- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2000

The District of Columbia now finds itself in budgetary straits. Again. It will only get worse if the D.C. Council does not get serious and take emergency legislative steps to curb spending.

Today's problems began when the council signed on to plans to institute scores of management reforms beginning in 1997. In 1998, council members were so busy running for mayor, or re-election, or bashing the control board and the Republican Congress, they failed to implement the reforms or take advantage of the cost savings associated with them.

In 1999, the city racked up a huge budget surplus, thanks in part to a substantial windfall from the tobacco settlement. The lawmakers patted themselves on the back and began thinking about how to spend that money. Again management reforms were ignored.

Midway into fiscal year 2000, the General Accounting Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, released an audit that said three years and $300 million into that 1997 reform project, the city had little to show for its efforts. The council remained absorbed in re-election efforts. Eying the slow pace of reforms and the growing threat that the District would overspend its limits, Congress blocked $75 million in new spending in the current budget.

That at least got the D.C. Council's attention. At a Dec. 7 public hearing on management reform, members expressed shock, anger and dismay and pointed fingers at everyone but themselves. "Only the council has lived within its budget," complained one councilman. Asked another, "What's the control board doing with the interest earned on the city funds?" "Nothing is more important," added another lawmaker, than that the mayor lobby Congress "in person" to get that $75 million restored.

Yakety-yak. This and that. The question remains, however, as to how best to curb spending? The city's chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, is federally vested with the authority to reject any and all unfunded spending requests. The council knows that, but prefers to put pressure on Mayor Williams, the control board and Congress to provide additional funding.

Here is the recumbent D.C. Council in all its majesty and glory and ineptitude, seeking sacrifice from all but the council itself. It proclaims a $75 million problem $75 million, which, by the way, the city could live without for the remainder of this fiscal year. And it expects the world to stop and provide the money. Ultimately, this self-serving attitude may cost the council not just the $75 million but D.C. home rule.

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