“On day one, I face a quarter-billion-dollar budget deficit when we walk in the door.”
— Mayor Muriel Bowser’s
inaugural address, Jan. 2
Well, to be exact, the amount of the expected budget shortfall is $256.3 million, according to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt.
No matter. That’s a lot of red ink.
Which gets us to the question heard around town since Muriel Bowser’s election: “How will she do as mayor?” An answer today would be only speculation.
Her approach to the budget deficit will, however, shed light on her approach to governance, her priorities and, equally important, her skills at achieving her political goals. How Bowser (D) handles the task of closing the gap may provide answers to the question. Budget balancing, after all, is no easy feat. It is a political and leadership test of the first order.
And despite Bowser’s impressive victory margin, reducing the deficit is not a one-person show. Elected council members are entitled to have their say. If past D.C. councils are any gauge, the current crop of legislators isn’t likely to serve as potted plants. Bowser will have to find ways to bring her former colleagues around to her view on how best to put the balance sheet in order.
Every good wish.
Closing the budget gap is, however, a must. It’s not a matter of preference, desire or ideology. The city, by law, must balance its budget.
First, a few words about how we came to face such a huge deficit.
Warning: I’m about to get into the weeds with numbers, but there’s no way around it. The digits are what got us here in the first place. And we can’t get out without dealing with the numbers, in all their boring forms.
Shortly after the November election, DeWitt, operating under the notion that fair warning is fair play, notified Mayor Vincent Gray (D), Mayor-elect Bowser and all members of the D.C. Council that the city faced a budget gap of $163.1 million. A good chunk of the deficit resulted from spending for homeless services. In addition, the city had to cough up an estimated $15.7 million as a result of a court order.
Subsequent to the November report, DeWitt identified an additional $53.7 million of increased costs related to city-provided services.
The news wasn’t very bright on the revenue side, either. In fact, DeWitt notified city officials in December that anticipated fiscal 2016 revenue had fallen short by $39.5 million.
Hence, the total $256.3 million budget gap that Bowser and the council must close as they formulate and produce a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year.
What to do? What to do? After all those campaign promises to spend more on affordable housing, programs to end homelessness and incentives and subsidies for economic development comes now the hard part: fulfilling those champagne dreams with a soda-water pocketbook.
However Bowser and the council decide to balance the budget, they will have to find ways to reduce spending and increase revenue.
And it’s not going to be painless.
Next door in Maryland, officials have already taken steps to reduce an expected $400 million shortfall in the state’s current fiscal-year operating budget. This week, Maryland’s Board of Public Works cut nearly $200 million in the budget, including reductions in higher education and services to the developmentally disabled, according to The Post.
State agencies are also getting a haircut: a 2 percent across-the-board reduction.
And that’s not the final whack.
Vacant state jobs are not going to be filled, the size of the payroll will be reduced and Martin O’Malley (D), Maryland’s outgoing governor, is expected to propose an additional $161 million in cuts next week.
Across the Potomac in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has also ordered cost-cutting measures to address a shortfall, including layoffs of hundreds of state workers.
The District must travel down that road, too.
Bowser’s response to the budget challenge is at issue. Don’t measure the new mayor by the job’s ceremonial duties: the number of ribbons cut, lunches and dinners attended, and photo ops taken. Those things come with the territory of being mayor.
Instead, consider how effectively the mayor leads the city through the process of addressing the budget gap, her approach to growing revenue and reducing spending at a time when there are competing demands for limited resources.
So to the question: How will she do as mayor?
We’ll soon see.
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