Correction to This Article
A previous version of this column misidentified one of the recipients of a D.C. government grant. It was not the Takoma Theatre itself but the Takoma Theatre Conservancy.

Budget Cuts and Fake Fury in D.C.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"I'm concerned that this budget lacks compassion for the least, last, lost and left-out," said Michael Brown (I-At Large), the D.C. Council's newest member and arguably its best with alliteration.

Brown issued his battle cry this week, a true sign that the budget season has dawned.

Gone are those cherished moments when the council got to be Santa Claus, using legislative earmarks to channel D.C. tax dollars to favored groups. Now lawmakers have to play the part of Scrooge, because the mean ol' recession has come along to suck up the green stuff that used to allow them to have so much fun.

The mayor's fiscal 2010 budget, reflecting the new economic reality, has put some of our council members in the foulest of moods.

Budget-cutting Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has gone so far as to recommend eliminating the observance of next year's Emancipation Day, an 1862 event that D.C. politicians didn't start celebrating with a paid holiday for city workers until four years ago.

Cue Michael Brown. "It's outrageous," he thundered to The Post. Way to go, Big Mike.

More teeth-gnashing will surely follow as details of the mayor's $5.4 billion spending proposals are digested. Best bet for the budget season's most overused word? "Devastated."

Fenty's budget decreases spending from the current fiscal year by 4 percent. He's asking the council to eliminate 1,632 jobs, freeze salaries and raise a bunch of fees on business and service licenses, including a charge on the electricity bills of residents to help maintain streetlights.

Council members think that's tantamount to asking them to drink rat poison.

What to do? "Man (and woman) up!" Whining is unbecoming.

Besides, where were the tears last year when, in one night's work, the council appropriated $56 million of taxpayer funds to local groups after a minimum of public debate and scrutiny?

Where was the council's commitment to the "least, last, lost," etc., when it gave Ford's Theatre $10 million and doled out $500,000 to the Washington National Opera, $300,000 to the National Building Museum and $100,000 each to the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase and the Takoma Theatre Conservancy?

The council will have conniptions because more than 100 of the 250 full-time positions to be cut in the mayor's budget come from child-care programs. But as council members act out, remember that last year the council shipped off $332,000 to Horning Brothers to restore Tivoli Theater murals, donated $1 million to the Lincoln Theatre on U Street, and gave $200,000 and $118,000 to the Source Theatre and the GALA Hispanic Theatre, respectively.

Our Council of the Compassionates will have to face more than moms who are desperate for child care. Fenty's job cuts and his lid on pay raises also have got the city's government labor unions in a snit. Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, is miffed because Fenty didn't consult the unions. "This administration thinks it can make unilateral decisions . . . and ignore the role the union is supposed to play in the life of the city," complained Williams.

Well, Josh, look at it this way: Maybe the mayor didn't ignore the role you played at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last summer when your union printed and distributed thousands of flyers describing him as "image-conscious" and "a budget shattering, union-busting, promise-breaking political boss."

Or maybe it was September's rally outside the Wilson Building where you told the crowd that Fenty "had redefined compassion to mean taking care of friends and private industry."

I dunno, Josh. I'm not a whiz on protocol, but I have a hard time imagining that your approach is the best way to get invited to a seat at the mayor's budget-planning sessions. Anyway, now you can take your case to the council.

The council members have so much to do. But first they must demonstrate that they share the pain of the working class. Speeches aren't necessary. They just have to turn down the council's scheduled annual cost-of-living increases in 2010. Now that would be showing the taxpayers some love.

Lawmakers also need to prove that they're up to the job of overseeing the Fenty administration.

His signature program -- education -- needs serious probing. The budget season is the time to look beyond the posturing and to separate explanations from excuses. It's the time to measure school system results against school system promises.

Likewise, the community partnerships formed by the Fenty administration require objective examination. Shifting government responsibilities and money to private contractors in the name of "partnerships" is a good way to buy support and silence criticism, as contracting by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services has demonstrated. Whether the city gets its money's worth through such tactics is another question, and one the council must answer.

There's plenty of heavy lifting to be done before May, when the council is set to approve a final budget. That includes reviewing those fees that Fenty wants to impose. The mayor resists calling them anything but that.

But freshman Brown dissents: "From my perspective, taxes are being raised." Sic 'em, Big Guy!

© 2009 The Washington Post Company