While voters in the District are over whelmingly Democratic, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the D.C. Council are planning a budget that is more in line with tea party Republicans. D.C. residents are being offered an austerity budget that targets the most vulnerable members of our community without demanding any sacrifice from our wealthiest residents.
D.C. voters could support spending cuts that are socially responsible, but Gray would inflict 75 percent of the reductions in his $9.4 billion plan on the most vulnerable D.C. residents. These cuts — totaling $76.6 million — target the homeless, poor, unemployed and sick D.C. residents, especially our innocent children. And while Gray claims that education is a top priority, 40 schools will lack funding for a full-time librarian, and branch public libraries will still be closed on Sundays.
While D.C. voters balance the need for fiscal responsibility with the urgent need for economic recovery, our local government is stuck on one note: fiscal austerity. Writing in the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman blamed state and local government cuts for “exerting a powerful drag on the economy as a whole.” Nevertheless the fiscal hawks on the D.C. Council piously maintain that austerity will morph into prosperity.
The D.C. Council refuses to use a penny of $240 million in surplus revenue from fiscal 2011 to bridge the projected $172 million deficit in the proposed budget. It would rather save all the money than use just half of it to save lives.
D.C. voters expect the wealthiest residents to pay their fair share of taxes, but the D.C. Council seems determined to preserve a regressive tax structure. A study prepared by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi’s office shows that, for a household with an income of $150,000, the overall tax burden in the District (including income, sales, property and automobile taxes) is less than in Prince George’s, Montgomery or Fairfax counties and the city of Alexandria. The data also show that D.C. residents at this income level enjoy an overall state-level tax burden of 8.9 percent — a lower rate than those who make $25,000, who pay an estimated 10.4 percent of their income on taxes.
Mayor Gray, to his credit, proposed higher income taxes on the wealthy in 2011, but he seems to have lost his nerve this year. No doubt he remembers how Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D) and five other council members sought to perpetuate our essentially flat income tax by keeping the marginal rate on millionaires the same as that of households earning $40,001. Luckily, the council members failed; a small, temporary increase (due to sunset in four years) was imposed on those earning more than $350,000. Even that vote was based on expediency — delaying a tax on out-of-state municipal bonds — rather than fairness.
Only an engaged citizenry can push the mayor and the council to throw out the House Republican playbook and vote for a fair, socially responsible, fiscally stimulative budget that reflects the progressive values of D.C. voters.
The writer is chair of D.C. for Democracy’s budget committee.