This is a time of great uncertainty for all of us who call the District home.
Although our city is vibrant and growing, much of what we value is at risk. As D.C.’s elected officials begin crafting their first budget under this new reality, the choices they make will offer a blueprint on how they will govern in these uncertain times.
Let’s start with the shifting federal landscape. Congressional leaders say they plan to drastically restrict federal spending on everything from Medicaid to food stamps. President Trump has threatened to withdraw federal funds to punish cities, including the District, that have declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants.
Then there’s D.C.’s infrastructure. Metro is strained by failures at a time when our growing population makes a strong public transit system even more important. The same growth affects the needs of our schools.
And too many families have been left behind in the recent economic boom, especially in communities east of the Anacostia River. The loss of affordable housing across the District is staggering. We have the highest rate of homelessness among 32 U.S. cities, according to a recent survey.
How should District leaders respond?
The good news is that the District’s economy is healthy and it is adding residents, businesses and jobs. Growing revenue could help us weather a number of these challenges.
Yet our elected officials actually have little ability to address these pressing problems. And it has nothing to do with Congress; it’s because of rules they imposed on their budget choices.
Three years ago, the D.C. Council mandated all new revenue go to tax cuts by legislating a series of tax-cut “triggers” whenever revenue projections increased — tying their hands from using new revenue to address pressing needs.
This puts the D.C. budget in a bind. Next year, school spending will need to increase 6 percent to accommodate increased enrollment. Metro’s budget will grow more than 10 percent. With mandated tax cuts, meeting these demands may force cuts to other areas of the budget.
The D.C. Council further tied its hands by freezing any leftover money at the end of its fiscal year. Every penny of a surplus goes into savings. Yet the District’s reserves already are at a record level, and the District’s finances are ranked ninth-best in the nation. The District just announced another surplus, but none of the $222 million is available to be spent on things such as housing or schools because of this rule.
Finally, it’s important to note that the District will pass its budget in May, before Congress completes its budget process and reveals the full extent of federal cuts to the safety net.
So what should be done?
My organization, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, is calling on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the council to adopt a more balanced approach. That means putting tax cuts on hold for a year (now that we’ve had three years of cuts) and using some of the growing surplus for urgent needs such as affordable housing, schools and Metro.
We also recommend setting aside some of last year’s surplus in a special fund to address federal budget cuts that may come after the D.C. budget is adopted, to ease the pain and give us time to adjust.
We are not alone. More than 50 leading organizations that educate D.C.’s children, feed the hungry, house the homeless and address other pressing needs have joined in this call. They argue that in these uncertain times, District leaders should invest some of the benefits of the economic boom in pressing community needs.
D.C. residents are proud that their city can be a beacon of hope in dark times. And they will look at the District’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 to see whether it reflects these values. I hope Bowser and the D.C. Council will untie their hands and answer this call.
The writer is executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.