A new D.C. Council begins its legislative work this month with the daunting task of trying to do more with less.
With the city facing a prospective $300 million deficit, and Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon still forming a new government, some council members say they will be hard-pressed to solve other crises in crime, health care and public schools. Others suggest that the deficit may be a blessing in disguise.
"It's going to force us to be innovative," said council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large). "In the past, all we did was throw money at problems. But that's what has nearly bankrupted the city."
John A. Wilson, the new council chairman, is sending strong signals to his colleagues to avoid pursuing any costly initiatives. He is requiring a specific list of expenses to accompany all prospective legislation and stressing to council members that erasing the city's budget deficit -- possibly with furloughs and new taxes -- will be their most urgent and burdensome job.
"The money situation is definitely going to limit the council's ability to pass much," Wilson said. "We are going to be bogged down for most of the year just trying to put the city in some kind of solvent situation."
Nevertheless, council members say they expect to revive debate on several other serious issues. Bills are being submitted to stiffen prison terms for murder and to expand drug-treatment programs. There also is discussion of creating a fund to relieve hospitals from the debt being created by thousands of patients who cannot afford medical insurance and do not qualify for Medicaid.
Prodded by several civic commissions that have issued criticism of the District government, council members also say they hope to streamline the city bureaucracy. One probable move will be to split up the city's massive Department of Human Services and reduce staffing.
"I think there's obvious duplication and bloat there," said council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), chairman of the Committee on Human Resources. "That department has become unmanageable."
Crawford also said he wants the council to adopt an amnesty program for drug addicts. The premise: Replace criminal charges with free drug treatment for addicts who voluntarily turn themselves -- and their weapons -- in to police.
On that same subject, Lightfoot said he wants the council to consider legislation that would send more convicted drug users to mandatory drug-treatment programs instead of jailing them -- a move that he said would ease the perennial prison crowding that is draining the city budget.
Yet debate is emerging on whether the council, in another bid to reduce the city's record homicide rate, should approve a bill that mandates life sentences for anyone convicted of murder in the District.
There is some doubt among council members, though, that any of those proposals will proceed quickly as long as Wilson and Dixon are attempting to solve the city's financial crisis. In the past, the council has been criticized as deferring too much authority to the mayor, but Wilson has vowed to make the group an equal partner in managing the city.
He has revamped and expanded the council's committees to provide more extensive oversight of city government. He also has decided to have members meet in legislative session once a month, rather than every other week.
For the moment, the council seems willing to close ranks behind him. Just last week, in an extraordinary step, council members agreed to furlough themselves and all of the council's 172 employees for 10 days to save money.
Yet, in one hint of potential dissension, some members are grumbling a bit that Wilson is presenting initiatives such as that one publicly before he discusses them with the council. Others say they worry that if Wilson and Dixon do not get along, the council eventually may be forced to choose sides.
"Right now, the climate is good," said council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3). "But if this apparent competitive scenario between the two of them becomes real, then you may see a breakdown in the council's unity."
The council has lost considerable institutional knowledge with the departure of former chairman David A. Clarke, Betty Ann Kane and Nadine P. Winter.
It is not clear yet what roles two other veteran and powerful council members -- Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and John Ray (D-At Large) -- will play, after their losses in last fall's Democratic mayoral primary. Wilson already is contending with infighting between the two of them, according to council sources.
According to council sources, Jarvis and Ray argued bitterly last week during a discussion about furloughs.
But in public, for now, the council is presenting a harmonious face and pledging to take the lead in reducing the budget.
"The budget is certainly going to loom large over us this year," Jarvis said. "But we intend to again confirm the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention."
BUDGET -- Cutting the budget will be the top priority of the council. Possible recourses include new taxes, furloughs and reducing the number of city employees. Council Chairman John A. Wilson is expected to impose strict guidelines for estimating costs of all prospective legislation.
PRISON -- The council is expected to seek tougher prison terms for murder.
DRUGS -- Expand treatment. Among proposals are amnesty programs for drug addicts who volunteer to surrender weapons and submit to free drug treatment and substituting drug treatment for jail terms for some drug offenses.
HEALTH CARE -- The council will explore methods to relieve the debt hospitals generate in treating indigent patients who have no medical insurance or Medicaid.