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Activists push for tax increases, more child care spending in D.C. budget

Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) adjusts her face mask as she arrives to present her Fiscal Year 2021 Budget and Financial Plan to the D.C. City Council.
Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) adjusts her face mask as she arrives to present her Fiscal Year 2021 Budget and Financial Plan to the D.C. City Council. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

D.C. lawmakers and advocates on Tuesday praised Mayor Muriel E. Bowser for tapping reserves and freezing pay instead of making drastic cuts to city programs, but at the same time pushed back against trims and called for other spending to help vulnerable people hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Bowser presented the $8.5 billion local budget — the first in a decade with significant declines in revenue, thanks to the prolonged coronavirus shutdown — to the D.C. Council, which can make changes before final votes scheduled in July.

City officials had to cut more than $700 million from this year’s operating budget and saw projected revenue decline by nearly $800 million for next year, a result of the devastation left by covid-19 and the closure of businesses, eat-in restaurants and tourist destinations.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt warned lawmakers they should budget conservatively and brace for the possibility that a second wave of infections could cost the city treasury an additional $300 million.

“If you spend every dime today to do everything today, and you don’t have any resiliency built in, and anything happens, there could be really negative impacts on the government,” DeWitt said.

But advocates and some council members said the city can’t afford to cut violence “interruption” efforts, nutrition programs and water bill relief, and urged more spending for child-care providers and undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for unemployment insurance or federal stimulus checks.

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“While [Bowser] does address many immediate needs, what she doesn’t really do is address long-standing structural inequities,” said Tazra Mitchell of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning budget advocacy group. “What the pandemic has exposed are these underlying inequities that are making things worse for people long suffering before the pandemic even began.”

Although the budget does not contain any significant tax increases, liberal activists plan to press the D.C. Council to include them, and the council’s more left-leaning members seem inclined to do so.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) on Tuesday floated temporary tax increases on households making more than $350,000, which he said could fund violence interruption programs, rental assistance and domestic violence shelters.

“These households can afford a slight bump in taxes that could provide a lifeline to programs,” Allen said.

D.C. proposed budget documents are available online here

But Yesim Taylor of the D.C. Policy Center, a more centrist think tank, said the mayor was smart not to balance the budget with higher taxes.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, cut, cut, cut.’ It’s also easy to say ‘Well, raise taxes,’ ” Taylor said. “But the tax base is super fragile right now.”

She questioned the effectiveness of tax increases given the state of the economy, with businesses struggling under closures and the stock market extremely volatile.

The D.C. government workforce bears the brunt of the budget cuts, with the mayor proposing to freeze cost-of-living raises for four years, including those already negotiated in contracts.

“The plan for all employees has helped us preserve jobs across the board, where we otherwise would have most certainly and definitely had furloughs and layoffs,” City Administrator Rashad M. Young said in the call with the council.

Several labor unions representing city employees said they would fight the pay freezes.

Yahnae Barner, a union official representing D.C. government health workers, said the budget proposal “would take hard-earned money out of the pockets of social workers, pharmacists, epidemiologists, and lab technicians.”

“This is no way to treat the workers who are both essential to fighting the pandemic and essential to our recovery.

The police union called it “remarkable” and “alarming” that the mayor would suggest freezing pay even for union employees such as the police officers who already have agreed in bargaining to future raises.

A guide to understanding when D.C. can reopen

Law enforcement unions said they would continue seeking raises before the D.C. Council and in negotiations.

Still, Dabney Hudson, the president of the union representing D.C.’s firefighters, said the budget overall was not as bad as workers feared.

“They’re talking about huge budget shortfalls, right?” Hudson said. “We’re always worried they’re going to lay people off or not fill vacancies or close [fire engine] companies. But they didn’t.”

Some council members also questioned Bowser’s proposed cuts in violence-prevention programs from the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which was created as part of a sweeping criminal justice overhaul, and at the attorney general’s office. “Violence interrupters” are community members who work to resolve disputes before they turn deadly.

“We should be putting more money into the budget as it relates to public safety, not to divest from violence interruption," said Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), whose political district has some of the highest levels of violent crime.

City officials said they found other programs to reduce crime more effective. Young, the city administrator, also described the violence interruption program at the attorney general’s office as one-time spending that would be difficult to maintain in a time of cuts.

The mayor’s budget proposal also does not fund several recently passed new initiatives, including a sweeping early-childhood education bill. Advocates said additional funding for day cares is essential for reopening the city.

“Without the assurance of safe learning environments and trusted mental health supports, parents and guardians will be unable to return to work,” Ronald Jarrett, the coalition director for the child advocacy group Under 3 DC, said in a statement. “Therefore, safe and quality child care is essential to the District’s economy and warrants full public investment.”

Bowser said city officials were exploring ways to use federal funds for additional child care.

The D.C. Council will hold virtual budget hearings over the coming weeks.

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