ASK YOUR NEAREST D.C. Council-member-turned-candidate-for-mayor to answer the question in the headline above, and you'll no doubt be told that Marion Barry is suddenly claiming to have produced a "surplus" of $68.3 million--just like that, and after scaring everyone half to death with deficit and borrowing talk for nearly two years now. That, you could say, smacks of bad money management or at the very least, shell-game politicking in an election year.

It's a bum rap. Not only has Mr. Barry emphasized repeatedly that the latest good news--namely, that there is $68.3 million more on the city's books than had been anticipated--is not a "surplus." What it is--and give credit to this administration for tightening financial controls--is money that can be used to reduce the long-term deficit accumulated by the city over the years long before this administration took office and auditors started toting it up.

You could argue, of course, that Mayor Barry's revenue calculators deliberately underestimated revenues to make things look good in time for the campaign. But in fact, their record stacks up as well as just about any state or city government's in the face of national influences such as inflation. Certainly, the estimates were conservative, but how much louder would the complaints be if the revenues had fallen short of estimates? Also, the city government underspent its budget--which, again, those who felt the pinches may complain about, but which could also be labeled prudent financial management.

>The reductions in spending for the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30 accounted for $7.7 million of the $68.3 million. That means agencies either stuck to or came in below their budgets, unlike their results in the previous year. Here again, either the budget estimates were more realistic or management better--or perhaps both. In its perverse way, too, inflation "helped" by raising yields from the sales and income taxes.

Consider, too, how ridiculously far ahead of time any mayor of this city must start putting together revenue and spending estimates for a fiscal year. The first call for the budget we're talking about here went out to city agencies in March of 1979--for a budget not to take effect until October of 1980. Why so early? From the mayor, every budget goes to the D.C. Council; when the mayor and council finally agree on a proposal, it goes to Congress, for consideration by two separate sets of subcommittees, committees and floor debates, followed by congressional agreement and a presidential signature. As it happened, this one didn't even get all the way through these steps until more than two months into the fiscal year, anyway, in December 1980.

Today, at least, the city has its own controller; daily reports on the cash flow; a program for paying off the accumulated deficit; a reduced work force; a stepped-up collection system for business taxes; a system to track down people who pay federal income taxes but not District income taxes; and a relationship with the White House and Congress that seems to be producing generous annual federal payments to the city.

Those are significant improvements. They do not mean that there are no arguments about how the city should spend its money--nor do they mean that the city is out of the red, because it isn't. But if this administration is reducing its deficit, that's more than the federal government is doing--and it shouldn't be sniffed at.