, don't start your stewardship of the city on the wrong foot. Heed the wisdom of the late, great James Brown, who commissioned one and all to: "Get on the good foot, ha, got to do it on the good foot, ha, do it with the good foot."

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