Too Soon to Lock in DC Tax Cuts

June 25, 2015

Life is full of surprises, they say. So is the District of Columbia’s budget. I’m referring here to the Budget Support Act, the package of legislation that’s paired with the spending bill.

Turns out that the BSA the DC Council will soon take its second required vote on could trigger tax cuts before either the Mayor or the Council knows how much the District will need to spend just to keep services flowing — let alone how much it should spend.

Whoever knew? Doubtful all Councilmembers did, since Chairman Mendelson distributed the final BSA shortly before the first vote. Other interested parties surely didn’t because it wasn’t published.

And one would have needed time to figure out what the Chairman had done because his bill doesn’t spell out how it would change trigger provisions enacted as part of last year’s BSA.

Well, we know now — or could, thanks to a heads-up from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a DC for Democracy post that adds some angles.

The basic issue here — though not the only one — is when tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission should go into effect. Both the original BSA provision and the new version require a revenue projection higher than an earlier one.

Tax cuts wouldn’t all kick in at once, since that would immediately throw the budget out of balance. Last year’s BSA ranked them in priority order. The ranking would stay the same. But that’s as far as the parallels go.

Set aside for a moment the egregious lack of transparency. What’s wrong with the latest plan for triggering tax cuts based on rosier revenue projections? Three big things.

Tax Cuts Take Priority Over Spending Needs

The new plan would dedicated all of the projected revenue increase to tax cuts, rather than the excess over a threshold set by the current BSA.

And it would do that before the Chief Financial Officer had estimated the costs of sustaining existing programs in the upcoming fiscal year. These tend to rise for various reasons, as DCFPI notes.

Beyond that, we’re not spending as much as we should in a number of areas — affordable housing and homeless services, to name just two. This year’s budget makes some progress on both. But further progress will stall if the Mayor and Council can’t allocate the revenues needed.

Without them, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the single largest source of financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — could have less next fiscal year, since half of the $100 million it has now reflects a one-time appropriation.

The next steps envisioned in the latest strategic plan to end homelessness in the District also hinge on further investments. For example, the plan envisions year-over-year increases in permanent supportive housing for families, plus some rapid re-housing vouchers extended past the usual one-year limit.

It also calls for some indefinite-term vouchers earmarked for families and single adults who can’t afford housing when they don’t need intensive supportive services any more or come to the end of their rapid re-housing extensions.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll add that we’re likely to have homeless families until the Mayor and Council significantly increase Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which now, at best, leave a family of three at about 26% of the federal poverty line.

More generally, setting automatic triggers for a series of tax cuts denies both the Mayor and Council a chance to weigh priorities during budget seasons. Those tax cuts, recall, will mean relatively less in revenues not only next year, but every year — unless they’re repealed.

A whole lot harder politically to repeal a tax cut than to defer it until it won’t preempt spending that will do more good for more people than reducing tax obligations for some.

Cuts in the Offing Tilt Toward Well-Off Taxpayers

The Tax Revision Commission made nearly a dozen recommendations for cuts — a mixed bag if you believe that individuals and businesses should contribute to the general welfare according to how well they’re faring.

The Council adopted a couple that ease tax burdens for low and moderate-income residents. But those ranked highest in the BSA now don’t reflect a consistent preference for a progressive tax structure — far from it.

The second listed, for example, would reduce the tax rate on income between $350,000 and $1 million. Next on the list — and again in fifth place — are cuts in the franchise taxes that businesses pay.

The threshold for any tax on estates would increase to $2 million before filers would get larger standard deductions — the option virtually all low-income taxpayers choose because they’d pay more by itemizing.

Bigger Revenue Losses Than Recommended

The Tax Revision Commission recommended revenue increases to offset the losses resulting from its recommended cuts. The Council took a pass on two. The new BSA would do the same, forgoing $67 million, DCFPI reports.

So there’d be a straitjack on revenue growth — possibly indeed future shortfalls. The District has had these before — the latest only just remedied by savings found.

What the shortfalls tell us is that revenue projections are inherently iffy — the more so as they estimate collections beyond the upcoming quarter of a fiscal year. That’s just how forecasts are. Ditto projections of spending needs.

Who, for example, can foresee a prodigious snowstorm, requiring millions more to clear the roads than budgeted? Who, at this point, can predict how much crucial programs will lose due to federal spending cuts?

So it seems unnecessarily risky to plow ahead with tax cuts before next year’s budget is even on the drawing board. And if past is prologue, programs that help low-income residents are what the BSA would actually put at risk.

UPDATE: I’ve learned, from reliable sources, that the excess revenue threshold in the current BSA applied only to the forecast used as the basis for next fiscal year’s budget. Under the current law, tax cuts would kick in with any higher revenue forecast, but not until next February. The Mayor could, if she chose, ask the Council to approve using the extra for unmet needs instead.

So what I wrote about the current BSA is misleading, but my basic point that the new BSA would trigger cuts prematurely stands.

 

 


My Two Cents on the DC Council’s $50 Million Spend

July 1, 2013

I had every intention of publishing a post last Thursday on what the DC Council finally decided to do with the Budget Support Act.

But I hadn’t planned on having no internet connection during the debate — and for a l-o-n-g time thereafter.

So I’ll confine myself here to some thoughts on one of the big issues the Council dealt with: How to spend $50 million more than it had already appropriated.

As you may already know, the Chief Financial Officer released a new set of revenue estimates last Monday. The estimate for the upcoming fiscal year was $92.3 million higher than the one the budget was built on.

The Council had already decided it would decide how to spend up to $50 million more if the new estimates permitted — this instead of accepting (or modifying) the “wish list” for uses of higher estimated revenues that the Mayor had included in his proposed BSA.

The Mayor had a new, quite different “wish list” anyway, based on the Council’s $50 million cap.

The same three top priorities as before, but others high on the original list had been dropped in favor of a brand new $23 million extra for the D.C. public and charter schools.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson clearly had his own ideas. So, as you might imagine, did other Councilmembers.

The governing principle behind the final package seems to have been getting as many Councilmembers on board as possible.

Distribution of the new-found wealth was part of this. So was a reduction in the sales tax, plus a set-aside to offset prospective tax cuts — near and dear to the heart of Councilmember Jack Evans, among others.

The plan worked. Only Councilmember David Catania voted against the final bill.

In a fit of pique because his colleagues wouldn’t agree to an amendment that would have used virtually all the additional revenues to fund one of his initiatives aimed at boosting academic performance among the District’s lower-income students.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute provides an item-by-item account of how the $50 million was allocated.

As you can see, the Council generally tried to spread the money around — and to include diverse pet projects, e.g., a boost for the film incentive fund that Councilmember Vince Orange has championed.

It did, however, approve the entire $11 million the Mayor had asked for to provide more subsidized childcare slots for infants and toddlers and, at long last, do something about the woefully inadequate provider reimbursement rates.

Two other especially noteworthy items for those of us concerned about the well-being and future prospects of low-income District residents.

First, the Council allocated an additional $4 million for adult literacy and career and technology education programs. This had been quite high on the Mayor’s original “wish list,” but totally eliminated in the final.

The increase should give the Office of the State Superintendent of Education most, if not all of what it asked for to support local nonprofits so that they can help prepare their students for the soon-to-be-tougher GED and National External Diploma exams.

Second, the Council provided an additional $3 million for the Local Rent Supplement Program, the District’s locally-funded housing voucher program. This brings the total increase for next fiscal year to $9.75 million.

The infusion is especially timely because the District stands to lose even more federal funding for housing vouchers unless the House and Senate agree to scrap sequestration (unlikely).

So LRSP seems the best hope now for homeless families and others who need more than just a short-shot form of housing assistance.

But some of the District’s poorest and most vulnerable residents got left out of the windfall allocations.

These are families headed by a parent with an infant to care for — one of the groups the Council previously agreed should be exempt from the five-year time limit it had hastily established for those in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

According to DCFPI’s own wish list, the one-time exemption for these families would have cost $1.5 million.

Doesn’t seem like a lot to me to temporarily stop the time clock for new mothers and their children, especially when we’ve no assurance there will be enough childcare slots for babies.

Two hundred more slots for infants and toddlers won’t make much of a dent in the waiting list for the former — reportedly more than 3,500 last year.

But the families will be subject to the benefits phase-out leading up to a final cut-off anyway.

And the Council did nothing about the shortage of job training slots for TANF parents, who are now — and will be — on waiting lists while the cut-off clock keeps ticking for them.

Nevertheless, a supplemental spending plan that addresses some critical human needs. And when we look at what the Council had already agreed to, we should feel pretty good, I think.

Even more so when we consider the enormous improvements made in the Mayor’s proposed amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act.

Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. And the possible, in this case, meant making a majority of Councilmembers happy enough to vote for the BSA — and the Mayor happy enough to indicate he’ll sign it.

See how mellow being off the ‘net can make one?


Reprieve for DC TANF Families (We Hope)

June 7, 2012

The DC Council came through for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — as best it could, given that the budget itself was already set in stone.

After some lengthy and heated discussion, it approved an amendment to the Budget Support Act* that would delay further benefits cuts for families who’ve participated in the program for 60 months or more.

And a good thing too. As I (and others) have argued, these families shouldn’t be penalized because the program has egregiously failed to identify their strengths and needs and to link them to the appropriate mix of services.

The additional year before the cuts resume will supposedly give them an opportunity to benefit from program improvements the Department of Human Services is rolling out.

“Supposedly” because DHS still has a long way to go before completing the assessments that will form the basis for individually-tailored training and supportive services plans. Only 25% completed now, according to Councilmember Jim Graham, who introduced the amendment.

At the current rate, some of the at-risk parents won’t have anything like a full year to benefit from their plans. Whether even a year would be enough to enable some of them to secure — and retain — living-wage jobs is another question.

All but three Councilmembers voted for the amendment — a tribute to some very fine advocacy. That plus an evident desire on the part of a couple of Councilmembers not to be on the losing side of a cause that obviously had majority support.

The Council also unanimously rubber-stamped then-Chairman Kwame Brown’s substitute for the BSA it passed in mid-May.

This too is good news for TANF families and those who care about them because the revised BSA folds in some additional provisions that were part of the proposed TANF Time Limits Amendment — or rather folds in something akin to them.

Most would expand eligibility for POWER (Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility) — thus shifting some parents out of TANF and shielding them, at least temporarily, from the 60-month time limit.

These are parents who can’t reasonably be expected to meet the TANF program’s regular work activity requirements — those who, for example, are receiving services to help them recover from the trauma of domestic violence, caring for a severely disabled family member or still in their teens and enrolled in school.

Another provision could give parents an additional 24 months to continue their postsecondary education or participation in a training program leading to a certificate or the equivalent.

Smart move since enabling these parents to get those degrees and certificates is the very best thing the program could do to help them achieve self-sufficiency.

Still another provision would prohibit DHS from counting toward the 60 months time that a child received benefits while living with an adult or adults who didn’t.

These so-called child-only cases are often exempt from the standard time limit — as they surely ought to be since one can hardly expect a child to engage in direct preparation for work.

So the Council did the right thing.

But (why is there always a but?) the benefits cuts will go forward as scheduled unless the Chief Financial Officer projects more revenues than the budget assumes.

Specifically, the estimated $3.8 million cost of the delay will be carved out of the additional $14.7 million for TANF job training that’s second on the list of priorities that will get funded if revenue estimates are higher.

In other words, the fate of more than 6,100 families — including nearly 14,000 children — hinges on a projected revenue increase of at least $10.8 million.

The exemptions and exceptions also hinge on higher revenue projections and would be paid for by another carve-out from the job training pool — this one about $1.75 million, according to the BSA.

As some disturbed Councilmembers observed, the time limits delay will eat into additional funding needed to provide appropriate job training and other services — assuming the hoped-for revenues materialize.

So will the exemptions, though no one mentioned it.

The end result is thus a tad perverse, but the Council chose it by not grappling with the timing and coverage of the benefits phase-out earlier.

Or perhaps I should say the former Council Chairman chose it since the BSA was largely an artifact of his private dealings with Mayor Gray’s staff, and both he and the administration apparently underestimated the support the benefits delay would have.

I have nothing like the expertise that would be needed to comb through the Fiscal Year 2013 budget and identify funds that could obviously have been better spent on benefits for the very poor families who rely on them — and on training that would enable many of them to be off “welfare,” which they want as much as the Mayor and Council do.

I’ve just got a hard time believing that everything in the $9.4 billion budget is more important.

As things stand now, we’ve just got to keep our fingers crossed.

* The Budget Support Act is the package that makes whatever legislative changes the Budget Request Act, i.e., the budget proper, requires.


DC Council Cuts TANF Benefits, Approves Full Cut-Offs

December 26, 2010

Our lawmakers on the DC Council had decided to wrap up lawmaking for the year on December 21. They had a long agenda and, with Christmas fast approaching, probably shopping to finish up, parties to get to, etc.

So they decided to vote on a revised Budget Support Act* that they’d seen for the first time less than a day before. Decided not to worry that they wouldn’t have a second chance to vote, since Council Chairman Vincent Gray had introduced it as emergency legislation.

Gray had obviously had second thoughts about the impending cuts in cash benefit to families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Also third thoughts, since the final TANF provisions were significantly different from those I’d seen in a version of the substitute BSA circulated several days before.

For poor families dependent on TANF, there’s some tentative good news about cash benefits. Also some news that very ominous — both about cash benefits directly and about sanctions that will henceforward put families at risk of no benefits at all.

Cash Benefits

As I earlier wrote, the Council voted in early December to phase out benefits for TANF families who’d been in the program for a total of more than five years. This would have meant a 20% cut each year until 2015, when benefits would have been zeroed out.

The final version of the BSA imposes a 20% reduction on these families’ benefits after February 2011, but specifies no further reductions. In other words, it reverts to Mayor Fenty’s budget gap closing proposal.

However, the final BSA allows the mayor to adjust the level of TANF assistance payments through the rulemaking process. It thus opens the door to further benefits reductions.

We’ve got some evidence that Gray has his eye on them. The prior draft of his substitute BSA imposed an across-the-board 12% reduction. For a family of three, this would have meant a maximum of $377 a month — less than 25% of the federal poverty line.

Councilmembers got wind of this, thanks to some swift and effective advocacy. Gray apparently got enough pushback to opt for a strategic retreat. But I think it’s prudent to view further benefits reductions as dormant, not dead.

Sanctions

The final BSA apparently authorizes full family sanctions, i.e., termination of all cash assistance when a participating parent fails to comply with some program requirement.

I say “apparently” because the relevant provision doesn’t expressly authorize full family sanctions. But Chairman Gray referred to them in summarizing the BSA changes, and no one else on the Council piped up to challenge him.

As some of you may recall, Mayor Fenty’s mid-2009 budget gap closing proposal included full family sanctions. The Council rejected them — and wisely.

An Urban Institute study found that many District TANF recipients who’d been sanctioned faced serious challenges that might hinder not only their ability to comply with the work requirements, but even to understand them. Studies of TANF participants in other jurisdictions have raised similar concerns.

Yet the Council has decided to let the Department of Human Services move forward with a three-phase sanctions plan, ending in a total benefits cut-off for any failure to “participate [in] or complete an Individual Responsibility Plan,” i.e., the program of activities the participant is supposed to follow.

The final BSA directs the mayor to submit proposed sanctions policy rules to the Council by April 1. They’ll become effective 45 business days later unless the Council officials disapproves them.

But DHS has until September 30 to fully implement its TANF program reform plan. It can thus begin imposing full family sanctions before it has improved assessments, referral processes, training or other services.

Does it make any sense to punish recipients based on their failure to comply with an Individual Responsibility Plan that may be egregiously inappropriate? Because they haven’t received the services they’d need to comply?

What’s the big rush here anyway?

We know that DHS and some Councilmembers are very concerned about the high percentage of District TANF families who’ve been in the program for more than five years — close to 45%, according to recent testimony by DHS Director Clarence Carter.

How many of them could “graduate” if they’d just buckle down to their required job preparation and/or search activities is an open question. Full family sanctions supporters imply the answer is a lot of them. They just need a greater incentive than the partial sanctions already used.

During the Council’s discussion of the BSA, Chairman Gray said that we “need to encourage people to go to work,” implying that harsher sanctions will do that. But he also linked the new sanctions provision to his decision to, at least temporarily, limit the benefit reduction for long-term participants.

Councilmember Marion Barry, who supported the sanctions provision, noted that the existing appeals process will probably delay completion of the 20% reductions until the end of next year. In other words, not much by way of immediate savings from them.

But when Mayor Fenty proposed the reductions, they were supposed to contribute $4.6 million to closing the budget gap.

That could explain the rush.

As Legal Momentum recently reported, full family sanctions have contributed to large TANF caseload reductions. And states have financial incentives to impose them rather than rely on partial sanctions that preserve assistance for the children in a family.

With full family sanctions, states can avert penalties for failing to meet the federal work participation standard — something the District has struggled with. They can also free up funds for a variety of programs and services available to non-TANF families, e.g., child care, early childhood education.

So is the Council really hoping to bring a lot more families into compliance? Or is it banking on the savings DHS will realize by getting jobless families out of the TANF program?

Could it be hoping to mitigate budget constraints by having additional TANF funds for programs more politically popular than “welfare?”

* The Budget Support Act is one of two pieces of legislation needed to enact or make changes in the District’s budget. It makes whatever changes in existing legislation are necessary for the executive branch to carry out the spending directions in the Budget Request Act, i.e., the actual budget. Like most District legislation, it ordinarily must be passed by the Council twice.