Budget Politics

The District Beat

Budgets, whether federal or local, have never been purely about the numbers. Presented in pie charts or rows of graphs and contained in clunky books the size of old telephone books, they are essentially policy and political statements. Through them elected officials telegraph their priorities and identify favored constituencies.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s $12.9 billion fiscal 2016 budget and financial plan, which she says is “good news for DC and its residents,” may be in that tradition. She emphasizes, among other things, affordable housing, ending homelessness, economic opportunity and education. Those altruistic priorities excite many people, particularly nonprofit contractors and a community of social service advocates; they even earned Bowser the nod of The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Ed Lazere. 

But who would would argue with the goals of ending homelessness and making housing less costly, asks government watchdog Dorothy Brizill. “That’s like motherhood and apple pie.” The larger question is how Bowser intends to implement her budget and “who’s it going to benefit,” adds Brizill.

“There is always the case that one is looking very much ahead,” says Federation of Citizens Association President Anne Mohnkern Renshaw, telling a story about a diplomat who asks a congressman if he simultaneously received calls from a constituent and a benefactor, which would he answer first. “The benefactor,” answered the congressman.

Is Bowser’s looking ahead? Is her budget designed to ensure her reelection in 2018? Who are the people she thinks she needs? Who are her political benefactors?

The Political Compass Points East

Bowser won six of the city’s eight wards during last year’s general election. Her strongest showing was in areas rich in black voters--Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8. The latter two helped her seal both the Democratic primary and the general election. 

What happens the next time around, however, if instead of squaring off with a white, gay man, who was demonized for his former Republican Party membership, Bowser faces a strong black candidate? An absence of significant African American support could sink her reelection much as it cost her mentor Mayor Adrian M. Fenty his reelection in 2010.

Bowser apparently learned from that lesson. Reviewing her budget proposals, it appears significant spending, directly or indirectly, is slated for communities that helped usher her into the mayoral suite. 

Consider, for example, her plan to expand the summer jobs program. This $5.2 million expenditure is for residents 22 through 24 years of age. Most of the beneficiaries likely will hail from Ward 5, 7 and 8 where unemployment is highest.

Homeless programs will get an $18.7 million boost, in Bowser’s budget. She also plans to spend $44.9 million to replace DC General and create “new family shelter options.” Fulfilling a campaign pledge, $100 million is slated to construct and preserve affordable housing. While there are advantages for the entire city, residents in east Washington, many of whom spend large portions of their income on housing, stand to benefit the most. 

Bowser also commits in her budget to extending the city’s aid to welfare families. If the council agrees, $5 million will be spent to keep individuals in the program beyond the five-year deadline established by the federal government in the 1990s. Not all recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) live in east Washington. However, significant African American and Hispanic populations, served by the program, live in at least four of the wards that went for Bowser in 2014.

The list of benifits for east Washington and Bowser political strongholds continue. There is $94 million for two middle schools—one in Ward 4 and another in Ward 7; $13.5 million for the Benning Road Recreation Center; and $3.5 million for the one in Anacostia. The Fort Dupont Ice Skating Rink could receive $17.9 million. Then, there is $124 million for that east end medical center, an idea that she and other council members pooh poohed when former Mayor Vincent C. Gray included it in his final budget. And, Bowser promises an extension of the, albeit seriously delayed, streetcar system to “downtown Ward 7.”

But east Washington didn’t receive everything on its wish list. Most of the economic development projects like Barry Farms, Skyland Shopping Center and McMillan Reservoir, have been on the books for years. 

The West Gets Rhetoric

Many residents in Wards 2 and 3, which Bowser lost in the recent mayoral election, are feeling left out. She says her budget decisions were guided mostly by discussions with citizens during three budget forums. According to government documents, at least 41 percent of people identified education as their top issue; the remaining percentages were divided between economic opportunity, infrastructure, public safety and neighborhoods. 

On the surface Bowser’s budget suggests a synchronicity with those issues. Speaking before the council, she cited funding for a streetcar system from Benning Rd NE Metro station to Georgetown. That vision is designed to placate businessmen in western wards; many of them have lamented the fact that Georgetown was not included in the subway system. But upon closer questioning by Ward 3 council member, Mary Cheh, Bowser admitted funds were not included in the 2016 budget or the financial plan, which extends to 2021.

Additionally, Bowser proposes to eliminate funding for the much anticipated 11th Street Bridge Park. Groups like the H St Main Street, which has worked in partnership with the city and demonstrated an ability to revitalize its community, also appear to have been short changed.

Anwar Saleem, head of H St. Main Street, says $18 million that had been set aside for his community is reduced to $11 million. 

 In fairness, Bowser does increase by $31.4 million spending on public education, bringing the total allotment for charters and traditional schools to $1.6 billion. Most of those operating dollars cover an expected enrollment increase.

But the praise she may receive stops there. Education spending, particularly by DC Public Schools, is one of the areas where residents claim there is the greatest amount of disparity and politics. East Washington and Ward 4 get new middle schools. But other neighborhoods—some of which have been on a waiting list for years—aren’t so lucky.

Education advocate Matthew Frumin and a group of like-minded citizens have performed an analysis of operating and capital improvement spending for schools. He says some Ward 2 and Ward 3 schools, like Murch Elementary and Garrison Elementary School, may be receiving funding for renovations and modernization. But when general operating money including new allocations for at-risk students is considered “The western part [of the city] gets the least,” adds Frumin. 

“She wants to be the mayor for all eight wards,” says Alex Padro, head of Shaw Main Street in Ward 6. “She’s not showing it to us over here.”

Padro says his community is “upset” that Bowser cut $54 million from the capital budget that had been allocated to begin construction of a new Shaw Middle School. The money doesn’t show back up in the financial plan until 2021. “People start feeling they’ve been fed a pack of lies,” continues Padro, adding that those sentiments combined with delays in modernization, could cause some families to leave the neighborhood or enroll in charters. 

“I don’t understand what the motivation is to upturn the cart,” adds Padro.

One-third of the schools Bowser eliminates from the capital improvement school modernization plan are located in Ward 6, says Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “That puts a strain on families,” he told Bowser. “It’s going to be a priority of mine to make sure we make good on that commitment.”

Bowser says there is only a finite amount of money. But the shifts in spending priorities read politics to many people.

“It will be over to the electorate to determine if they think [Bowser’s] proposed budget best addresses real needs and priorities or was unduly influenced by other factors,” says Frumin.

It’s not just the numbers, cautions Brizill, “The mayor also is trying to consolidate power.” She cites Bowser’s budget legislation that would eliminate term appointments for some key executives. She also seeks to capture for her office responsibilities and authority assigned through the Home Rule Charter to the Office of the Attorney General.

“The devil is in the details,” opines Brizill.

Interestingly, Terry Lynch, a Ward 1 resident and education advocate, says politics may be involved. But, citing the spending hit at the popular Wilson High School, he says it’s a brand of “inept” politics.

“No right thinking politician would ever cut Wilson High School’s budget by nearly $1 million, continues Lynch. “The political pain it will bring is significant. Hopefully, the council will fix the problems.”

At a public hearing last month, where more than 150 individuals signed up to testify, At-large Council member David Grosso, chairman of the Committee on Education, made clear that he might be inclined to accept Bowser’s general operating budget proposal for DCPS. “[But], I can’t in good conscience urge my colleagues to pass this capital budget as is,” he continued. Not only are there certain projects that have become too costly and in a sense are out of control, but I am also deeply concerned about equity.”

Will his colleagues join him? Once again, politics may be the driver. As well as Grosso, several council members, including Jack Evans, Yvette Alexander, and Vincent Orange are all up for re-election next year and will be interested in pleasing potential voters.


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