Speak Out For The True Conservative Position On Deficit Reduction

June 29, 2011

It’s time for those of us who care about the needs of low-income people to advocate a conservative position.

As you probably know, programs that serve these needs are at high risk as the President seeks to forge a compromise that will avert a default on the federal debt.

The Republicans are demanding at least $2 trillion in spending cuts, along with “reforms” in Medicare — maybe other so-called entitlements too.

They’ve said they won’t accept tax increases of any sort, betting that the President and other Democrats at the table will cave to avert an unprecedented economic crisis — even if it means throwing poor people under the bus.

It’s hard to imagine a spending-cut-only plan in the trillions that wouldn’t.

There’s nothing conservative about this. It’s a radical departure from a long-standing consensus that deficit reduction plans should, at the very least, protect programs for low-income people.

All the deficit reduction plans passed in the last 25 years did. Several of them actually strengthened anti-poverty measures, e.g., by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Children’s Health Insurance Program came into being as part of the Clinton era Balanced Budget Act.

Even President Obama’s deficit hawkish fiscal commission adopted, as a guiding principle, “protect the truly disadvantaged.”

The true conservative position is thus to conserve programs that mitigate poverty and offer low-income people opportunities for a better life.

The programs need to be protected from specific near-term budget cuts and also from any automatic cuts that would be triggered if Congress fails to achieve some as-yet undetermined deficit or debt reduction targets in the future.

Leaders of major national faith-based, civil rights, charitable, economic research and advocacy organizations have written the President, the Vice President and the Congressional leaders of both parties urging them to “honor the precedent set by previous deficit reduction negotiations.”

The Coalition on Human Needs tells us that we need to join our voices to theirs. The stakes are alarmingly high and the clock is ticking.

Here are two quick, easy ways to let the President know that we want him to stand firm for the conservative principles of past deficit reduction plans — protection for programs that serve low-income people and revenue raisers that will help make the total package balanced and fair.

We can leave a message on the White House comment line. The toll-free number is 888-245-0215.

We can also use this editable e-mail provided by the Half in Ten campaign.


If Not Tax Increases, What?

May 14, 2011

Spent a good part of last Monday watching the DC Council hearing on Mayor Gray’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget. None of the six Councilmembers participating was ready to go along with all the proposed revenue raisers that would help close the $322 million budget gap.

Much has already been written about the split over the proposed income tax increase. What was news, at least to me, was that even Councilmembers in favor of that balk at extending the sales tax to live performances.

Bad for the cultural vitality that makes the District an attractive place to live.

So there goes an estimated $2.3 million — not much, but it has to be made up somewhere.

Then there’s the matter of $22 million or so that the mayor’s budget would shift from two special accounts established to fund neighborhood development projects. “Not fair,” says Councilmember Jack Evans. “Disingenuous,” in fact.

And the matter of the large funding reduction for homeless services. Council Chairman Kwame Brown repeatedly expresses concerns about impending shelter closures.

Says he intends to look for a way to restore the lost funds. That’s at least $7.1 million, since he seems committed to sheltering only homeless families and victims of domestic violence.

Also to addressing the perceived need for more police officers. Another $10 million there.

So where are these millions going to come from?

Not from an income tax increase, it seems. Council Chairman Brown and participating colleagues Bowser, Evans and Catania all reiterate adamant opposition.

Brown since has said he’ll accept the deduction limit, but not the rate increase, which accounts for the larger share of the $35.4 million the mayor’s proposal would raise. Questionable whether he can corral a majority for this.

Catania rails against “the tired old notion of tax increases” — apparently referring to the idea that high-income residents should pay higher rates.

Seems he’s again holding out the possibility that he’d support a uniform across-the-board rate increase. “Whether people can afford to contribute” is something he “doesn’t care about.”

But this is merely a rhetorical flourish. He repeatedly insists that spending cuts versus tax increases is a “false either/or.”

When he became chairman of the Health Committee, he reviewed every item the departments the committee oversees spent money on. Found a lot of excess expenditures. Would that other committee chairs had done the same.

The answer, Catania says, is to go after our “gout-ridden government” — shrink “the bureaucracy that continues to feed itself.” This apparently would not qualify as a spending cut.

We heard a less florid version of the same from witness Barbara Lang, President and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. She, on behalf of members, objects to all tax increases. Also wants the funds cut from small business technical assistance restored.

The local government, she says, isn’t operating efficiently. Implies that eliminating unnecessary and redundant functions would allow the government to deliver all essential services without raising either taxes or fees.

Now, I’m the last one to say that the District government — or any government for that matter — is as efficient as it could be. Surely some functions are duplicative, unnecessary or of such low priority that they could, in theory, be eliminated.

But let’s get real. Virtually every function — indeed, every significant expenditure — has supporters that would make meaningful reductions politically difficult. Recall, for example, what happened when former Mayor Fenty tried to fold the Office on Asian and Pacific Affairs into a larger unit.

More importantly, the Gray administration and the Council would have to find — and agree on — some $127 million in “efficiencies” in order to balance the budget with no tax increases or yet deeper cuts in core services.

Also somehow to accommodate the cost impacts of a large increase in unemployed residents — not only government employees, but those employed by contractors and the many local retailers that would come up short on revenues.

And they’d have to do it before May 24, when the Council is scheduled to vote on the budget.

All this efficiencies business is just a distraction from the very real choice between adopting even more significant revenue raisers than the mayor has proposed or creating even greater hardships for low-income District residents.

NOTE: Just as I was finishing up this posting, Councilmember Evans marked up the Finance Committee’s share of the proposed budget. Under his leadership, the committee majority rejected virtually all the revenue raisers. This reportedly leaves the budget shy nearly $119.5 million.

Like Catania, Evans claims that revenue raisers versus deep cuts in social services is a “false choice.” No hint as to what the real choice is.


Mayor Gray Takes Balanced/Unbalanced Approach To DC Budget

April 4, 2011

I, along with many others, have been advocating for a balanced approach to balancing the District’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget. Now I see that there’s more than one way to take an unbalanced approach.

What we meant was that the budget should be balanced by a reasonable mix of spending cuts and new revenue-raisers. Mayor Gray did a relatively good job on this score.

“Relatively” because, according to the mayor’s own summary, spending cuts account for $187 million, while the revenue-raising proposals would bring in a projected $135 million.

But the spending cuts are egregiously unbalanced. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, human services programs would lose $130 million — more than two and a half times their share of the locally-funded budget.

The mayor deserves credit for backing off his opposition to any increase in income taxes. He proposes a new, slightly higher top rate for residents with adjusted incomes over $200,000 — 0.4% higher than what they’re paying now.

According to the Chief Financial Officer’s letter certifying the budget as balanced, the new bracket, plus some unspecified limit on itemized deductions, would yield $35.4 million next year — somewhat over a third of what the plan advocated by Save Our Safety net and allies would bring in.

But at least it’s a step in the right direction — maybe even an indication that the mayor attended to the feedback he asked for.

Other smart revenue-raisers include an extension of the sales tax to live theater tickets, an overdue hike in the off-street parking tax, an increase in the modest minimum business franchise tax and, I infer, the final legislation needed to prevent multi-state corporations from legally evading the local corporate tax.

But the proposed budget is nonetheless, to use the old cliche, balanced on the backs of the poor.

We’ll undoubtedly be learning more about the cuts to human services programs in days to come. So let me just pick out three of the big ones here.

Homeless Services. The proposed budget would reduce funding for homeless services by $11 million — this when the current funding shortage has led the Department of Human Services to deny shelter to homeless families who’ve got no place to stay.

IDA. Local funding for the Interim Disabilities Assistance program would be cut by 75%, leaving only $875,000 for stipends to low-income severely disabled residents who are waiting for the Social Security Administration to act on their claims for Supplemental Security Income.

Last year, SSA had a backlog of more than 705,300 disability claims hearings. Now it’s unable to speed up resolution time because the budget impasse in Congress has meant no additional funding. So it seems that no one on the IDA waiting list will get a stipend for a very long time, if ever.

TANF Benefits. Funding to provide cash assistance to families enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would be cut by an additional $7.9 million.

I understand that $4.9 million of this cut represents the mayor’s reversion to his earlier plan to totally phase out benefits to families who’ve been in the program for more than five years.

The initial 20% cut that’s already been imposed leaves a family of three with $342 per month — 21% of the very low federal poverty line. Imagine what this means to the children whose future the mayor claims to be so concerned about.

Imagine what it will mean when the family gets even less and then less until there’s no cash income at all. And this almost certainly will happen to some families because many long-term TANF recipients face formidable, multiple barriers to work.

The remaining $3 million will be “saved” by imposing full family sanctions, i.e., cut-offs of all cash assistance when the participating parents don’t comply with the requirements in the job preparation/job search plan that’s been developed for them.

We’ve seen something like this before — in former Mayor Fenty’s 2009 budget-gap closing plan.

As I remarked at the time, it creates a perverse incentive to find TANF parents in noncompliance, minimize efforts to resolve problems and get sanctions in place as quickly as possible because that’s the only way sanctions can save as much as the budget assumes.

In his recent State of the District address, Mayor Gray asked us to share his vision for the District and its government. “Above all,” he said, “it is a compassionate government — one that takes as its most urgent task the welfare of the least fortunate among us.”

I don’t see that in his proposed budget. Do you?

UPDATE: I was too optimistic about prospects for disabled residents on the IDA waiting list. DCFPI analysts report that Mayor Gray’s budget would suspend the program. This means that no more eligible residents would get benefits. Instead, vacant slots would be eliminated until the program ceased to exist.


Mayor Gray Doesn’t See Property Or Income Tax Increases Either

March 28, 2011

Just as I pushed the Publish button for my posting on DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown’s views on tax increases, I learned belatedly that Mayor Gray probably shares them.

Patrick Madden at WAMU reports that the mayor said last Monday that he doesn’t “envision” any increase in either property or income taxes. Nor sales taxes, for that matter.

There are other options for revenue raising, he said, but “across the board tax increases — I don’t envision anything like that.”

There are indeed other options. No one, to my knowledge, ever said that property and/or income tax increases should be the only options on the table.

We’ve heard talk again about raising commercial parking fees — a good way to rake in a relatively small amount from visitors and commuters.

The just-released Fair Budget Coalition report for Fiscal Year 2012 recommends two others — a doubling of the District’s hospital bed tax and ending, at long last, the anomalous tax exemption for on out-of-state bonds.

But, I hasten to add, these would be in addition to at least one new top tax bracket for high-income households. Such a reform would not, of course, be an “across the board” increase, though the mayor apparently thinks otherwise.

Nor would an expansion of the sales tax to include theater tickets and services like pet grooming and yoga classes. I stubbornly still believe that this could be part of a sensible solution.

At any rate, the real issue isn’t whether next year’s budget includes any revenue raisers. It’s their structure and the balance between the projected revenues raised and the savings purportedly achieved by spending cuts.

Even former Mayor “No Tax Increases” Fenty put some fee increases into his proposed budgets, plus freezes on several broad-based tax benefits. Virtually all these revenue raisers would have affected low-income residents the most.

And those adopted didn’t raise nearly enough to allow for even level funding of programs and services that meet vital human needs.

The Fair Budget Coalition has singled out just seven that it says make up “the bare minimum of a safety net” and, at the same time, enable those who can to move toward economic self-sufficiency.

Seems to me that protecting these is the very least we can do. And by protecting, I mean ensuring they’ve got enough funds to do what they’re supposed to.


DC Council Makes Bad TANF Benefits Cut Worse

December 8, 2010

Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul!

DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray has pushed through a budget gap-closing plan for this fiscal year that takes cash assistance away from families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to fund adult job training — maybe some other things as well.

I say pushed through because Councilmembers didn’t get the final plan until the wee small hours of the morning the vote was scheduled. No time for them — or the public — to work through the details or come up with vote-ready alternatives.

I, for one, am feeling hampered by the lack of a clear account of the total package. But the stepped-up raid on TANF is clear enough.

As I previously wrote, Mayor Fenty seized on Councilmember Marion Barry’s now-repudiated proposal to impose a five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits for poor D.C. families.

Under his gap-closing plan, maximum benefits would have been cut by 20% for all families who’d been in the program for more than five years, whether consecutive or occasionally over a long period of time.

Gray’s version adopts this cut for the current fiscal year, then increases it by 20% each year so that post-five year benefits are fully phased out in Fiscal Year 2015.

No circuit breaker if the planned improvements in the TANF program don’t get fully implemented on schedule or deliver sufficient results. No exemption for victims of domestic violence or other singular hardships, though the District could still have used federal funds to support many, if not all of them.

Half the money saved will be invested in job training programs that target TANF recipients. Maybe Gray used some of the rest to restore the mayor’s proposed cuts to the adult job training programs operated by the Department of Employment Services.

But it’s hard to know how funds freed up in one area have been shifted to undo or mitigate proposed cuts in another.

Not hard at all to know that the phase-out of TANF benefits will work extraordinary hardships on for families who, for various reasons, can’t achieve sustained self-sufficiency. Or to know that it would never have materialized if Gray had decided to balance the budget by a reasonable mix of spending cuts and revenue raisers.

By the time of the vote, Councilmembers had a range of revenue-raising proposals in hand. Councilmembers Michael Brown and Jim Graham reportedly favored the single new top income tax bracket advocated by a large number of local organizations.

Councilmember Tommy Wells had a new income tax reform plan that would have created three new top tax brackets, the first beginning with a minimal increase at $75,000.

Councilmember Barry wanted to revive last year’s proposed expansion of the sales tax — anathema to the health club crowd, but still, I think, a good idea.

He’d also picked up on Councilmember Graham’s thoughts about increasing the tax on commercial parking fees. To these, added an increase in the District’s egregiously low minimum franchise tax.

But Gray decided to postpone any consideration of any sort of tax increase until next spring, when he has to produce his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2012.

Fat lot of good that will do the TANF families who’ll be pushed out of the safety net.


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