- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000


The District is expected to receive nearly $49 million this year from the huge tobacco settlement brokered by the federal government, and the mayor and the D.C. Council disagree over how to spend that money. Mayor Williams wants to invest some of that money in health care and education, while the council wants to save the bulk for future needs. The city, of course, must do both.
"There are different kinds of investments," the mayor told editors of this page yesterday. "Youth, education, families even streets." By his reasoning, a healthy and educated population means the city would be less susceptible to the high unemployment rates, record crime and drug rates, and the exceedingly high rates of infant mortality, cancer and HIV that have imperiled the city since the 1980s. And he has a point. The costs of these "disinvestments" are still too high in terms of human capital and in true dollars.
Council Chairman Linda Cropp told editors that while she and fellow lawmakers appreciate the mayor's priorities, they want to take a more conservative approach. They prefer to save 75 percent of this year's payout, "and use interest from it and the residuals from the other 25 percent on programs. That helps us put the city in solid financial standing. It enables the city to spend dollars on programs and at the same time earn interest."
Saving a sizable sum of the $48.9 million makes perfectly good sense. Local and national economists have warned that three, four, five years into the future, the District's financial picture will not be as rosy as it is now. While they have not issued a gloomy forecast, they do believe it best that officials plan for possibly leaner times. That way the city would not have to live hand-to-mouth in the so-called out years. Again, that makes perfectly good sense. But 75 percent?
Council members characterize their approach as conservative, but the bottom line is they are being downright stingy. Fortunately, the administration and the council can have it both ways. The problem is that if they can't reach consensus, they may not get either. Council hard-liners may find their stance leads to nothing but a mayoral veto.
Neither the city, the mayor nor the 13 lawmakers can afford to huff and puff their way through this pivotal budget cycle. They need to compromise every step of the way this year to ensure two things: One, they present Congress with a timely, sensible and balanced budget; and two, they curb spending this year and next to ensure that there is no excuse for continuing oversight by the control board as of 2002.
As things now stand, the chief executive and the legislature are so unwilling to settle for less than a budgetary slam dunk of the other that neither side has managed to score. Schools need practically every dime proposed in the budget, and tax cuts are essential. There is plenty of fat that can be trimmed, whether it involves wasting money on new residential trash cans or increasing the subsidies for the troubled D.C. General Hospital. There is no time, however, for political posturing. Congress expects a balanced FY 2001 budget to be forthcoming, and that is precisely what must be delivered. Pronto.

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