So which is it?
Does the $13.8 billion 2018 budget submitted to the D.C. Council by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) reflect, as she asserts, the ideas and priorities of D.C. residents?
A good question. The final answer rests with the D.C. Council, which, in the budget-making process, is always a crapshoot.
As to the question: The city’s robust financial health is being fueled by the largesse of residents and businesses. As Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt noted in his budget transmittal letter to Bowser, population growth has been a major factor in the increase of the city’s income- and sales-tax bases and a driving force behind rising home values.
Want some numbers?
DeWitt said that in the past five years (2011 to 2016), the city’s population grew by nearly 61,000 residents, or 10 percent — more than 1,000 net new residents per month, he noted. They, along with other homeowners and businesses, are filling the tax coffers.
Keep those figures in mind as this budget tale unfolds.
Also recognize that this budget proposal would be the city’s 22nd consecutive balanced budget. For those of us who lived through the 1990s nightmare of D.C. government insolvency, a Clinton administration-engineered federal bailout and a congressionally imposed financial control board, the city’s finances have reached the fiscal promised land.
Bowser maintains that her spending plan provides a road map to inclusive prosperity for every resident. She cites millions of dollars to be spent on education and making the District safer. Her budget includes more money for affordable housing, and more spending on the homeless and families in need of care and supportive programs. On top of that, she promises a budget that will deliver a streamlined D.C. government.
Others, predictably, don’t see it that way.
Bowser’s budget “offers not prosperity, but austerity” (George Jones, Bread for the City); “falls so short of what’s needed to accelerate progress . . . people are dying of preventable and manageable diseases” (Lara Pukatch, Miriam’s Kitchen); ignores calls from community leaders who say “as a city we should be spending on those who have almost nothing before we spend on tax give-backs to those who have almost everything” (Jacob Feinspan, Jews United for Justice).
“People are dying . . . .” Gonna lay that also at Bowser’s feet?
The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute’s Ed Lazere charged that Bowser’s budget “isn’t living up to its rhetoric of building ‘inclusive prosperity’ ” and called on the council to do more.
What’s a D.C. taxpayer to think?
Bowser claims her budget makes the largest investment in public education in D.C. history — more than $2 billion, including $105 million to increase the per-student spending rate, an increase for the University of the District of Columbia and the University of the District of Columbia Community College of nearly $6 million, and $1.3 billion for school modernization over six years.
But that’s not enough, says the Fiscal Policy Institute, supported by organizations such as Bread for the City, the Children’s Law Center, DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, Jews United for Justice and Miriam’s Kitchen. They take the position, expressed in a news release, that “funding schools at a level deemed fully adequate would require a 14 percent increase” — not Bowser’s proposed 1.5 percent.
A budget that devotes $1.9 billion to human services and $1.1 billion to public safety is pooh-poohed and scorned by the advocate community “for leaving significant funding gaps” and spending at levels below what it considers adequate.
As for the automatic tax cuts for businesses and middle- and low-income residents that the council approved in 2014 as part of a tax-reform package, the advocates argue that the money should go to the homeless, education and housing, despite the $100 million Bowser is directing to the Housing Production Trust Fund.
Now to reality.
More than 30 years of observing D.C. budget-making leads to two immutable findings: No mayor’s proposed budget has ever received universal acclaim, and grand D.C. social programs often fall short of expectations.
Which brings us to the D.C. Council.
The budget oversight process that begins this month will have plenty of political grandstanding and playing to a vast gallery of special interests and a TV audience. Showing up the mayor will be part of the game.
If the council’s history is any guide, expect few hard questions about actual government performance, accountability and wise use of tax dollars. Also, expect to not hear a critical word about $20 million in the budget to begin implementing the District’s paid family leave program — one of the most generous in the United States.
Notable exceptions are Ward 7 council member Vincent C. Gray’s (D) substantive critique of city spending programs and his recommendations for budget changes, and Ward 2 council member Jack Evans’s (D) more restrained call for “funding programs that work and will benefit from continued investment and adjusting or eliminating programs that aren’t effective at making our city better for our residents.”
Watch the numbers unfold, but also keep an eye on the lawmakers. Above all, remember them on Election Day.
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