It was not immediately clear who emerged as the winner from the bitter infighting among the District’s elected officials over the $15.5 billion budget approved this week.
But some critics say there was a definite set of losers: District residents desperate for bold government action to combat the city’s most pressing problems, such as a scarcity of affordable housing and a range of inequities that beset the nation’s capital.
The spending plan that D.C. lawmakers voted to finalize Tuesday includes only modest increases in funding for existing housing programs. In some ways, struggling neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River may have been left worse off: Some of the city’s poorest public schools will see less funding next year, while Southeast Washington’s public hospital has been put on a starvation diet.
Absent from the spending plan are grand strategies to share the city’s prosperity more evenly across divides of race and class, a goal Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has repeatedly cited for her second term. While D.C. Council members have largely endorsed her vision, they did little in the budget process to realize it, critics say.
“In a city as prosperous as D.C., with a growing population and growing incomes, to pass a budget that actually cuts funding for our poorest schools and leaves our safety net hospital at risk of closure, and makes only limited progress on affordable housing, is both disappointed and surprising,” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the left-leaning D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “We should be able to do better. We should be able to harness our prosperity to address the things that really matter to the future and to D.C.’s residents.”
Those failures are all the more galling, critics say, because of the city’s enviable financial position. Unlike many other American cities, whose budgets have cratered as the result of soaring pension costs, shrinking populations and other problems, the District has been awash in cash from a booming local economy and rising population. Tax revenue regularly outruns city officials’ projections, providing spending flexibility that is all but unheard of in the realm of local government.
There are early signs the city’s economy is cooling off. Some worry that if bold action isn’t taken now to tackle deep-seated problems, it will be even less likely under tighter budgets.
“We do have enough money to address a lot of the challenges in this city, but there’s no indication that the money that’s being spent is actually solving the problems. We might not be falling backward, but I’m not seeing even baby steps forward,” said Chuck Thies, a longtime Democratic strategist in the District. “This city, when it comes to the big issues, is spinning its wheels.”
John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the budget does address the District’s urgent concerns.
“There’s a lot in the budget that does tackle our biggest issues,” he said, pointing to affordable housing programs. “If that is the issue that’s top of mind for residents, then what we put forth addressed that.”
But the fate of affordable housing initiatives in the budget for fiscal 2020, which begins Oct. 1, illustrates the halting approach to big problems that some observers criticize.
Bowser had initially proposed $55 million in new money for housing programs — funded with increased taxes and transactions involving high-end commercial real estate — including $20 million aimed specifically at spurring construction of affordable housing for the middle class. The council, while preserving the tax increases, reduced her proposed spending levels across the board, while directing some new funds to boost housing vouchers for low-income residents.
The city ended up with moderate increases to existing programs — annual investment in a trust fund to create and preserve affordable housing grew from $100 million to $116 million, while spending on housing vouchers increased by about $18.4 million. Dollars were cut from a separate housing preservation fund, and the $20 million for middle-income housing was replaced with a tax abatement worth $2.8 million next year.
As they made modest adjustments to housing programs, elected leaders engaged in bitter debate over much smaller topics. The mayor repeatedly sparred with the council on social media over the planned location of a single high school. She ultimately got her way, with Banneker Academic High School moving to a campus in Shaw that some had wanted to devote to a new middle school.
Council members spent two hours Tuesday arguing with one another before the matter was decided, with Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), whose ward includes struggling high schools whose budgets are being slashed, using profanity to vent at Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
“The rhetoric you just gave to me is what we call in, in, in — what’s the word I want to use — ebonics, bulls---. Because the schools in our community are getting the short end of the stick time and time again,” White said.
Despite an overall increase in education spending, some schools are facing budget cuts amid dwindling enrollment, a problem most acute in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Some education activists lamented that the Banneker fight overshadowed that graver budget dilemma confronting the city’s school system.
“While I think Banneker and Shaw is an important issue, the council spent two hours sounding like a school board,” said Markus Batchelor, the Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. “I have [schools] in Ward 8 that are taking pretty steep cuts and that’s thousands of kids who are not going to get the services that they need. I am disappointed that the council didn’t pay any attention to that.”
Ward 8 could also be hard hit by potential service cuts at United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia. The council approved a $22.1 million operating subsidy for the public hospital, about half what hospital officials say they need.
Mendelson said the fact that the council had few things more substantial to argue about than the school location was a good sign.
“It’s typical that when you have a bill as important as the budget there is going to be something people argue over and the fact it was over [Banneker and Shaw] says to me the budget, from the viewpoint of the council and work of the council and committees, was a success.”
But Bryan Weaver, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan, said that for now the inability of the mayor and 13-member council to come together to take on the District’s big problems is hindering the pursuit of big solutions.
“Everyone really wants to find a way to combat the housing crisis that we’re in, and everybody wants to fix D.C. Public Schools,” Weaver said. “The problem is that there’s 14 different visions of what that looks like.”