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?