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SIMMONS: Under Gray, cash spigot keeps flowing

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One year ago today, Vincent C. Gray strode onto a stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, put hand to Bible and promised to deliver D.C. residents to a land of fiscal responsibility. Residents cheered him on.

These days, they view him differently.

A recent Clarus poll shows that Mr. Gray's predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty, would beat him in a head-to-head rematch and that his popularity ranks below that of Mr. Fenty's predecessor, Anthony A. Williams.

Mr. Williams was viewed as a true fiscal conservative who closely guarded the city's piggy banks and prepared the city for the years ahead.

"Anybody but Fenty" was the mantra of the 2010 mayoral race.

Now, most voters regret handing over the reins to Mr. Gray, who is neither a fiscal conservative nor a thoughtful visionary.

Not only is he counting taxpayer dollars before they are deposited into D.C. coffers, but he is setting up stakeholders for a scenario that surely will lead to ledgers glaring with red ink (unless the D.C. Council flips the mayor's script).

The genesis of that scenario is actually a forecast by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who predicted 6.5 percent revenue growth this fiscal year and 1 percent growth in fiscal 2013. His outlook also includes a projected $42.2 million surplus in fiscal 2012, but a $46.4 million shortfall in 2013, a $92.1 million shortfall in 2014 and a $129.8 million shortfall in 2015.

So what did Mr. Gray do?

Did he propose to sock away $20 million or even $10 million for potential rain clouds?

Not Mr. Moneybags.

Instead, three months into the current fiscal year, he proposes turning on the spigots:

c $10.2 million to the Department of Healthcare Finance, with $6 million going toward an increase for "patients with more complex care needs." In addition, $4.2 million for the Healthcare Alliance, which tends to the uninsured and under-insured.

c $10.6 million to the Department of General Services; specifically, $6.5 million will be used to cover unexpected increases in fuel, water and sewer costs, and $4.1 million will cover "historically underfunded" facilities. ("Underfunded" is one of those terms that pound-foolish politicos use after they put a project on layaway.)

c $21.4 million to D.C. Public Schools to bridge a gap of $4.5 million in lost federal funds, $10.7 million to pay for feeding programs, and $2.8 million for pay raises and $3.4 million for noninstructional personal services.

In other words, the Gray administration fails to see the forest for the trees.

Mr. Gandhi's outlook for the immediate future views the District's fiscal situation not with rose-tinted glasses but from a green-eyeshade perspective.

For example, he predicts a loss of lottery revenue, down from $69.4 million this fiscal year to $64.7 million in the next.

He also sees that growth in the hospitality industry is flat, condo sales are down, single-family home sales are down and that property- and sales-tax collections are down.

In addition, the District's Big Brother and Big Sister, i.e. the federal government, will be spending less on jobs, real estate and procurement.

Each situation means that Mr. Gray's spending proposal for the $42.2 million projected surplus not only fails to see things as they are - a projection - but neglects to address what underscores the primary reason the District is in a slump.

Truth is, the cost of his liberal policies undermines every aspect of the fiscal stability that he promised stakeholders after he won the Democratic primary in September 2010, when he garnered a victory in the November 2010 general election, and that he made at his Jan. 2 swearing-in and reiterated in his first State of the District address.

Indeed, while his spending plan at this juncture is just that, a plan, it nonetheless should open wide the eyes of the D.C. Council, where lawmakers will soon try to reconcile what's truly at stake here.

Will the legislative branch turn off the spigot and try to restore Williams-era fiscal responsibility?

Or will it bow to the fiscally irresponsible days when Mayors Marion Barry, Sharon Pratt Kelly and Mr. Fenty turned the city's piggy banks upside down and shook out every red cent?

Saving $20 million or so for a rainy day would be sound fiscal policy if lawmakers consider the fact that while Mr. Gandhi can hardly forecast the weather as accurately as, say, Al Roker or Topper Shutt, he nonetheless sees rainy days in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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