If City Council members occasionally feel as though they are little more than minor players in the District's budget process, they hardly can be blamed.
Time and again, Mayor Marion Barry has outmaneuvered them with a dazzling display of budget gamesmanship--one that contrasts sharply with his much clumsier performance during his first two years in office.
Under the city charter, the mayor is empowered to propose new budgets and budget supplements and it's up to the City Council to approve the final versions--subject, of course, to the mayor's veto authority and congressional review.
But as both a practical and legal matter, the mayor has extraordinary power to reshape the city's spending policies once the council has acted. As he sees fit, he can alter, override or simply ignore the council's wishes.
Take, for example, the city's austere fiscal 1983 operating budget that runs through Sept. 30. When Barry first proposed the budget more than a year ago--at the same time he was warming up for his reelection campaign--it contained a lot more money for popular programs. Cynics dubbed it an election year "something for everybody" budget. The City Council made a few significant changes but generally went along with the mayor's recommendations.
However, after winning reelection last fall, Barry announced that the city's once rosy financial picture had suddenly turned bleak. Some agencies were overspending, he explained, and the city wasn't taking in as much in revenue as his experts had originally predicted. Barry said that to avert a potential $110 million deficit, he would have to begin whacking away at programs that he had taken credit for during the campaign.
By declaring that a budget emergency existed, Barry invoked powers delegated to him under the charter to virtually dictate wholesale revisions in city spending. He, for the most part, could decide which agencies would lose funds and which ones would receive additional funds.
In April, he sent to the council proposed revisions to the budget that reduced the overall spending level and shifted funds among individual appropriations titles. In effect, he was altering the spending policies that the council had adopted.
At the same time, Barry sent along a packet of 50 proposed changes in spending within individual appropriations titles. They included a $1 million reduction in funds for job training and other cuts totaling $900,000 in the Department of Recreation, the Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Aging.
When council chairman David A. Clarke suggested that the mayor include the packet in the supplemental budget, thus making it subject to revisions by the council, Barry balked and withdrew the packet.
Two months later, the mayor was back with his packet. This time, however, he presented it to the council as a series of "reprogrammings" that, for all intents and purposes, couldn't be rejiggered by the council.
When the council, nonetheless, went on record as opposing the cuts in job training, Budget Director Betsy Reveal replied that the mayor actually had ordered the reductions months before and wouldn't rescind the order.
Council members are not the only ones who have been outflanked by the mayor. Both the D.C. Board of Education and the District courts resisted attempts by Barry to cut their budget this year.
The school board went one step further by voting Aug. 31 to take legal action against the city to prevent it from imposing a new purchasing policy this year that had the effect of cutting $7 million from the school's $306.5 million operating budget.
Last week, Barry sidestepped the legal squabble with the school board and caught District judges by surprise. He invoked an obscure provision of the charter that allows the mayor to apportion any potential deficit among all city agencies, including the semi-independent school board and the courts.
Barry indicated he had cut $7 million from the school board's budget and more than $600,000 from the courts' budget to balance this year's budget.
Reveal agrees the mayor clearly holds the upper hand in his budget dealings with the council and other bodies but says that it's essential given his legal responsibility to keep government spending within revenue limitations.
"The chief executive has to be the bottom line on whether you have a balanced budget or not," Reveal said. "But he doesn't use his powers to circumvent or get around the City Council."
In an interview last week, Reveal noted the mayor's executive powers over the budget are a mixed blessing.
"Everybody wants to have the upper hand on the budget when there's plenty of money to spend," she said. "But having the upper hand now in a period of limited resources ain't all that nice. Nobody likes to cut programs."