Last Thursday, the DC Council hastily approved emergency legislation* Mayor Gray had requested to spend $23 million left over from last fiscal year.
As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, the funds went to the District’s charter and regular public schools, the Metro system, parks and recreation and the detention facility for youth who’ve gotten in trouble with the law.
At least some of the money may have been needed to cover agency budget overruns. These are prohibited by the Anti-Deficiency Act.
But it’s hard to see how technology upgrades for the public schools would qualify as an emergency. What we see here rather is a clear display of the Mayor’s priorities — and perhaps the Council majority’s as well.
The Fair Budget Coalition and allies had earlier asked the Mayor to propose a bill that would allocate some of the projected $140 million revenue surplus — another pot of found money — to three top priorities he and the Council had already agreed on.
These priorities would have served pressing needs of the District’s homeless residents and its families (many of them homeless) in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
They would also have restored some of the funds diverted from the Housing Production Trust Fund, thus supporting efforts to address the acute shortage of affordable housing here.
Not only homeless families, but some of the 36,000 District households who are paying half or more of their income for rent would have been better off.
The FBC requests were carefully framed to be one-time spending because laws governing the District’s budget prohibit measures that could create deficits in future years.
The proposals the Council just approved instead were also for one-time funding.
So the Mayor clearly could have decided that it was more urgent to mend the safety net and/or shore up the Trust Fund than to give nearly $7 million more to the public school system, plus an equal amount to the charter schools — the latter nominally for facilities, but actually for whatever they want.
Or, as DCFPI suggested, the Council could have postponed final decisions on how best to spend as much of the new-found money as wasn’t needed to cover overruns.
Set aside what seems to be deliberate manipulation — “a gun to our head,” in Councilmember Catania’s words.
I’d have thought that Councilmembers would have had enough concern for the priorities they’d already identified to balk at a bill that totally ignored them.
Shouldn’t they, at the very least, have wanted to make sure that the emergency shelter and other services triggered by Hurricane Sandy didn’t leave the Department of Human Services even shorter on funds than it’s likely to be?
I know this sounds as if I don’t care about the quality of public education D.C. children receive. In fact, I care a lot.
I do think, however, that the Mayor and Council might have considered that homelessness puts children at high risk for academic failure — no matter how nifty a “learning environment” their schools provide.
Living in a home where there’s not enough money to keep the heat and lights on doesn’t help kids get a quality education either.
Nor shoes that pinch because a new pair isn’t affordable. Nor the stress of worrying whether your belongings will be all piled on the sidewalk when you get home.
DCFPI thanks the Mayor and Council for putting $11 million more into the TANF program.
But these are funds the Mayor had promised over two months ago. And they’ll delay the scheduled benefits cuts only until April.
Some 6,100 families will face dire emergencies then — as may hundreds of homeless men and women who could be out on the streets because DHS doesn’t have enough money to shelter them.
Not enough money to shelter newly homeless families either, though the benefits cuts will presumably create more of them.
All emergencies worth some of that $23 million, I think.
* The Council designates bills as emergency legislation to bypass requirements that ordinarily require two votes at successive meetings, plus 30 days for Congressional review (and potential disapproval).